Author's disclaimer and notes: I don't own them, I just dream of doing so. Feedback is better than Magnum Temptation Ice cream. Corrections to my language or any other type of comments are welcome. Ask if you want me to archive it anywhere. You may link to this story if you want or to my main page. 29.800 words. Written in April 2009.
Warnings: Crossover with Doubting Lucifer, but no prior knowledge is necessary (besides, no such knowledge is currently available).
Betaed by Heather Sparrows (I wouldn't know what to do without you, Heather!), Maf (Your sharp eyes are most appreciated) and Kadorienne (big thank you!), but also to Sigrid (thank you for everything!). Remaining errors are all mine.
Clarification: I had some trouble with Dorian's sisters names. The third sister is named Victoria, but they call her Sammy. Oh well, stranger things has happened.
Half-naked women! All around him! Pushing towards him: bellies, thighs, legs, arms and breasts!
Klaus pushed his way shoulder-first through the throng, but the herd of females screamed; howling their bloody lungs out - breasts bobbing nauseatingly! Stupid bints! Couldn't they see that his Magnum wasn't aimed towards them? Though on their way past many of them slapped him - some with surprising force. He almost stumbled when a particularly hard slap impacted with - for no apparent reason - his arse!
He kept pushing, shouting for the closest Alphabets to follow him. Now he saw the target, to the side and half-covered by more semi-naked women - how many of them were there?! But the cloud of scarcely dressed females he had worked to get past was dissipating. He raised his Magnum higher ...
... and mid-step felt his strength drain, as if all his muscles had simultaneously gone to sleep. He had already stretched his right leg to take a new step, but instead of catching his weight and carrying him further, the knee gave. The Magnum slipped from suddenly nerveless fingers and he couldn't even move his hands to catch himself as he was hurled towards the floor. Foppy, blue-veined marble rushed up to meet him, but before the impact he experienced a fleeting darkness. Then the world vanished.
"It's all that Kraut's fault!"
Lady Elizabeth Red patted her sister's hand. They sat kitty-corner at a small white table, as close as circumstances allowed. Elizabeth felt quite out of her depths. This was her first visit to Margareth since the incarceration and she had never before been forced to enter such a cold, white and brutally serious place. On television she had seen absolute horrors in similar situations, though, so things might have been drearier. Strings had been pulled, allowing her to meet Margareth in a private room. Under supervision of a guard who had already threatened to end the meeting just because she had hugged her sister longer than the man apparently deemed suitable. He hovered by the wall, rudely staring at them. He clearly could hear each spoken word. Even so, Elizabeth made a point of keeping her voice down. Her sister, however, opted not to.
"I tell you, that man is behind this, this ... ghastly misunderstanding!"
Elizabeth took her sister's right hand between her two - the maximum contact allowed, she had been told prior - and clucked in distress.
Margareth waved her other hand expansively. "It's dreadful here!" she said.
"Oh, I understand fully! It's so awful! Such an awful, awful situation! My dear, dear sister! How could all this happen? What do you mean, a misunderstanding?"
"No, it's more than a mere, tragic misunderstanding, it's a conspiracy! I've been conspired against! Oh, Lizzie, I need your help!"
"Anything! Family always comes first and I'm here for you, Maggie! Do tell me everything. How do you mean you've been conspired against? Who is this German you speak of?"
Margareth heaved a great sigh. Then she lifted her free hand to wipe off a set of large tears slipping down her cheeks.
"A horrible man. Quite a lout - a hoodlum! He approached me in my own home, asking the strangest questions! About Willy and Willy's little friend and about Dorian. He claimed to be some sort of friend of Dorian's."
"Oh, a ... friend-friend or ...?" Elizabeth flipped a limp wrist. Their brother's little peculiarities had always made her somewhat uncomfortable, but while she found them inconvenient and slightly sordid she mostly just tried to avoid any confrontation.
"Well, I can't be certain, but the man all but leered when he spoke about Dorian. It was quite unseemly. And then, oh, I almost can't speak about it! The lout propositioned me!"
Lizzie gasped and lifted a hand to her mouth. "What?"
"I was completely shocked! I almost fainted! That hoodlum! Well, I certainly don't want to talk about it! He must have thought I was desperate for male company after my dear Count Disken's death. No, I absolutely will not talk about it! I simply can't! That man was saying all sort of indecent things ... and he tried to touch me! I would have screamed to wake up the neighbourhood, see if I wouldn't have! I can hardly bring myself to think about how his large hands reached for my bosom, so please don't ask me to tell you! I informed him in no uncertain terms that I was not interested in any sort of dalliance, yet the man would not desist!"
"Oh, Maggie! How dreadful! Are you telling me that the man assaulted you?!"
"No, no, sweet Lizzie. As I said, my lips refuse to utter a single word about the dreadful incident, but I managed to dissuade him and send him packing! Don't you worry, I've dealt with more than one lecher in my days and while the memory still makes me absolutely mute with horror, his rough hands are now but a bad memory. Though I am certain that is why he is doing this! He was furious at my rejection of his advances. Now he is doing all this just to get back at me!"
"The man must be insane! But I have heard that some men will go to any length to get back at a woman who has spurned them! Oh, Maggie! Have you told the investigating officers?"
"Of course I have! Over and over again! Yet they will not listen to me! You see, this man is in the military, some part of NATO apparently, and with some connection in German high society. Through blackmail, I don't doubt. Besides, you know how men are when it comes to these sort of things - always backing each other up, never listening to a poor, innocent female. Oh Lizzie, you must help me, you simply must!"
Elizabeth nodded with great determination. "Of course I will! But you must tell me every detail."
"It will tear at my very soul to have to relive that horror. But I shall! Oh, but before I forget - how is Willy?"
For the first time since entering the dreary building, Elizabeth smiled. A spinster, she had no children of her own and thoroughly enjoyed having the tyke around. "He misses you something terrible, naturally. And he is still rather confused about the whole mess. But all in all I think he is bouncing back fairly well. Perhaps I could bring him here later to see you, though I'm not sure this is a good environment for a little boy. I left him with Dorian today, I think he had a full schedule planned to entertain him."
Margareth's eyes narrowed. "Lizzie, I'm not sure that's such a good idea. Lord knows what kind of ideas Dorian will put in the boy's head! Dorian has much too many fancies. Besides, that hoodlum German did approach me insinuating that he was one of Dorian's friends, in whatever sense that might mean and whether it is true or not. What if that dreadful Major von dem Eberbach tries approach Willy at Dorian's place?"
Elizabeth gasped again. "I must warn Dorian as soon as I see him!"
The darkness surrounding him brightened minutely, turning from midwinter night black to slate grey smudge, tinged with red. Red ...
"--Yard and Interpol. Major? Major? Can you hear me? What do you want us to do? Major?"
Most words swished through his ears, making no impact. He vaguely recognized the voice as coming from someone reasonably trustworthy and that its owner wanted something important, but that was all.
"Major? Are you in pain? Major? Can you hear me? What do you want us to do?"
The grey blended further into red. Red ... With a supreme effort he worked his jaws, forced his tongue to move and his lips to form words.
"Take me to ... House Gloria."
Dorian's leg muscles felt pleasantly sore and he was just a hint tired. Not to wonder. He had been up and about since the ungodly hour of nine. Since then he and his nephew had managed to squeeze into a tour consisting of most of central London. Though they had paused regularly - ice cream at Leicester Square, lunch in Knightsbridge, cake at Harrods, dinner at F & M - his feet now reminded him gently that he wasn't used to walking for quite that long at a time. The day had been very nice, though, a grand success.
"There. Home, sweet home," he said as he manoeuvred the Lamborghini through the House Gloria gate and up the short driveway. "Ready to play the safe game, Willy?"
They had been to Madame Tussaud's, Hamleys, pony riding, Harrods, a matinée at the Leicester Square Theatre, a small section of the British Museum as well as numerous smaller shops. Dorian hadn't been quite sure of exactly what would go down well with his nephew, since he met the boy so seldom. To his delight each suggestion had been greeted with enthusiasm, though the British Museum had been voted on as needed to be taken in parts - a wise decision.
"William!" said William. "I don't want to be called Willy! It's a stupid name that means stupid things! Call me William. Or Bill! Like Billy the Kid!"
Dorian very carefully did not smile. "As you wish, William, my dear boy. Out you go now, here comes Rudy to park the car for us. Or do you want to go through the garage again and look at the other cars?"
The trip had been a success. Not to mention that at no less than three times had they been mistaken for father and son! Twice by total strangers: a waiter asking "If you and your son would step this way, please," - and an older woman who found William utterly adorable. She commented on how Dorian must have looked just like "yer wee laddie" at the same age - which he had - and had then pinched William's cheek and told him to grow up just like "Yer daddy, then, laddie, there are far too few beautiful men in this world o' ours." Dorian understood the strangers. Willy - ah, William - was a chip off the old block. The Red genes ran strong, not bothered by various attempts at diverging the line, and the resemblance was every bit as great as if the boy had sprung from Dorian's own loins. The third person, however, had been the owner of the restaurant Dorian had suggested for lunch. Mr. Meschais had looked so baffled at the possibility of Dorian having a son that Dorian hadn't been able to stop smiling for several minutes.
The suggestion to visit the garage again was rejected. So Dorian handed Rudy the wheel and followed the still very energetic William inside. The boy had only visited a handful of times over the years - something Dorian hoped now would be remedied, as Lizzie seemed much more at ease with the prospect than Margareth. Still, the boy apparently had the layout of the house clear in mind and marched unerringly straight up to the small, yellow library. On their way they met Jeremiah, so Dorian ordered refreshments.
William had rushed ahead and now waited for him, bouncing a little on his heels in anticipation. Just as he opened the door Dorian heard the crescendo of Beethoven's third, courtesy of the house phone.
"Do sit, William," he said, motioning towards the table. "Lemonade and biscuits are on their way. If we are really lucky Johan will have made his world famous flarn biscuits of Delight."
Actually, he knew perfectly well that Johan had done so and had anticipated this treat for most of the day.
"Yummie!" William declared, already climbing onto the pale yellow canapé - genuine 18th century France, of course, and very recently stolen from House Santern, to replace a settee which had gone "missing" when Major von dem Eberbach had temporarily lost hold of his sanity and given James free rein to bring in money. "They're the best!"
Dorian joined his nephew, leaving the door slightly ajar. "I couldn't agree with you more, my boy." The flarns really were the best. And they contained everything bad for you - butter, sugar, cream and treacle just for starters, with generous amounts of each. Not to mention that they were quite addictive. Luckily, Johan only made them on special occasions or Dorian knew all too well that his current waist measurement would be a long lost cause.
Footsteps approached. John-Paul entered, " Phone for you, Milord. Urgent."
"Right-o. Willy, my boy--"
"Of course, how dreadfully silly of me. William, my boy. I have to see what it's about. I'll return in just a mo', though. Save me a flarn, there's a good boy."
"Maybe, uncle." William's eyes glittered. "But you'll have to be quick. If you're not back soon I'll eat them all!"
The lad's cheeky smile made Dorian chuckle. Still smiling he followed John-Paul through the corridor to the large yellow library, where the phone waited off the hook.
"Yes?" he said, hoping that the call wouldn't take long. "Gloria here."
"I've done my best to divert the locals. Hopefully they won't bother you."
"That's good," Dorian replied seriously, torn between wondering who this person was and not wanting to appear stupid by asking when the person clearly assumed Dorian recognized him. The accent sounded German and the voice faintly familiar, but he couldn't place either. He had never been good at matching voices to their owner.
"I thought you might want it this way. I can't speak, Mildred just signalled. It would be nice to have an occasional update. I must stop, they're here now. Auf Wiederhören, Herr Roth-Ruhm!" Then the call disconnected.
Dorian blinked. Then he turned to John-Paul. "Did he introduce himself when you answered?"
"No. Sorry, Milord. Trouble?"
"Perhaps. Alert everyone. Now that I think about it - he mentioned a Mildred and had a German accent. Spoke a few German words, even. It might have been Fatso, I mean - Major von dem Eberbach's boss. Yes, it sounded somewhat like him. I must return to Willy, ah, I mean William. Have Bonham investigate the matter. Prepare an evacuation, but I don't want to drag William away from here unless forced, so we'll stay put for now. Besides, Fatso - if it was him, but I tend to think it was - said that hopefully we won't be bothered. Strange, though. Inform me the minute you find anything out."
"Yes, Milord. Count on us."
Still concerned by the strange call, Dorian returned to the small, yellow library. The boy sat by the table, kicking his legs, drinking lemonade and munching on a flarn biscuit. A silver dish had appeared before him, with a crystal jug half-full with hazy, pale yellow liquid. By the chair opposite to William stood an empty glass and, on a bright red napkin with "Gloria" embroidered in gold, lay a single flarn. The remaining biscuits were stacked high on a matching napkin by William's glass. A hand hovered protectively near the goodies, in case Dorian would attempt to snatch some.
"I see," Dorian said. "You did save me one flarn."
William nodded. He was grinning so widely that he had to hastily bring up a hand to his mouth to prevent himself from dribbling biscuit crumbs.
Pretending not to notice, Dorian sat down and filled his glass from the jug. Then he took his one flarn - a rather large flarn, he noted, easiest the largest not yet consumed - and nibbled regally. The intensely sweet taste, with just a hint of tartness, hit his taste buds with full force as he let the first crumble melt on his tongue to properly savour the flavour. Should he no longer be able to support them by pulling off heists, the gang could start the Eroica Bakery and sell Johan's flarns. They would be rich in no time flat. He was constantly surprised that James hadn't insisted already.
"So," he said once the first nibble had been properly savoured. "Ready to play?"
William's cornflower-hued eyes widened. He nodded rapidly, only barely avoiding to spill lemonade from the big glass he had just lifted. The unoccupied hand's fingers drummed hard on the table cloth, apparently to show eagerness. Then William visibly swallowed his current mouthful. "Yes! Let's!"
Dorian took another nibble, then stood and went over to the opposite side of the room. By the hearth stood a small foldable table, with the high, rectangular-shaped content covered by vibrantly red Kanchi silk. He pinched the fine material at the very top and then, after having turned back to face his attentive audience of one, swept it off.
"Brilliant!" William abandoned both lemonade and biscuits to join his uncle. "What is that?"
"This, my dear William, is a Faransaati 22, one of the very oldest Faransaati models. Remember, we looked at 498 the last time you visited?" Which, in Dorian's not at all humble opinion, had been much too long ago.
William nodded repeatedly. "This is much smaller and it's not as ... tight? As the other one. And the name isn't engraved, it's in ... ri-li-e-vo."
"Well spotted, my boy. Yes, the modern ones are water proof and they do tend to be much larger, though the factory manufactures smaller versions as well. Popular for private homes and with gun owners. They use a different technology now, sadly enough. This one is still with real cog wheels. A joy to work with. We'll look closer at the lock later, it's a piece of art all by itself. Now, what is the rule about safes?"
William's eyes narrowed as he obviously worked hard to remember. "If there's something in it and ... if you open it and ... if no one ... what was it?"
"Sees you, yes! If no one sees you and if no one can catch you! Then you get what's inside and it's yours forever and ever."
Dorian smiled melancholically. Oh, the innocence of youth! You only get to keep it until James sells it.
"Exactly! Very good, my boy! And I happen to know that there's something very nice inside this particular safe that I'm sure you would like, William." The Faransaati actually contained a Royal Worcester Welsh Mountain Pony statuette, custom glazed to a portrait of William's favourite pony. "My dear, dear, boy, do come closer so that I can show you how to work the locking mechanism."
John-Paul was on his way from the kitchen to the meeting room. He carried a tray with cheese- and ham-sandwiches, an Eroica tea pot and four sets of Eroica tea cups. Bonham, Jimmy and Justin were already in the room, busy trying to find out what the strange call had been all about. So far they had made no progress, which was getting frustrating. They had jointly decided that it was time for tea.
As he passed the front door he saw Jones sitting on the look-out on a wide windowsill. With a smile he detoured to drop a kiss on the man's head and get a pat on the butt in return. He had only taken three steps more when Jones called his name with some urgency.
"Incoming! Get up and tell his lordship. Sister two is on her way and she looks upset."
John-Paul paused only to place his tray on a nearby table. Then he rushed up the stairs. He knocked, but didn't bother to wait for clearance before opening the door. This earned him a very annoyed look from his employer, but he knew this might be important. "Your sister is on her way in a hurry," he explained. He didn't specify which one, as sister three hardly ever left her suburban apartment.
"Auntie!" said the boy next in line for the Gloria title.
The current title holder's eyes widened, then he turned to his heir apparent. "An excellent time to rehearse the next part," he said with a confident voice. "It's the police! They've discovered us. We must act swiftly. What do we do?"
After having blinked a few times, the youngster nodded determinedly. "We hide the evidence!" he said.
"And how do we do that?"
John-Paul watched with interest how the boy frowned and then looked around, obviously deep in thought. Then William nodded once more. "You," he said, pointing a small, pink finger imperiously at John-Paul. "Stand in front of the safe. Uncle, back to the table. You can have another flarn from my pile. I'll read to you."
Trying to look as wide as possible, John-Paul obeyed. Dorian sat down and took the offered treat. Meanwhile, the youngest Red family member rummaged in his backpack and finally unearthed a thin book with pigs on the cover.
"So – proud and boarish,' the pink boar said," read the youngest Gloria, "nonchalantly turning over the muddy ground with his snout, nibbling a root or a beetle here and there. 'So – strong.'" * story link *
Dorian listened with interest. Had the authoress really intended for the story to have such obvious homoerotic subtext? He assumed an elegant, leaned-back pose, glass with lemonade in one hand and flarn biscuit in the other. When the knock came he nodded gravely towards his nephew.
"Come in," he called. Elizabeth entered, ushered in by Jones. She wore a blue Dior dress, which Dorian didn't think suited her, though he knew better than to comment. "Oh, Lizzie! What an unexpected, yet most pleasant surprise! I didn't think you would join us for another hour at the very least. Lemonade? Though I fear that our young William has monopoly on the flarns, so you will have to negotiate if you feel peckish."
"Hello, Aunt Elizabeth! We've been to the British Museum and Madame Tussaud and I rode a fat, black pony with white feet and I petted a red pig. I had lots of fun!"
"That's good, Willy."
"William, Aunt Elizabeth! My name is William! It's just my mother who calls me Willy! I don't want to be called Willy any more."
"You should respect your mother's wishes, William. Now I need to talk to your uncle Dorian. Ah, Dorian ...?" She waved vaguely. Her red gold bracelet with triple rows of mixed diamonds and agates glittered fetchingly. Not the highest quality, Dorian noted, but sweet.
"Of course, Lizzie. Jones, why don't you take William to the white gallery? Show him the new paintings. William, my dear boy, I do think you will like them a lot."
The young boy frowned. "But, Uncle Dorian, we were--"
"William! Be a good boy now and go with Jones. He will explain the paintings," Dorian lifted his eyes to the slightly worried-looking gang member, "and everything else. I shall see you later. And next week we can go to the London Zoo, would you like that? Perhaps they keep both pretty, pink pigs and brave, wild boars."
"Yes, uncle Dorian," said the young man, though he pouted noticeably. He voiced no further protests, however, just followed Jones out.
John-Paul remained by the safe. His smile had started to look somewhat fixed.
"Come, sister, let us go to the next room," Dorian said smoothly and held up the door to let her precede him.
"So, what is on your mind, dear sister?" She looked very stern, so he could only guess that whatever she wanted was serious.
"I spoke to Maggie today."
"Ah. Yes, I suspected that was why you left William with me. Though I do hope you will let him visit more often. Perhaps we can set a specific day each week? Wednesdays? That would give you time to shop and whatever you like without a young boy following you around."
"I do have servants to help taking care of him, so that really isn't necessary, Dorian. Though I do thank you for offering."
Warning bells began to toll. Dorian had had a most enjoyable day with his nephew. He saw no reason why they couldn't have such nice days every week. "The boy's my nephew too," he said mildly. "I assure you, he is no bother. I enjoy having him here."
"That is good, Dorian, but ... Ah ..."
"Maggie disapproves?" Margareth had always been the sister who had the most problems with his lifestyle. If she tried to prevent him from seeing William, Dorian would be quite vexed. In fact, the very notion angered him. Margareth had given him enough trouble lately, and that was putting things mildly. Since she was already incarcerated he hadn't felt the need to be too vindictive. That didn't mean he was willing to put up with just anything.
"Not exactly, dear brother. She ... did voice some concern, but not primarily aimed towards you." Her hesitant tone told Dorian that she, too, had at first assumed the same as he.
"So," he said with a curt nod. "What, pray tell, are these concerns of hers? Perhaps I will be able to put her mind at ease."
Or, at least, Elizabeth's mind, as she was William's current caretaker, pending the outcome of their sister's trial. But had Elizabeth felt that Margareth's concerns were complete nonsense she would have dismissed them out of hand. If Margareth was the sister who resembled Dorian the most in looks, Elizabeth was the most open-minded and Victoria the most intelligent.
"Sister Maggie told me the most disquieting thing about her current situation and what might have caused it. I really do feel that--"
Knock, knock, knock!
"We are busy," Dorian called out.
Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock!
"Not now!" Really, that was most impolite of whoever knocked. Then he recalled that they had some sort of situation going on, with the mysterious phonecall. He turned back to Elizabeth. "Dreadfully sorry, Lizzie, but perhaps I must--"
The door opened.
Most annoyed that someone would be so rude as to disregard his orders and intrude on his important talk with his sister, Dorian got to his feet. Then Justin backed in, throwing worried glances at Dorian over his shoulder. "I couldn't stop them, Milord. I didn't think you'd want me to, but I couldn't, and--"
Dorian no longer heard the stuttered explanation. Justin was followed by agents A, Z, E and H. In their grip hung a limp Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. Five more agents, G among them, followed. They all fixed Dorian with worried, expectant eyes.
"Herr A! What is going on? What happened to Klaus - I mean, to Major von dem Eberbach!? He has blood all over him!" He found himself reaching out towards the man in question and aborted the gesture, not wanting to risk hurting him.
"That's just a nose bleed. Nothing too serious, we hope. But he told us to take him to you." A's eyes darted between Dorian and his sister. "He must be hidden. Us too."
His sister! Who did her own share of eye darting, precisely lip-sticked mouth half-open. Damage-control time. Only, by the frantic look on the agents - not to mention that Klaus was unconscious! - there was just no time.
"Lizzie!" Dorian said and took hold of her arms, looking deep into her eyes. "Listen to me. I must deal with it. I'm not sure what has happened, but trust me, this is important. Give me your family word of honour that you will tell no one of what you have seen. Take William and go home. I will call you as soon as I can and explain everything, I promise! Now - family word of honour!"
She blinked, obviously not happy with his demand.
"I don't like this! But yes, naturally. Family word of honour. But you must explain everything to me later, Dorian!"
"Yes, yes, please just go now!"
Dorian already ushered the agents out the room and towards the second master bedroom. He didn't even see his sister leave. "Herr A - what happened? Tell me everything! Why do we need to hide him? Who is after you? How is he? What happened? Is he very hurt?"
"It's a long story, Milord. I'll tell you everything, but he needs to be put to bed first."
"Yes, yes, of course, Herr A. Right this way."
On his way out after his previous visit Klaus had left the key to his room in the lock. Dorian had added the key to his personal keychain, so now he didn't even have to pick the lock to get in. Then he guided the agents over to the bed, where they carefully put down their superior. For a few moments Dorian watched anxiously as G took the still man's pulse. Then he turned to Klaus's second in command.
"Now, Herr A, I won't wait another moment! Tell me everything."
Herr Hinkel oversaw the unpacking of a huge box previously stored in the attic, when Herr Muhlen, one of the gardeners, alerted him to the Graf's Mercedes approaching the Schloss. On hearing the news Herr Hinkel instructed Fräulein Karger to prepare the master bedroom. Graf von dem Eberbach seldom visited, so his bedroom wasn't swept daily, though it wouldn't take the maid long to have the room ready. Then he sent Herr Muhlen on to the kitchen, to inform Herr Gottschalk that an Eberbach would be in residence. Since it was only mid-afternoon there would be plenty of time for the chef to prepare an excellent meal to be ready at the traditional dining hour. Those details dealt with, Herr Hinkel opened the front door just in time to let in the master of the house.
"Sir," he acknowledged with a bow. "Welcome home!"
"Thank you," the elder von dem Eberbach answered. He let Herr Hinkel divest him of his coat. Herr Hinkel, in turn, handed the clothing over to one of the maids for it to be hung. "I will go to the library. Herr Hinkel, please accompany me. We have an important topic to discuss."
Feeling slightly apprehensive, Conrad followed his employer through the Schloss. His apprehension grew when the Graf told him to pour Kirschwasser for them both. Over the years they had shared several of those glasses. In celebration, such as their Klaus getting excellent grades or being accepted to NATO service and rapidly promoted. Sadly, they had also done the same in more difficult times. Her Ladyship dying. Klaus getting temporarily expelled for smoking and starting fights. Klaus going MIA - more than once ... Or less monumental occasions, such as simply needing to unburden feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Herr Hinkel simply had no idea what had prompted the current request. He poured the Schnapps, filling the small glasses generously. Then he, gingerly, sat down opposite his employer.
There he sat, in silence, smelling the unmistakable, sweetish aroma of cherry from the Schnapps.
"I have heard worrying things," said the Graf.
So. Bad news - or at least worrying ones. "About our Klaus?" Normally Conrad would have said "the young master" or "Young master Klaus", but on these special occasions, between him and Heinz, they always just referred to him as "their Klaus".
Heinz von dem Eberbach nodded. "I'm not sure what is going on," he stated seriously and then paused to sip from his Schnapps. "But I think our boy has managed to get himself mixed up with a questionable female."
Herr Hinkel sighed deeply. "I knew it was too good to be true."
"The boy was asking me for some advice regarding how to, well, court a woman." That hadn't exactly been what his young master had asked about, but Conrad hardly thought it proper to inform the father of the young man in question that his son by all accounts contemplated taking up a physical relationship with some woman.
Heinz shook his head. "Then he really is serious about her!"
"But surely this is a good thing? He does appear to be something of a ... late bloomer, if you do excuse me for saying so."
For a second Conrad allowed himself to visit the most cherished of all his daydreams. Grandmasters!
Heinz nodded again. "That is true. Between you and me, Conrad, there have been times when I've wondered if our boy wasn't like, well, you know ... my brother Eric."
Conrad also nodded. He, too, had considered the very same thing, though he had never seen it as his place to bring up something that potentially sensitive. Besides, he had more than once noted the handsome, blond Brit who sniffed around his young master - and Klaus hadn't seemed particularly interested in him either. "Your younger brother is a good man who visits much too seldom," he said instead. He liked Eric far better than Johann, whom he found quite a lout.
"Well, yes, but never mind that now. Recently I was approached by a woman who seemed very interested in our boy. She asked many questions, but it soon dawned on me, Conrad, that she wasn't as interested in the boy himself as in his, well, financial situation."
"Ah. A gold-digger."
"Exactly. She claimed to be a lady. That much appears to be true. I did a little investigating. Her husband lost most of their money gambling on the ponies, then shot himself. A scandal, of course, but it was hushed up. Klaus called me on my birthday. He had almost forgotten about it. The silly boy tried to make me think my present was just late, but he couldn't lie to his father to save his life. He didn't deny meeting this woman and I'm convinced that she is the one who made him forget his own father's birthday!"
Conrad was most displeased with this news. "She already has him in her thrall, then. I have feared this, given his lack of experience, that some woman would get her claws into him and turn his head entirely. Our boy can be so gullible at times."
Heinz swept the last of his Schnapps. "Exactly. Conrad, I came here today not sure what needed to be done. What you said makes it clear to me. This woman must be investigated in depth. If she has improper designs on our Klaus, she must be dealt with. I will travel to London to meet her face to face. I want you to accompany me. Our boy needs us!"
"This is most disquieting," said Victoria.
Elizabeth nodded. "I think so too, Sammy. They hauled the man into the room. He was unconscious. Drunk, probably! Blood all over his face! The men said that he had to be hidden! From what, one wonders? And Dorian didn't bat an eye! He just made me swear not to tell anyone what I had seen. Family word of honour! But you are family, of course, so you don't count. But I'm sure you see what this implies?"
She had already related the conversation with Margareth to Victoria, to bring the third sister up to date. Victoria, who lived in a modest apartment in Redbridge, paid little heed to the on-goings in the family - though she had, naturally, been informed of the past difficulties with Dorian being accused of that horrible crime, and Margareth's subsequent arrest.
"Of course I do," Victoria said, even as she tugged more yarn from the ball and continued the clatter of her needles. "This man, what was his name again?"
"von dem Eberbach. Of German descent. A NATO Intelligence major, according to Maggie. Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach."
"Quite a mouthful, that." Victoria nodded thoughtfully. "Handsome, she said?"
"Almost beautiful, though with a hint of cruelty in his eyes. And you know Dorian ..."
"All too well. Wave an object of beauty his way and he'll be on the trail like a yapping terrier. Yes, yes. Maggie feared that this man would try to contact William through Dorian?"
"Yes, Sammy, I think so."
"Hmm. Considering that he knew Dorian before he tried to chat up Maggie, it makes me wonder what he really is after. Maggie has little money left after her husband's gambling. If money is what that major wants - and what else would it be? - it would be far easier for him to get it from Dorian. Especially considering how those men of his you mentioned--"
"At least ten of them, Sammy! All dressed the same, like a band of thugs."
"They expected Dorian to take care of this major?"
"Yes, they just told him that he needed to hide them - and Dorian didn't even bat an eyelash, just told me to leave at once and not to tell a soul! Family word of honour, no less!"
"So you said. So they had reason to think Dorian would assist them. Does this major have a hold on him, possibly? Sister dear, describe the man to me again."
"Well, I didn't see much of him. He appeared lanky. Long, black hair hid most of his face: I only got a quick look. Dressed in a trenchcoat over a tuxedo. The others all wore trenchcoats."
"Ah. Turn on the telly, that's a dear."
Elizabeth blinked, but did her sister's bidding. She opened the chest of drawers that hid the small television. Then she turned on the apparatus, which slowly clucked to life. After a few seconds the image cleared to show a desert landscape and a man on horseback riding away from the camera.
"Check the Beeb," Victoria suggested.
Elizabeth switched channel. Again, the machine responded only slowly, flickering out entirely before clearing anew, this time to a news reader. "--wishes to hear from anyone who can give out any information concerning roughly ten individuals, wearing trenchcoats, who were last seen leaving the Embassy. The main suspect is reported to be around 6 feet, with long, black hair, wearing a tuxedo. The public is--"
"You can turn it off now," Victoria said quietly. She had continued her knitting all through the short segment. "I heard it forty minutes ago, on the radio. An assassination attempt. We can't be sure, of course, but the description sounds similar to the man described by Maggie and yourself, don't you think?"
"But, Sammy! That would make the man a murderer! He tried to kill someone!"
Victoria finally put down her knitting. She looked towards her sister and nodded once. "A would-be-murderer, if nothing else. Currently hiding out in House Gloria, with Dorian's blessing and under his protection. I always said that Dorian's pursuit of beauty would be his undoing. It seems I was right. It is good that you got William out of there. We must keep him away from Dorian until we see how this ends."
Waking up with a severe headache is never a good sign. At least he found himself in a bed - and not a too soft one either. In fact the bedding felt much like his own back home. The air felt lighter somehow, less stuffed perhaps. With a hint of flowers? Abruptly Klaus remembered the combination and deemed it safe enough to open his eyes and look around.
Yes. "His" room at House Gloria. Especially tailored to him, apart from possibly the lavish decorations on the laughably pitiful barrier leading to the house's master bedroom.
And, in case he harboured any doubt, the current Earl of Gloria sat curled up in a large wicker chair by the bed; arms crossed over his chest, eyes closed and mouth partly open.
The room wasn't exceedingly bright, but the light level was still harsh enough to hurt his unexpectedly sensitive eyes. He felt slightly dizzy. What he really wanted was to sleep. Amazingly the pillow seemed an exact duplicate of his own and fitted his head perfectly. His eyelids began to slide down. He resolutely forced them back up.
"Hey, you?" he said. Something in his throat burned and his mouth tasted salty, as if he had a throat infection. "You? Hey? Gloria? Wake up! Hey!"
A shudder went through the long shape in the chair. Then Dorian blinked before finally focusing on him. A smile lit his face. At the sight something in Klaus's stomach turned. He began to cough violently. After a few seconds a weight settled beside him. When the attack had abated enough for him to look up again, Dorian sat there, offering Klaus a glass of water. Feeling exhausted, Klaus still managed to slurp up some liquid. The fresh water soothed his irritated throat. He accepted a few more gulps, then turned away.
"What happened?" he asked, his voice rough. He recalled a herd of half-naked women, but little else.
Dorian's smile widened. "Do you have amnesia, dear? Because if you do, we're actually a couple. We're madly in love and you worship the ground I walk on."
Klaus snorted, not deigning to acknowledge something so ludicrous with even a word.
"Yes, yes, I know," Dorian continued blithely. "But you can't blame a man for trying, can you? Seriously, major, how are you feeling?"
"Like I've been stampeded over. And like I got the flu as a bonus. Why am I here?"
"The Alphabet got you here. B hot-wired a car, I'm so proud of him! Our boy, all grown up! Then, well, I thought you'd prefer this room, since you've slept here before. You would be welcome in the bed in the next room too, but--"
"Nein, not here-here. Why did they bring me to your house in the first place? What happened? What went wrong?"
"You told the Alphabet to bring you here, dear. I was most flattered."
"I did not!" Klaus had no idea why he would have done such a stupid thing and found the notion highly suspicious.
Dorian merely kept smiling. "Well, I wasn't there, so I don't know for sure, but that is what Herr A told me. I don't know why he would lie. But you are a wanted man, my dear - perhaps they simply took you to the person they knew wanted you the most. What is the last thing you remember?"
"A gang of women milling about, that's all." Actually, what he remembered most was how their tits had bounced as they moved, barely concealed by scant slips of shiny cloth, but he saw not reason to share that detail with the fop, who wouldn't be interested anyway. "What do you mean 'wanted'?"
"By the Yard. And Interpol. For questioning only, officially, though I dare say that if you hadn't been with NATO they might have phrased themselves differently and simply called you a murder suspect."
"Murder!" Klaus began to sit up and realised that he wore pyjamas. "Who undressed me?" he asked suspiciously.
"A, B and C. I did provide them with that charming outfit, though I promise that I did not as much as peek. Yes, the Yard and the 'pol believe you were a very naughty boy, shooting at some higher up diplomat. He didn't die, though. Tsk, tsk, Klaus, that's not a nice thing to do. I thought we agreed that I was to be the one wanted by Interpol in the family?"
Klaus clutched his aching head and laid down again. "We're not a family," he grumbled.
"Figure of speech, darling."
"I didn't try to murder him." Of that he was sure. He might have wanted to, but he certainly hadn't. Recollection was slowly coming back to him.
A light hand patted his shoulder - he shrugged it off.
"I guessed as much. But what happened? Oh, don't give me that look, tell me or you know I'll find out regardless and get in your way. Do we need to smuggle you out of the country? I thought we could colour your hair fiery red. That should put most people off track."
Klaus snorted. "Is the Alphabet all here?"
"No. A few are held in custody and Herr B went out again to gather the ones that got separated from you in the melee. There's plenty of room for everyone here, though, until this clears up. And there's an excellent escape route, in case it becomes necessary. Oh, and your boss knows you're here."
Klaus felt one of his eyebrows rise. "I thought Fatso would have thrown me to the wolves in a situation such as this."
Dorian smiled, one of his oh so innocent smiles that made Klaus very much want to check his wallet. "Oh, I'm sure he knows that would annoy me greatly if he did. Now, darling, why don't you tell me some more of what happened?"
Dorian leaned forward to smack him, lightly, on the arm.
"It's me, the art thief who stole from the Pope's vault for you. I'm a NATO contractor, remember? Well, contract me then, if that makes you feel better. Shall I call for James to negotiate? Or he can just hide under your bed and I can kick him now and then."
Klaus weakly lifted a pillow and threw it in Dorian's direction.
"I'll take that as a no," Dorian said, catching the projectile with ease and handing it back. "Which is good, because James is elsewhere at the moment. Anyway, contract me and my men to provide backup and, well, whatever assistance necessary to solve this situation. In return I want ... Hmm ... Dinner for two at the Schloss and that would be you and me, my dear, not Herr P and Herr Q. Can you cook? Otherwise Herr Gottschalk could do it, I'm sure."
Klaus threw the pillow again. "Can I still push you out of a plane afterwards?"
"No, dear. Now tell me. Klaus, seriously - I need to know if I will be able to help you."
"We were at the reception at the Embassy. I had ten Alphabets in the main hall, spread evenly, especially guarding the four entry points. The big door led out; a servants' entrance to the rear; to the guest quarters to the right and then an entrance to a smaller room to the left, in which the diplomat guy kept his harem."
Dorian's eyes widened. "Forgive me, my dear, but ... harem?"
"Yeah." Tits. Bouncing tits and naked legs. Much, much too much skin. "I have eighteen men in England. Five are back in Bonn, holding fort; the rest are with the Prime Numbers Team in Switzerland, digging up leads. I had secured the surroundings as much as I was allowed. There had been metal detectors at the main entrance, but it still would have been easy enough to smuggle something in."
Dorian nodded. "Oh yes!"
"Well, you'd know. Anyway ..."
Why do they insist on these stupid events? Klaus thought, mentally shaking his head. He stood by the main entrance, with A to his right and M to his left, ready to do his bidding. It's a nuisance for everyone involved, the food is pitiful and I can't imagine anyone having a good time. Except possibly the people who own the catering business.
Maintaining his fixed smile he swept his eyes over the scene again. All agents were in place, good, good. Of course, they had scanned the room in detail prior to the event's start and he had instructed them individually on what he expected. If any one of them went astray he would have to kindly allow them time off to contemplate their mistake - in Alaska.
Another six men were on the outside, scanning all buildings with views of the hall windows. The latter were, naturally, covered from the inside to prevent a sharpshooter from seeing more than shadows. No, the real danger lay inside. Each guest had been specially invited, but that meant little in the end. The festivity was a diplomatic affair and the host didn't actually know everyone - not that even that would have improved matters much.
Klaus's warning sense buzzed faintly. Not at top volume yet, no, but like a continuous reminder - "Stay alert!" "Stay alert!" "Stay alert!" He fully expected something to happen. He always did, in these situations. Better safe than sorry and all that crap. He took a long step to the right, to keep the target in sight.
Truth be told, Klaus wouldn't mind terribly if the target did get himself shot. They had exchanged fixed smiles earlier, but both knew enough diplomacy not to disturb one another while working. Even if the wanker was an absolute and utter moron. Klaus had firmly instructed himself that to get the snot offed on his watch would stain his record. That was as good a reason as any not to be flippant about the situation.
The target moved again. Klaus took another step to the right. From the security aspect the mingling was the worst part of any event. People mindlessly running back and forth and little chance of keeping everyone under watch. The only viable option was to scan the area constantly and hope for a non-verbal cue from whatever assassin might have found his or her way into the crowd. A too long gaze towards the target. A tenseness to the shoulders. An unwillingness to move with the flow of the mingling. With some people you could simply tell that they carried, no matter how they tried to appear casual. The assassin, this Kal Henderson, was reputedly a professional, so likely he would not be as courteous.
Arabic music played: soft, yet insistent and full of cadences and bells; the rhythm almost hypnotic. A live band played on the other side of the servant's door. X and F were stationed with the musicians, to keep an eye on them. Here and there a near-naked woman danced provocatively. Belly-dancers! At an official reception! The nerve! But such was the target's idea of what was proper. That crass wanker. Klaus found the entire thing rather gross. Though he could at least write off the girls as potential assassins, since they had nowhere to hide weapons - unless they ripped off their scant clothing and used the straps as garrottes. Professionally he had to acknowledge that the women appeared in excellent shape - a pity they used those strong bodies for something indecent.
The women circled the room in their dance, weaving a pattern through the guests. Several men followed the parade with bug-eyed expressions. As did, Klaus noted with annoyance, M and Z. Both seemed slightly preoccupied when approached by some doe-eyed female with less clothes than jewellery. Klaus made a mental note to have a stern talk with both agents. M was a womanizer. While that could be an advantage on some occasions, M couldn't afford to get distracted. And as for Z, well ... The poor boy really was much too innocent for his own good. Not that Klaus himself had had much contact with the females of the species, but at least he could keep his eyes on important matters, rather than on T & As.
After each woman had circled the room, she disappeared into the second room. That room had been roped off for the harem's exclusive use - their and the he-goat of a target's, of course. No other men permitted. Klaus had insisted on putting an agent inside, but they had even refused to let G in! Most annoying.
Something changed. Klaus couldn't put his finger on exactly what, he merely knew that his sixth sense had gone from sending "Stay alert!"-signals to "It's about to happen! It's happening! It's happening now!" Perhaps he had seen - or heard - something, which his consciousness hadn't registered, but which his sub-consciousness had. This had happened before, plenty of times, and Klaus had learned to trust his "sixth sense" - even to rely on it. The only questions in these situations were "What was actually happening?" and "Where is it happening?"
"Where is it, sir?" A whispered. "What do you see?"
The agent scanned the crowd more intensely now. Even if A had no sixth sense of his own - at least not as far as Klaus had been able to tell - the man knew his superior well and must have sensed the change in his interest level. But Klaus had no answer, not yet. He took a step closer to the target. Then another. By then the entire Alphabet was on highest alert - belly dancers completely forgotten or rather viewed no differently than any other possible killer. Sure, Kal Henderson in specific was male, but he might not be the only one out to get the target. Henderson might also have an accomplice.
Some of the guests had also been alerted, starting to clear the area in front of Klaus. Though he and his men were dressed to blend into the crowd, that didn't fool all of the seasoned party goers - some of them even recognised Klaus from previous occasions.
Klaus continuously moved his eyes, trying to find out from where whatever had alerted him originated. That window? No. That window? No. That door? No. That group of people? No. That one, then? No. Her? No. The old man? No. But the process took time and was not completely accurate. He began to walk faster, wanting to get to the target before--
"Say, Klaus, I can't help but to notice that you seem to avoid saying the name of this 'target'. Is there any specific reason for this?"
"Professionalism. It is best for all concerned to keep a distance."
"Oh. So it's not that I would know who he is?"
Klaus, eyes open and innocent, shook his head.
Dorian didn't buy the act for a minute. "Spill, or I'll rip the blanket off and you'll be naked."
Klaus's eyes widened even further. "I'm wearing pyjamas!"
"Ah. But you'll be naked under the pyjamas."
"Idiot!" Klaus crossed his arms defensively over his chest - accidentally locking the blanket tight under his arms.
Dorian tugged again. "Come on, Klaus. Spill. We're a team, right? I'm a NATO contractor. I need to know these things. Tell me or I will just ask A. Who was, now that I think about it, strangely reticent about telling me any details. Tell me or I'll find out if you're ticklish or not."
"Ah, but you might be lying. Come on, Klaus, who is it? I'll nag you until you give in and tell me. It can't be that bad, can it?"
Klaus sighed. "I don't like the jerk either and I know you have a problem with him, but work is work and it must be done."
"Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach, exactly who--"
"You sound like Father! Don't!"
Klaus sighed again.
He began to walk faster, wanting to get to the target before whatever was happening actually happened. Saleem wore that stupid--
"Saleem!? Saleem! Klaus, that's the annoying twit who--"
"The wanker who stole the Lubjanka report, yes."
"That was not what I was going to say! He almost carved me up with that scimitar of his!"
Klaus snorted. "Forgot how to use a sword quickly, did you?"
"I am an excellent swordsman, I'll have you know! With a real sword! The technique used with scimitars is entirely different. Plus, I hadn't had breakfast! Why are you helping Saleem?"
Klaus rolled his eyes. "It's called professionalism. Look it up in a dictionary."
"Hah! Really, Klaus--"
"All that Kuwait oil money makes my superiors giddy as school girls. But I have my orders and must follow them. Sometimes they are unpleasant, but that can't be helped."
Dorian sat up a bit. "Ah, yes. Like that time. When you came to me at North Downs. Oh well. I understand. I suppose if you must help that woman-fixated lowlife, you must. Dare I hope that he at least got shot? Not fatally, of course. Do continue."
"Saleem wore that stupid outfit of his, pin-striped suit and a towel on his head. He stood surrounded--"
Saleem stood surrounded by a herd of the scantily dressed females. For many of them the veil was the most substantial item of clothing they wore.
That sixth sense of Klaus's was pounding now, "Behind him! Behind him! Behind him!" Finally, he had a fix on what had alerted him. The second room, that of Saleem's harem girls. He should have known. The area had been checked before, of course, but not since the girls' arrival. To boot, the only guard inside was one of Saleem's own. A female. Was the man allergic to men or what?
Berating himself for eventually being forced to accept Saleem's refusal to let him post a guard in there, Klaus pulled his Magnum. Someone screamed, but he hardly heard. More screams followed - from within the room as well now. Women started to pour out - what looked like dozens of them. All wearing about a handkerchief's worth of material. Slim bodies with disproportionally large, bouncing breasts moved towards Klaus at speed.
Not a very noticeable sound at all, more like a short, metallic sneeze. Defying all logic, since it shouldn't have been audible over the din of hysterical females. Yet Klaus heard it clearly. A shot had been fired.
He was wading through the women now, pushing against naked flesh, snagging against slips of clothing - a particularly loud scream hinted that the clothing had been actually torn. Half-naked women! All around him! Pushing towards him: bellies, thighs, legs, arms and breasts.
Klaus pushed his way shoulder-first through the throng, but the herd of females screamed; howling their bloody lungs out - breasts bobbing nauseatingly! Stupid bints! Couldn't they see that his Magnum wasn't aimed towards them? Though on their way past many of them slapped him - some with surprising force. He almost stumbled when a particularly hard slap impacted with - for no apparent reason - his arse!
Trying hard not to get distracted Klaus kept pushing, shouting for the Alphabet to follow him. Finally, the throng of nubile flesh lessened and he saw that Saleem was down on the now blood-stained floor. Or he saw part of Saleem, anyway - most of the wanker's body was covered by human shields. Very bare human shields, with rosy, soft flesh, rounded and vulnerable. But the cloud of scarcely dressed females Klaus had worked to get past was dissipating. He raised his Magnum higher ...
... and mid-step felt his strength drain, as if all his muscles had simultaneously gone to sleep. He had already stretched his right leg to take a new step, but instead of catching his weight and carrying him further, the knee gave. The Magnum slipped from suddenly nerveless fingers and he couldn't even move his hands to catch himself as he was hurled towards the floor. Foppy, blue-veined marble rushed up to meet him, but before the impact he experienced a fleeting darkness. Then the world vanished.
"And that's the last you remember?"
"Yes. Now get me my clothes, I need to start cleaning up this mess."
"Dr. Brightersom says you should stay in bed at least for today. Oh, and he asked if you have ever fainted that way before, if you ate properly this morning and--"
"Of course I ate! And no, I've never fainted like that before! Besides, I didn't bloody well faint! I lost consciousness because something happened! I wasn't shot?"
"No. No noticeable injury - though your nose got a turn, you had a nosebleed! Jimmy is doing his best with your shirt, but I fear it's a lost cause. Your nose wasn't broken, I'm happy to report. Not that I would have loved you any less if it had been, but just so you know it. Herr A was right beside you. He says you went down as if clobbered on the head, but he saw no one hit you - not hard enough to take you out, anyway. If Mischa had to hit you eight times to take you down--"
"He was cheating! I had been shot! And he hit me three times on my wound too!" Klaus didn't intend to forgive that in any foreseeable future.
"Yes, yes, of course he cheated, darling. Anyway, if Mischa had to hit you, ah, eleven times when you had already been shot to take you down, I doubt one of those dancer ladies could have done it by slapping you, for all that I hear they are often quite strong. Saleem and the ladies accused you of pulling your gun and shooting at Saleem. The police was going to arrest the lot of you. Herr A swears you came to and told them to take you to me, so M to P arranged a diversion by releasing six cows into the building as the rest snuck you off. Some got separated in the confusion, but Herr C said you had agreed on some meeting point in advance, in case something happened. Rather like when you were on a field trip with your class and the teacher told you that if you got lost you were to wait by the church or something, I imagine? I do remember something like that, when my class visited some museum. Though I went away on purpose, so I never--"
"Quit nattering and get me clothes! I'm not an invalid and I need to clean up this mess!"
"Well, we are roughly the same size, so I could lend you some of my clothes I suppose. What would you favour, then? Purple with gold or lime green with lots of ruffles? I also have this charming, red--"
"Don't be stupid or I'll break your nose for sure! I've been here before, remember? There are clothes in the closet that are actually decent! Get them for me!"
"No, darling, the good doctor told me that you should rest. Especially since we don't know why you fainted, ah, I mean, fell unconscious. If you want to discuss things with Herr A, I'll be happy to ..."
Dorian's voice trailed off as Klaus, after one last, withering glare, sat up and swung his legs off the bed. Then he pushed the blanket aside and got up. Dorian leapt to his feet, torn between staying close enough to catch Klaus, should he fall - and far enough away to properly admire the lean form in the all in all rather form-fitting pyjamas.
"You win!" Dorian finally said. "Stop - and sit down again. I'll get you your clothes, you stubborn boar of a man. But sit. Dr. Brightersom will have my hide if I let you fall."
Klaus would have refused, but then felt his knees tremble. Rather than having to be rescued like a wobbly maid, he sat.
Damn, but the man has a fine arse, Dorian thought happily, as he had seen said posterior rather nicely when Klaus turned. Not that the pyjamas showed all that much more than Klaus's trousers usually did, but they were softer-looking, as if he actually might get away with touching them without having his jaw busted. Not to mention that he knew that while concealing or not, in Klaus's mind the nightwear was but a tiny step up from Dorian seeing him in his underwear - and noticeably Klaus hadn't gone to extreme lengths to shield himself!
"Well, get the clothes then!" Klaus ordered and glared again at Dorian, this time with obvious distrust. He had pulled the cover up over his chest again.
"Right away, dear," Dorian said, and went to do his major's bidding.
Klaus's legs still trembled slightly as they walked down to the meeting room he and the Months, ah, he and Dorian's pack had used as their base while searching for the truth behind Dorian's earlier predicament. The back of his throat itched. He felt like in the end stage of a very bad cold: sensitive eyes, facial skin too tense and nose runny.
"Feels like you got me with that fucking knock-out gas of yours," he grumped.
"Take your paws off me! I'm not a doddering old man who needs to be steadied! Yeah. Throat, skin, eyes and snot, the works; disgusting."
"Hmm ... Well, you know, I do think that cousin Baal mentioned that they make the stuff to sell as well. At an extremely high price, of course. They are all immune, so it can't hurt them any. It's very popular in some circles. But if it really is the same stuff, then that is a good thing, dear. Do be careful!"
"I said to get your hands off me! I've been walking since I was one. Why the fuck would it be a good thing if it is the same fucking stuff?"
They had almost reached the meeting room and Klaus certainly didn't want to be led inside like some cripple.
"All new members of my gang get exposed, during the immunization process. So we know what works to get rid of those side effects. Bonham, go get a slice of sleeping gas cure for the major."
Inside were nine of Klaus's agents and seven of Dorian's lot. The agents all sat at the right corner of the table, with Dorian's men opposite. To Klaus's relief the nuisance known as James still was not present. Bonham greeted them both with a smile and then left. Klaus took his accustomed place at the head of the table. "What is it? I'm not taking any meds if I don't know what they are. Especially not if you're not even sure if they'll work."
Dorian sat down beside him. "Oh, the cure can't hurt, that I can guarantee. Except possibly your stomach measurement, but just once should not affect those lovely, flat abdominals of yours."
Klaus did not trust these words, but they had more important things to deal with. "Status?"
Herr C cleared his throat. "B hasn't reported back in yet, nor any of the others."
"Lazing about without me, no doubt," Klaus decided. "Probably at some café or restaurant, spending NATO money on their bellies. Continue."
"Officially we are all wanted for questioning."
"You should have stayed! Why didn't you? This looks very suspect!"
"Y-you told us to, sir."
Klaus narrowed his eyes. "So I've been told," he said with a hint of venom, "and this will be thoroughly investigated. Whatever, what is done is done and that can't be changed. Did Saleem at least bleed?"
"No, sir," said C, voice slightly steadier now.
Klaus grunted. "Too bad, it would have served him right to get a flesh wound. What else?"
"One of the harem girls was shot. In the arm. Just a scratch, really, but Sheik Al Sabaah was fawning over her like you wouldn't believe. Other than that Al Sabaah was furious, sir, he was going to tear up Heaven and Earth to find you, sir."
"Both him and the police think we did it?"
"Brilliant! Did you bother to tell them to check the security cameras? The killer was in the harem room. If they check bullet trajectory paths they'll see that. Unless some of you got careless and opened fire?"
"No, sir, we didn't! At least none of us here did. Ah ... Security cameras ... No? There, ah, wasn't time."
Klaus snorted. "Some at the Yard are actually marginally competent, so they might think of it on their own. But if they're anything like Lawrence we'll drop them a hint. In the meanwhile we'll keep a low profile, stay here and start our own investigation."
The door opened to let Bonham in again. He carried a small tray, which he placed in front of Klaus, then he hastily scurried to the opposite end of the room. Klaus took in the sight before him with increasing disbelief.
"Is this some fucking joke?"
Then the smell hit him, unmistakable and sickening. His stomach turned.
"No," said Dorian. "Though the flarns aren't strictly necessary and I'll bravely sacrifice my own waist line to eat them for you, if you don't want them. But the chocolate cake will really work wonders for the side-effects."
Graf von dem Eberbach disliked travelling by airplane, even Lufthansa, but he sadly couldn't take the Mercedes to London. He and Herr Hinkel arrived at Heathrow with only a minor delay and so had - the wonder! - their luggage! From the airport they took a cab to central London. Elsewhere they might have rented a car for the duration of their stay, but the British idiocy of driving on the wrong side of the road appealed to neither of them.
Before leaving the Schloss Herr Hinkel had phoned ahead. He had secured two singles at the Ritz. While some time still remained in the day, they had decided to retire for the night. They were both in good shape, but still of an age where a few hours of rest now could spare considerable grief later.
They still discussed their next move - Dorian wanted to use his connections in the Rogues' Gallery, but Klaus didn't want to involve organised crime - when Josh entered. "Phone, Milord. Same caller as last time."
"Who's that?" Klaus asked quickly. He had eaten his chocolate cake like a good boy, grumbling throughout about the disgusting taste. As for the biscuits, they had within the first minute, and without even a nibble, migrated over to Dorian. While Klaus hadn't commented afterwards, though, he did appear a bit more bright of eye and his intelligence certainly was up to par.
Dorian, who had just been about to explain this very thing, decided that at times Klaus could be just a hint demanding. "Nothing to worry about," he said, smiling brightly. "Just my current bit o' fluff." He actually felt rather proud of himself for managing to pull that off without gagging.
And Klaus's face ... changed. He neither flinched nor frowned or even made a grimace of distaste. Dorian couldn't put a finger on what the exact change entailed. Perhaps there was something about the eyes, in how they studied him, as if there was a sudden distance in them, a coldness which he hadn't seen for a while.
"It's your Chief!" he blurted out.
Klaus eyes widened, almost comically. His jaw fell open.
"Not like that!" Dorian hastened to assure. "Of course not! That's disgusting! I was just jesting! It's your Chief. At least I think that was him who called before, to alert me that something was going on. Sorry - that was a stupid jest, I know. Oh, do come on, then, you had better talk to him yourself or you'll never believe me."
Klaus still eyed him distrustfully as they crossed the house to the main library, where Josh had answered the phone.
Memo to self, Dorian thought, Do not joke about current lovers around Klaus.
Not that there were any current lovers - and utterly unlikely that there would be any. Not as long as there was a chance of Klaus himself eventually assuming that position.
Klaus's reaction had been interesting, though. Very interesting. Dorian wasn't completely sure if the look had meant anything close to what he hoped, but hope he could - and so he did.
He only listened with half an ear to Klaus's end of the clipped conversation. Then Klaus hung up and turned to him.
"You mentioned an escape route? The cops are heading this way. Someone spilled that you know me and might harbour me. Saleem probably, that little weasel of a tell tale. What do we do?"
Dorian found himself smiling, as he remembered saying those very words to his nephew only hours earlier. "We hide the evidence!"
They hurried back to the meeting room.
"Bonham," Dorian called as they entered. "We're doing a Narnia! I'm with the major. Alphabets, please come with us and hurry now. Jimmy, bring Herr B and the others to us when they show up. Post a guard outside, in case they arrive inopportunely. Ah, do tell the coppers about the surveillance cameras, so we have that angle covered. Snap to it now, everyone."
Leaving his trusted gang to deal with the defences he led the major with Alphabet up to his own bedroom, waving them all inside. Then he hurried over to the wardrobe. "Just follow me," he instructed. Even as he entered he heard Klaus mutter something about closets and wished he could have heard the words clearly. It probably would have been one of those dry comments that were surprisingly funny once you had thought a bit about what Klaus might actually have meant by them.
Half-way in he stopped and turned to lift a pile of mink coats. Reaching past the cold, intensely soft fur he found the switch and flicked it. Air swished at him from the further end, telling him that the secret passage had opened successfully. He dropped the coats back in place and continued. At the very back of the wardrobe he lifted the plastic-covered tuxedos off their hanger. Reaching through the revealed opening he flipped a light switch.
"Just go down, but be careful, the steps are a bit narrow. Wait downstairs."
When the last one, T, had passed, Dorian stepped through. To hang up the tuxedos again was a bit tricky from that angle. Then he pushed the secret door back in place before following the agents to the bottom floor. Squeezing past them, managing a pat to Klaus's thigh in the process, Dorian used his miniature lock pick to unlock the door. He ushered everyone inside, then flicked off the stair light. That way nothing would shine through should someone search the building and look into the wardrobe. Then he finally joined them. The door fell shut behind him.
"Welcome to the Eroica Secret Hiding Room," he said and spread his hands.
The room was roughly the size of the recently abandoned meeting room, with similar table and chairs. There were also a television; a phone; a small cubicle shielded off for washing; a toilet; a tiny kitchenette with enough preserved food for a person to get by for a few days comfortably or a group of people for a much shorter time. A few treasures lay scattered from the latest Eroica operations.
"I do apologise for the lack of service, but I haven't had time to interview for a new butler. By the way, major, I'll show you later, but the other leg of the fork in the corridor upstairs leads to your-- ah, to the second master bedroom. Everyone - no shouting. That means you too, major. The walls here are rather thick, but not impenetrable. That door leads to the basement of the tool shed in the back garden. In a worst case scenario we flee through there, but the door is a bit difficult to open, since we put shelves on the other side to hide it."
His duty as a host done, he sat down in the small, red velvet sectional by the table's end, arranged his legs comfortably and put his arm on the armrest.
"Now, Major, where were we? Ah, yes, you know, on second thought I agree with you. Perhaps we ought to wait with alerting the Gallery. You see--"
C had noted the difference. Of course - he would have been a very poor agent if he hadn't. Something had changed between the major and the Earl. The tension remained, yes, but it had transformed into something he couldn't quite put his finger on. He wished his wife was there. She was much better than him at reading people.
After a few hours Bonham had come down to the secret room. He told them that the police had searched House Gloria in vain. They stayed in the secret room anyway, in case there would be more searches or some sort of surveillance. Forty minutes later B showed up with most of the missing men. They had snuck in through the garage, after Justin had gone out in the van and picked them up. Since the garage connected to the house, no one had seen them enter. They were filling in both groups on what the other had been doing when the door once more opened. Bonham, again.
"Good news! As you instructed, Milord," Bonham said to the Earl. "We told the first lot about the cameras. Well, reminded them; they should have thought about that themselves. I don't even know if they told anyone we said as much. And Leader, ah, I mean, Major von dem Eberbach, your boss phoned again. He says that they've contacted him. They've had a look at the tapes, and they know you and your men didn't fire. M to P have been released and wait at the Yard. The coppers still want to talk to you."
C marvelled that the major hadn't reacted to being called "Leader" by Eroica's crew. He had, of course, heard of what had happened. Some of them (himself included) had even been drafted prior to help to clear the Earl's name from the accusations. Still, the knowledge hadn't prepared him for the apparent cease-fire that currently prevailed.
"Finally! Took the lazy buggers long enough! I want to see those tapes. We'll go there now. A, B - you're with me. We'll pick up M to P in the process. The rest of you continue as planned."
A and B got up and began to shrug into their trenchcoats. The major had already started towards the door, when he stopped and turned back. For a moment he stared at the Earl. "Well, are you coming or not?"
Lord Gloria smiled graciously. "Thank you. I'd be delighted to." Then he, too, rose.
C wanted to shake his head in wonder. He didn't, though, knowing well that such things only tended to focus his superior's attention on whoever made them. Which was something they all tried to avoid. Except Lord Gloria. Who was mental. Or in love.
Herr A drove the Benz - the same that Rudy had driven Klaus around in a couple of days prior. Klaus and Dorian sat in the back seat. Herr B rode shotgun.
Klaus couldn't justify to himself just why he had invited Dorian along. Well, there was the fact that the man would have come anyway, had he wanted to - as he usually did want to tail Klaus whenever possible. Which shouldn't be encouraged, especially not without reason. So Klaus shouldn't have asked. He mentally shrugged. Too fucking late to change his mind now.
"You don't think they are setting up a trap for you?" Dorian asked. He sounded mildly concerned, but not overly worried.
Klaus dismissed the notion with a shake of his head. "They wouldn't dare to lie to NATO."
"Very well. Just remember to ask for winter clothes if they do arrest you."
It took Klaus a second to remember that the nonsense was Eroica gang code for wanting a jail break. He snorted. Then he noticed that the Brit looked a little pensive. Why? He recalled visiting Dorian at New Scotland Yard, that time before. How Dorian had been bruised and claimed - in a very ironic tone - that he had "walked into a door. Two doors, in fact". Was the fop anxious, due to this? That was stupid - he had been cleared from the accusation. No one would bother him. Especially not on Klaus's watch. Still. Some fragment of an all but forgotten course in how to handle trauma victims made itself remembered. Unfortunately, not accompanied by anything actually useful, such as advice on how to handle this situation. Besides, Dorian had said he wanted to come! It wasn't Klaus's responsibility to coddle him! The fop could stay in the car if he wanted! However, the law of machismo forbade Klaus to suggest this simple solution outright. He flung about for some graceful way to ask, then gave up.
"What happened to the cops who clobbered you?"
Dorian visibly startled. Then he, unexpectedly, smiled. "Sorry. I was thinking about my nephew. Never mind. The cops? Oh, they've been dealt with."
So he had been mistaken. Tough shit. "They came home one day and found that all their belongings had upped and gone?" he guessed. Like the Chief. Who was currently a good deal more respectful to Klaus. Which was nice.
"Oh no," Dorian responded and suddenly his eyes sparkled.
Some vague phrase echoed in Klaus's mind: Beware when Irish eyes are smiling. Idiotic in itself, since the Earl wasn't Irish.
"Would you believe," Dorian continued," that they are all currently under investigation for accepting bribes?"
Klaus considered this for all of a second. "Yes," he said.
"Apparently someone offered them a bribe; apparently they accepted and then apparently the person doing the bribing reported this to their superiors."
"You," Klaus said, "are not a man to cross, Lord Gloria."
Dorian inclined his head elegantly. "Most people do try to avoid doing so," he said sweetly. "Of course - present company excluded."
It was Klaus's turn to incline his head. "Likewise," he replied. "Likewise."
Minutes later they reached New Scotland Yard. Klaus efficiently reported his recollection of the incident, then demanded to see the surveillance tapes. He only had to insist a little bit before they agreed. Good for them. He still had a headache and was in a piss-poor mood.
Four tapes had been taken from the Embassy, but only one showed Klaus's own actions. The rest he left to A and B, saying he would review their findings afterwards.
"I would have remembered if someone sprayed me," he told Dorian as they waited for the technician to forward the tape to the right time. On their way inside the Earl had been remarkably well behaved, though he had played the airheaded nobleman to perfection. The lead investigator had been annoyed with him for concealing Klaus and the Alphabet's whereabouts, but Dorian had calmly claimed to have been elsewhere at the crucial time. He had promised to sternly reprimand his servants and order them to cooperate with the police hereafter. He sounded remarkably sincere, even to Klaus, who knew better.
They watched the tape. To no avail. They watched the interesting slice again. Nothing. And again. No.
"There," Klaus finally said with a decisive nod. "Rewind 20 seconds and play it again," he instructed the technician, before bending even closer, shifting sideways to give Dorian room. "Look there," he said and tapped the screen.
B's tape was being rewound, so he took the opportunity to stretch. As he did, his glance happened to move over to the third of the currently running machines - and the two men in deep study of the screen. Both tall with long hair - one with blond curls and one with straight, black strands. They stood so close that one of them really should have put an arm around the other. Noticeably the black-haired one did not try to desperately move away from the blond - or beat him unconscious.
He looked over to the second table, meeting A's gaze. A made a face which B had no trouble reading after all these years - "Yes, I see them too and I have no idea what to think."
His tape flicked on again and B bent back to his assigned task. He and A would talk later. They always did.
"Yes," Dorian said, nodding. "The blond. She moves against the stream. And she--"
"Slapped my arse!"
Dorian had to smile at the plaintive tone. "I will admit that it is a most tempting target, but given the circumstances--"
"Given the circumstances she should have been running like the devil was chasing her."
"So you think--"
"She moved against the stream to reach me. And then she slapped me. Do you carry a mirror?"
"I wouldn't leave home without one," Dorian said, truthfully, and handed it over. "Why?"
"I'll be right back," Klaus said and left the room.
Dorian shrugged helplessly at the rather cute technician. "Can you, I don't know ... zoom in, I think it's called? On that woman?"
The man, who seemed to have some difficulties moving his eyes away from Dorian's person - sweet, really - smiled. "I'll do my very best," he promised.
"This house looks half-way decent," Heinz delivered his verdict. He and Herr Hinkel stood before a large building of clear neoclassical French design.
"Could do with a bit of maintenance," Conrad countered. "Look at the hedges. Someone has not been doing his duty. And those rose bushes need weeding. Look at all the old leaves. Herr Muhlen would be mortified if his precious Eroicas looked that way."
"Those are the new ones, aren't they? The big, red ones?"
"Yes. Our Klaus despises them, but he hasn't told Herr Muhlen. I'm not sure why, though." He had originally thought the feeling was because of the roses also being called "Eroticas", due to the sexual connotation a son might not want near a memorial of his mother. However, Herr Muhlen had told him that he had expressly used the less suggestive name, "Eroica", for this reason - and that hadn't helped. "Shall we?"
They marched up the short stairs side by side. Heinz rung the bell. Nothing happened. Conrad muttered that if he had been in charge, a visitor would have been spotted even as the car turned onto the driveway. A suitable servant would have already stood just inside the door, waiting for the bell to sound, to open the very next second. Anything else was unforgivable sloppiness.
Heinz had been about to give up, when something did happen. An elderly butler opened the door halfways, watching them with obvious hesitation. Heinz noted that the man combed his hair over his skull just like Conrad did - but with far less hair to start with.
"Yes, sir?" the man asked.
"We are here to see Countess Disken," Heinz replied firmly.
"Regrettably, the Countess is not home at the moment. Do you wish to leave a message or your calling card?"
"When is the Countess expected to return?"
"Regrettably, she has not given a time for her return, sir."
"Will she be back this evening?"
"Regrettably, her ladyship didn't say, sir."
"Look here, you - we have come from Germany to talk to her and we cannot stay for long. Where is she?"
"Regrettably, I am not at liberty to give out this information, sir."
Heinz snorted and he got a certain sharpness to his eyes, something many who knew his son would very easily recognize. "That might be so," he said and smiled mirthlessly - a smile these same people who knew his son also would recognize all too well. "But I think you will find that you will tell me regardless." And - possibly - regrettably.
Klaus entered the cubicle, closed the door and carefully locked it. Moving swiftly, he unbuttoned, unzipped and pushed down his trousers, together with his underwear. Then, feeling somewhat stupid, he used the toilet mirror in combination with Dorian's hand-held one, to examine the evidence, as it were. With a little diligence he found what he had suspected. A hard prod to the area even produced faint tenderness.
After putting the room to its normative use, he returned and handed back the mirror to Dorian, who pocketed it with slightly raised eyebrows.
"I've got a puncture mark."
"Aww ..." Dorian said, pouting. "I could have looked for you."
Klaus snorted. "Don't be stupid."
"Does it hurt? I could kiss it better."
"Shut up! Don't be perverted either."
As they descended the stairs of House Disken Conrad watched Heinz with some concern. The Graf's leg injury sometimes troubled him when going down stairs - one of the reasons, Conrad suspected, why the man no longer visited the Schloss very often. But the descent went fine and they continued to their waiting cab. On the flatter surface Heinz stomped his walking stick in a manner Conrad knew meant that the man felt rather pleased with himself. The visit had been both a hit and a miss. Countess Disken really did seem absent. The butler - a shame to the profession, in Conrad's humble opinion - had managed just enough balls as not to betray his lady's destination, but he had finally begged them to ask elsewhere. More specifically at the house of Countess Diskens's sister. A Lady Red!
"I know this name," Conrad said. " Our Klaus gave orders that a Dorian Red, Earl of Gloria, was never, ever, not on pain of death, be allowed to enter the Schloss."
"Sounds like bad news. When was this?"
"A few years ago. I was confused at first, for I had no idea who he meant. Later I found out. A British Lord. The man had visited earlier, to view the Eberbach Collection. He is apparently something of an art admirer. I remember him being fascinated with the collection. I saw him later, in London, at England Art. He acted ... oddly." Conrad still hadn't a clue what those bananas the Earl had given him had been about.
Heinz grunted. "Good that someone enjoys the collection. Lord knows neither Klaus nor I have the gene for it. Red, you say. Strange name. But still, it sounds oddly familiar. For some reason it brings to mind the old family chronicles. Never mind. Why did Klaus ban him?"
"I don't know." That was what in butler circles was known as a "lie". In fact he was fairly sure that the unprecedented request was due to the way the blond Brit had seemed to - if in a rather awkward way, like a boy trying to get a girl's attention by tugging at her braids - to court Klaus. But Conrad felt this was an inopportune time to bring up such a notion. "The order hasn't precisely been rescinded, but Lord Gloria has visited the Schloss on more than one occasion since. He and Klaus appear to be ... acquaintances now."
"Hmm. So Klaus might have met this Disken woman through Lord Gloria. Red is not a common name, so they must be related. Noble blood not just by marriage, my contact said, so that sounds reasonable. Perhaps this Earl even introduced them."
"Perhaps," Conrad answered. Though to him that seemed unlikely, considering his suspicion about the British Earl. He was beginning to feel hesitant about this and wondered if he ought to inform Heinz.
"Well, we shall pay a visit to Lady Red tomorrow. See what she says. If we're in luck, perhaps Countess Disken is even visiting her."
The technician had been unable to zoom in much, so they still knew little of the woman who had injected Klaus with the sleeping drug. She had white flaxen hair - probably bleached, as such a light tone rarely occurs naturally. Slender built, medium length. B-cup, according to Klaus, and Dorian saw no reason to suspect otherwise. Not a dancer - she actually wore decent clothes. Another tape showed her entering the room only minutes prior to the attack. She didn't come from the main entrance, but from the back rooms, where the toilets were located, yet she hadn't been visible any earlier on the tape. A few - often blurred - images showed her flittering between groups, never staying long at any given one. Klaus remembered seeing her in the throng, but no further details. The best still from the tape was printed and distributed.
The surveillance camera tapes yielded nothing further, since Saleem had refused to allow one in the "harem room", from where the attack later originated. Nor had he afterwards allowed his women to be questioned by the British police, since the first police officers at the scene had apparently said something insensitive and sent the women into hysterics. Since they were all under diplomatic immunity, there was little that could be done to persuade him otherwise.
They continued to Saleem's penthouse at the Ritz. Klaus intended to question the women personally, but his group wasn't even let into the suite. Saleem not only refused to have his brave little doves disturbed any further, he flat out refused to talk to Klaus himself. He even disdainfully declined NATO's continued protection!
"Claims I carry a grudge!" Klaus growled to the world in general when they were back in the car, this time heading back towards House Gloria.
"Well, you did yell at him," Dorian pointed out. He had stayed out of Saleem's sight, but had heard everything.
"I barely raised my voice! Besides, so what if I carry a grudge? I'm a professional! I would have protected him to the best of my abilities anyway! I did!"
"Yes, Klaus, you did. Actually, I think Saleem plans on finding the shooter himself - in his culture it is a great insult to hurt a woman, even if she wasn't the intended target. But things are the way they are. Must you return to Germany right away?"
"I'm not on that Arab's pay cheque. Wrong gender for one thing, it seems. He can't order me about. Until we're given counter orders we will remain here."
Dorian had to smile. Obviously Saleem's remark had wounded one of the most vulnerable parts of Klaus - his pride in his work ethic.
"I will assist you any way I can," he assured, pleased to have his beloved around for a bit longer. "What is your next move?"
"That harem flock of his. Or the dancers. They must have seen something!"
"Undoubtedly. So, you intend to infiltrate Saleem's harem?"
"Oh, to be a fly on that wall when you do!"
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"I have this green dress. It would go splendidly with your hair and your eyes, and--"
"Not me, you pea-brained, perverted fool!" Outrage made Klaus's eyes flash in a way that made Dorian want to kiss him.
"Of course I understood that." Under his breath Dorian added, "Though I would pay good money to see you in that dress." Just once, though. While he found Herr G, for instance, charming in a feminine outfit, he felt no direct desire to see Klaus don such garb on a more permanent basis. That would just be plain wrong. Klaus's eyes narrowed dangerously. Dorian couldn't help himself, but had to ask: "Not even as a nun?"
He had wondered if Klaus liked nuns because they, too, were fairly asexual.
Now Klaus's eyes widened instead. "Don't be blasphemous! Besides, I hardly think Saleem would be attracted to a Holy Sister!"
"One never knows. Some men do like that type. I can see the charm. Something about the forbidden, about those stern virgins who live only for their duty. Wanting to get beneath that strict exterior in hope of finding a hot, passionate--"
"Shut up!" Klaus growled. "Don't say such things!"
Dorian blinked, taken back by the sudden surge of anger flashing in the once more hard eyes. Realising that he must have overstepped some line he hastily withdrew. "That is neither here nor there. Still, I do believe I have an idea of how we can go about this."
"You're not putting on a dress! He'll spot you a mile away!"
Dorian pouted, slightly put off by his beloved's distrust in his abilities. "I wasn't going to suggest it. I'll show you later tonight. Or rather tomorrow morning, I think, considering how late it is. Ah, home, sweet home!"
As Herr A guided the car up the last stretch to House Gloria Dorian wondered if his little surprise really would be one - or if Klaus already knew.
E and F were getting ready to sleep. E, who was a night showerer, had just performed his evening ablutions and was drying his hair enough before sleeping on it. As he did he listened to the rants of his associate - who was a morning showerer.
He was also, regrettably, a homophobe.
"I can't believe it! I was sure Major von dem Eberbach was the most stand-up guy in NATO! Now he's being lured over by that piece of ... fluffy blond hair and wriggling arse!"
E privately thought that F was paying a little too much attention to the wriggling arse in question. He hummed non-committaly. Regardless of his opinion of F's statements, he needed to get along with the guy. As long as he doesn't turn into a security risk. Briskly towelling his hair gave him a good excuse for not answering.
"I mean, it's disgusting the way that Gloria is smarming up to him and trying to get close to him! But I really thought Major von dem Eberbach was on the up and up! Now he seems not to mind so much! I tell you, I think it's disgusting!"
E finally had to lower his towel. "Perhaps you should consider requesting a transfer," he suggested mildly.
Klaus felt out of sync. Possibly because of staying in House Gloria. Perhaps the lingering perfume fumes were getting to him. Or perhaps it was the shitty mission itself. After having debriefed the Alphabet and reported to the Chief he had gone to bed early - a whole hour before his regular bed time. No doubt that had also affected his sleep pattern. He had woken up at 02:00 sharp, alert and fresh as if after a full night's sleep. Of course, had he been on a mission which would necessitate him sleeping "on guard" that would have been natural, but he hadn't sung "Silly Sheep Go To Sleep", just "Mary Had A Little Lamb", as usual.
So, he had woken up at bloody two o' fucking clock in the morning. Repeated Marys hadn't helped lull him back. He felt an almost overwhelming urge for Nescafé and the automat just on the other side of the room seemed to send out a quiet siren call, insinuating all kind of lovely things about a brew as black as midnight and a perfect taste on his tongue; smoothness; invigorating with just a hint of bitterness, not to mention that lovely heat slipping down his throat ... I must get such a machine for home, he thought once more. Alas, two o'clock just wasn't the perfect time for coffee, no matter what. He needed to rest. Caffeine would not help.
So he stayed in bed, tried "Mary Had A Little Lamb" one more time; considered a cigarette - but definitely not a lovely, warm, smooth cup of Nescafé with that delicious, thin layer of golden-brown crème on top, signalling that the content had been blended to perfection. He tried to think of nothing - or at least of fluffy little white and black sheep jumping around, going "määä määä". His muscles had all relaxed, obedient to his will, and his eyes had closed, sending him into darkness, but his stubborn mind had put up more of a resistance, skipping through different topics almost at random. He had many questions and while some were less important than others, some were - on the other hand - far more persistent than the actually important ones.
And perhaps in the middle of the night and with everyone else snug as bugs in their beds was a proper time for such questions. The actually important ones would by necessity have to wait until after dawn.
He got up and, after a very brief hesitation, dressed. Hopefully what he planned wouldn't take longer than a few minutes, but he didn't fancy being half-naked while doing it. He did not look wistfully towards the Nescafé automat. If a pregnant woman should follow whatever insane urge she gets on the basis that her body knows what it needs, what is there to say that I don't actually need some Nescafé right now in order to stay healthy? My body knows what it needs just as well as any woman's! Oh, fuck it! In a few hours it'll be breakfast and I will have a big mug. As he always did. Maybe two mugs!
Then he marched to the bell-covered, stupid door that separated his room from the first master bedroom. Not one to hesitate once his mind had been made up, he rapped the door twice with his knuckles. The bells let out a cadence of shimmers, clicks and plongs, which luckily quickly died out.
For several seconds nothing happened. He rapped at the door again, then contemplated giving up and returning to bed (Or - if I can't sleep anyway, a cup of Nescafé and then get some work done?), when a voice called out from beyond. "Yes, major? Everything all right?"
"Get decent. I want to talk to you."
"I'm covered from head to toe. The lock is on your side."
He snorted. Lock! Ha! But he lifted the wafer-thin pin bar and tugged at the handle. The door opened with enough noise to wake the dead. Light spilled in from beyond. On the other side stood Dorian. Covered from head to toe, yes. In sheer silk, red like heart's blood and embroidered in gold, glittering in candle light. The cloth's billowing edges seemed to glow and the contour of his sleek, yet strong body showed clearly through the thin material.
"Decent is a relative term," Klaus said. "We're not using the same dictionary."
Dorian smiled and sauntered up to the door, where he leaned in to rest a wrist against the frame. The candle light also glittered in his hair, which was slightly tousled, pushed together on the right side, as if he had lain on it. "I'm hardly showing any skin at all."
"Nor do you leave anything to the imagination."
The smile turned decidedly coy. As if by accident a curl of hair fell before one eye. "Do you imagine me often, Klaus?" he asked, his voice a husk.
Klaus snorted and nodded his chin up to the man. "I don't have to use my imagination," he said pointedly.
With a light laugh, Dorian tossed his head, making his hair fall back again. "It's not really transparent, you know. Less is more and all that. Which seems to be working. But enough about my fabulous night wear. Why did you knock? Do you want me to sing you a lullaby?"
"I have two questions. Depending on your answers I might tell you something."
Dorian's eyebrows rose. "That sounds intriguing. Go ahead. I'm all ears."
Klaus opened his mouth to launch into his interrogation, when he found himself hesitating. The questions were so simple, yet to blurt them out suddenly felt inappropriate. Idiot! Out with it! Then perhaps you can sleep.
"Why am I here?"
Dorian blinked. "Ah ... Um ... Do you have a headache, dear?" He stepped forward. "I know I should have insisted on having Dr. Brightersom check up on you again."
"No, you fool! I still don't have amnesia! I meant here-here." Klaus waved to the room behind him.
Dorian looked around, as if he half expected Klaus's room to have turned into a Martian landscape or a seedy Greek bar. "Klaus, I don't understand? Would you rather share a room with one of your agents? Though their rooms are, ah, more colourful than yours. I assure you, this is the most 'you' room in the house. Is something bothering you?" He was winding a curl of hair around a finger again. Utterly pointlessly - it wasn't as if his hair could get any curlier. "It is the roses in the boar painting, isn't it? Oh, I knew they were a bit over the top, but the boar looked so fierce and proud - I just couldn't resist buying it. Take it down, I won't mind at all if you do."
"Quit blabbering! No, it is not the bloody roses!" In fact, he had hardly noticed them - and besides, Herr Muhlen grew such roses at the Schloss. Herr Hinkel had once told him that the Gräfin had ordered a row with the largest, reddest roses that could be naturally grown. While Klaus considered most flowers rather pointless, he did respect the roses at Schloss Eberbach as a small legacy from the mother he had never had the time to get to know.
Annoyed, both with himself for not explaining properly and with the thief for not just understanding, Klaus took a deep breath and tried again. "Why do I have this room?" Yeah, yeah, so he acknowledged that the second master bedroom was "his", but hopefully the fop wouldn't make a scene.
Dorian twirled his hair some more. When he did answer he spoke slowly, as if thinking through the words even as he uttered them. "Because I wanted you to have a space for yourself in my life?" He tilted the very last words to a question, yet at the same time his voice was buoyed by an ever so faint hopefulness.
Finally they were getting somewhere! Still, that particular answer didn't belong to the question he had been trying to ask. "But why a second room? Why not--" He nodded his chin up past Dorian, towards the warm red and gold beyond.
"Oh! Sorry, I guess I'm slow on the uptake this time of night, my dear. But the answer is pretty much the same. Of course I would love to have you in my room. You are always welcome there." It was Dorian's turn to gesture vaguely. "The door remains closed only for as long as you want it to be. I just thought, well ... I was thinking about what you said, about you, about your ..."
"My frigidity?" Funny, the word was easier to say this time, when it came as no surprise to either of them.
Dorian nodded, looking relieved. "I love you, Klaus. I've told you that before and, well, last time we met I felt as if ... there might be some ... hope? For me? But I've thought for a long time that you might not always appreciate having me in your face day and night, even if we did get together. So I wanted to show you that it wouldn't have to be that way. You can have all the solitude you need and I will still love you. At this point, Klaus, I don't think I could stop loving you."
P and Q enjoyed reading, though their tastes varied. Q preferred fantasy novels and was rereading the Narnia series. He was currently on The Magician's Nephew - again. It was one of his favourite books in the series. P, on the other hand, mostly read non-fiction, though he had been known to browse a Sci-Fi novel or two. Currently he was half-way through a thin volume on obscure customs, since Major von dem Eberbach had often enough said that it was always good to know such things, as you never knew when you might run around a corner in high pursuit, only to find yourself in the middle of a crayfish party.
Both also suffered from insomnia, which was why they were still reading at this hour. Normally they would turn the lights out at one. Four hours of sleep was all they ever got and they might as well do something useful until they were tired enough to sleep, rather than to lie awake and do nothing. However, since they would get to sleep in a little, they had decided to stay up for a while longer. In a way it was a luxury.
Just as Aslan had shown up for the first time, Q smiled happily - that scene always moved him. However, he had yawned once already and felt another jawstretcher coming on. "You ready?" he asked.
"Ja, I think so. We are private enough, aren't we?"
"I wouldn't think anyone would enter here without knocking," Q replied and handed P his book. P had stood and now put both books on his bed.
Q lifted his blanket invitingly and P climbed in. After some shifting they lay with Q's back to the wall and P in his arms. Neither man were really looking for sex, not tonight, but just enjoyed lying together.
"They seem to be getting closer," P whispered.
Q felt no need to ask who "they" were. "Yes, they do," he said. "That's nice. Everyone should have someone to care for and who cares for them. It'll be interesting to see how this develops."
At this point, Klaus, I don't think I could stop loving you.
Frilly, foppish words of love and devotion. Nothing Klaus had ever needed nor sought. They weren't even what he had wanted to hear this night; not why he had asked about the sleeping arrangement. Still. The words weren't as tedious to hear as he might otherwise have assumed.
Then he spotted a loophole and frowned. "You had the room ready long before I was here last time."
"Well, hope springs eternal, as they say. You've always come across as a very private man, my dear. At first I just wanted to show you that I could respect that."
Klaus snorted. "So you're still interested, even though I've told you I'm abnormal?"
"Of cou-- Wait, I mean - of course I am! But you are normal, Klaus!"
"I'm not interested in sex!" Was Dorian mocking him? "That's not normal for a grown man!"
"At least you're socially acceptable," came the quiet answer. "And it's not as if you are a necrophile or into coprophilia."
"Coprophilia?" Klaus might be fluent in English, but sometimes the fop used words Klaus suspected he wouldn't have known even in German.
"You don't want to know."
Klaus rolled his eyes, but decided not to press for more information. Likely Dorian was right anyway and he wouldn't want to know. "I really need a fag - a cigarette, not a ... Oh, fuck it. Let's sit."
"Right you are. I'll get a chair and I can put it on this side of the door and then you can get a chair and you can--"
"Idiot! Get your arse inside. Consider my room a temporarily demilitarized zone." Klaus marched over to the small group of large armchairs and sat down, grabbed the packet of Seven Stars he had left on the table, shook one out and lit it. "Want one?"
"No, thanks." Dorian slowly made his way to the chairs, while looking around the room as if he had never been there before. Finally he settled gracefully into the chair next to Klaus, arranged his hands primly in his lap and leaned back, smiling faintly.
Klaus puffed smoke and studied his sometime-foe. It occurred to him that he seldom really looked at Dorian. That first time he met him, in the Schloss Eberbach Collection Hall, he had automatically taken stock of all identifying features. He might be shit at drawing, but he could have described the man well enough for a phantom image and he could have made a positive identification years later, even if fate hadn't thrown them together repeatedly since. He could have imitated the surprisingly dark voice, though he would have balked at the sometimes seductive, honey-laced tones.
During the years since that first meeting he had often enough been annoyed by the outrageous clothing; the flamboyant air and the leonine mane of useless, bouncy curls. All those things remained. Yet, in some ways the man had changed. The bright sheen of those intense eyes had never dulled, but had transformed into something stronger; from a near mindless need for the thrill of the hunt - a need Klaus knew well, though he had never hunted for art and beauty - to the sure strength of a man who no longer believed himself invincible, but who knew how to overcome obstacles and prevail.
Maybe they had both grown up a little, since that first day.
"At the Ritz? Why did you leave?"
Dorian, who had openly looked back at him, studying him without bashfulness, did a double take. "At the Ritz? Leave? Well, it was getting rather late, wasn't it? The Alphabet was coming the next day. You had to be up bright and early and--"
"Why didn't you fuck me?"
In a room in the opposite corner of House Gloria, G lay sleepless, staring at the ceiling. Occasionally a tear slipped down his cheekbones. When one splattered on his ear, he listlessly lifted a hand to wipe off the moistness.
"It's not as if I ever thought I'd have a chance with either of them, you know?" he said and sighed.
"I know," H replied. He lay in his favoured position, on his right side with his hands tucked under his chin.
"They are both far out of my league. I know that."
"I know." Though H's eyes were shut and he breathed with long, even breaths, he was far from asleep. He merely rested as efficiently as possible while still providing support to his depressed team member.
"I just never thought the major would actually give in to the Earl, you know?"
H nodded slowly, still without opening his eyes. "I know."
At first the words had no meaning. The question was too odd. Possibilities bounced across Dorian's mind as he tried to reformulate what he had heard into a question Klaus could possibly have asked. Finally, he latched on to what had actually happened. That was, after all, what Klaus must have asked about. Dorian had wondered if Klaus would bring up the taken liberty of that one, stolen kiss, so such a question made sense. He must simply be more tired than he thought, reading too much into the almost congenial attitude displayed by the man who watched him with such sharp, green eyes.
"Why I kissed you? Well, I do apologise, but you know I love you, and--"
"No, you deaf, idiot pea-brain. Why didn't you stay? Nightcap. Sex. Why didn't you fuck me?"
"Well, ah ... I? I was being, I was ... polite? Going? I kissed you because I thought that would, that the night would be, would be perfect if-- Staying? Ni-nightcap? Se ... x? I ... Ah ... It never, I-- Why-- Could I; would you, ah ..."
He was well aware that nothing he said made the slightest sense and that Klaus looked more and more annoyed by the moment. So he raised his hands in a "just wait a second" gesture and took a deep breath. Finally, he managed to gather his thoughts enough to form a coherent sentence.
"I honestly hadn't thought that to, that for me to ... stay might have been an option."
"No," said Josh. He gave his hand to N, who folded it over and spread the cards before collecting them again and discarding them.
John-Paul turned to M and challenged him with a superior smile. "Seems like the action is on you," he said.
"You're bluffing," M said, sounding sure of this fact. "I raise four bullets."
"Three bullets and two buttons," John-Paul countered and folded his cards to his chest. He then leaned back towards the wall. The six of them had pushed together M and N's beds and were sitting cross-legged on them, with the pot in the middle. O - claiming a sore back - and John-Paul had lucked out and sat against the wall. John-Paul counted the position as a point in his favour, since more than one of his opponents had already started to shift and stretch. "So ..." he said slowly, judging that it was time to rattle the Alphabets. "Interesting development, wouldn't you say?"
"What is?" said N, who looked intently at his cards as if he didn't quite know what to make of them.
"About the bosses. Your leader seems to be folding."
O dropping his cards was a far better reaction than John-Paul had hoped for.
Klaus nodded slowly. After having considered the evening in question for a long time, he had pretty much suspected as much. At first he had considered the possibility that the Earl might no longer be attracted to him physically - or at least not enough to follow through on his seduction routine. That theory had, however, only been briefly entertained. Though earlier, when Dorian had made that revolting "joke" about his "latest piece of fluff", the notion had swiftly - if briefly - resurfaced. For even if the Earl might accept that some parameter of his chase had irrevocably changed, he wasn't the type to give up fully - or ever. Not when things could still be achieved.
Good. He had wanted his hypothesis confirmed. Because ...
"What I said still goes," he warned. "It all feels pointless and I don't think it'll end anywhere near what you've been going on about."
Small, querying wrinkles appeared around the blue eyes so intent on his own. Obviously, Dorian didn't understand what he was trying to say - or perhaps didn't dare to understand the underlying meaning. Klaus breathed in quickly, then he forged on.
"You've been talking about endless love and blah-blah-blah, I don't know what. The way I see it, relationships are about mutual lust and a shard of friendship to keep two people together. I've told you that I can't give you the lust you want, but you don't seem to get that. The shard of friendship ... perhaps I could. I think you already have it."
Faint frown lines smoothed out as the Brit began to smile. Not widely, but in that supremely pleased way that usually made Klaus want to punch the living daylights out of the man. This is an extremely piss-poor, idiotic, fucking idea, he decided, and continued anyway.
"But that's all I can give in the long run. That's not enough."
"It is!" Dorian leaned forward and then reached out. Long fingers landed on Klaus's and caressed lightly upwards. Then his hand was squeezed softly. "It could be. We could make it work. I-- I understand that you're hesitant in regard to ... everything, but please don't dismiss the possibility out of hand. I know you're a passionate man, Klaus. You have shown me that in so many ways!"
"About my work; about my missions. Fine. But--"
"You're loyal to a fault, to your men and to Germany and to NATO. To your friends."
"I don't really have any. Friends. Never did. Acquaintances. Some guys I hung out with in the military, but I forgot them the minute I got transferred."
"You would kill for the Alphabet, wouldn't you?"
"Of course, but that's NATO business. It is my duty to care for my subordinates." That had absolutely nothing to do with things.
Dorian nodded seriously, but an infuriating softness in his eyes said that he disagreed.
"Work is work," Klaus said with determination. "You propose a ..." Suddenly, there was no word for him to use. A marriage - no, that was impossible. A couplesome? Was there even such a word? A coupling? No, that sounded much too much like sex. A ... "... relationship. That is different. I don't think I'm capable of handling a relationship."
His hand was lifted and one of Dorian's pushed in beneath it. Klaus knew he ought to hit the fop with his free hand, I'm leading him on, but he couldn't bring himself to move.
"I think you do," Dorian countered with equal determination. "You're not impotent and as for the sex-drive, well ... I could be flippant and say that I have enough for us both, but that would solve nothing, would it? But you have never tried. Maybe if you did try, start out slowly and built progressively? Maybe it would come to you."
"I doubt it works that way."
"But you don't know for sure, do you? So, what's the harm in trying?"
His hand was raised again, higher this time. Blond curls shimmered as if sprinkled with gold dust. Soft lips touched the sensitive skin on the back of his hands. Then the head almost in his lap lifted. Intense, blue eyes sought out his again.
"You know how persistent I am," Dorian said in a low, intimate tone. "We could make a deal. You give what you can give and I give all I've got. We'll make it succeed. Besides, you're Iron Klaus, aren't you? You always accomplish your mission, don't you? Please? What's the harm in trying?"
Use my weakness against me, will you? Bastard. "I could kill you," he then replied levelly. "By accident, if you touch me the wrong way when I sleep. How would you like to wake up with blood gushing down your throat to fill your lungs?"
Score! Dorian let go of his hand and quickly shifted back, eyes wide with alarm. Klaus had just about time to congratulate himself on winning an argument - finally! -, when Dorian leaned forward again and - Damn it all! - the bloody fop was smiling again.
"I'm not stupid, you know, Major," said the fiend, putting stress on the title used. "Yes, you could do that - if you were on edge. But you would never tie yourself to such a dangerous reflex if it couldn't be switched off when necessary. It's another damn song, isn't it?"
Klaus didn't answer.
"Come on, I know there's at least two of them. I've heard you hum them. Took me ages, I thought one of us was bonkers for sure, but they're more than lullabies, aren't they? They instruct your body how to sleep, don't they? And sometimes you know you might be awakened by stray touches. You can't kill people just because of that. True?"
Klaus shrugged. Damn that bloody limey for being too perceptive. Of course there was more than one song. "Whatever," he finally admitted.
"Here's my offer, then, Klaus. You promise to try not to kill me for accidental touches when we snuggle - and I haven't forgotten that we've slept in the same bed once already. In return I promise not to molest you in your sleep without proper warning in advance."
"I think I've mentioned this before, but when you call me an idiot, I see that as a positive answer."
"Good. Just so we are on the same page."
Then the Earl of Gloria shifted his chair closer, leaned in and kissed him. Klaus felt himself freeze up, not sure what he was expected to do . With an effort he began to move his lips along with Dorian's. Hands framed his face. Warm, smelling faintly of lavender. They caressed down his sideburns, then gently over his ears and into his hair. The kiss continued for a few seconds. Then Dorian opened his mouth, just a little. Something wet touched Klaus's lips and he jerked back. Dorian was pulled along, then withdrew.
For a moment they looked at one another. Then Klaus, feeling stupid about his reaction, half expected Dorian to say something. Which he did, eventually, but with no scorn, no ridicule.
"We won't go further tonight," he said. "A kiss. Two. Ten. A hundred. Whatever you want. How many you want. If you want them. Nothing else. Not tonight. Tomorrow is another day."
Morning in House Gloria. Z had had a nice enough night. He was military trained and had slept on hard floors and the cold ground far more times than he cared to remember. But there was some speck of degeneration deep within him which luxuriated in the wide, incredibly comfortable beds in House Gloria. He shared a room with Y, a quiet man who was good with mechanics and listening, but who only seldom said anything voluntarily. They had shared so often that Z no longer found the complete silence in the least bit daunting. They nodded Gute Nacht before the one closest to the light switch flicked it off, and they nodded Guten Morgen when first their eyes met after they woke up. Truth be told, Z often found the silence soothing. He widely preferred the calm to T babbling about his ex-wife or M about well-shaped ladies in general. On the rare occasions he shared with Major von dem Eberbach there had also been strict silence, but a far more strenuous one, as if something would snap at any moment.
The only problem with sleeping in House Gloria was, well ... that it was House Gloria. He had half expected to be woken up in the wee hours and ordered to help hiding a body. Sure, the Earl and the major had seemed unusually chummy the previous day, in that decidedly worrisome "Something will go wrong at any minute now"-way that Z knew much too well. Normally he associated the feeling with rare moments of peace just before the major realised that something the Earl had said really hadn't been as innocent as the major had thought. Sometimes Z reflected that the Major could be surprisingly naive. And then everything went to hell in a handbasket.
Breakfast was served at 07:30 sharp in the House Gloria dining room. The major had insisted on 06:00, but the Earl had said nineish. Eventually they had agreed on the middle time, mostly due to the Earl claiming the house to be grossly understaffed. If they wanted to eat any earlier, he had said, they would have to bring food in from a caterer. The major had, eventually, and most grudgingly, conceded. Z, for one, hadn't complained! To get to sleep in until seven during a mission was an unheard of luxury!
Z and Y walked to breakfast in companionable silence. On the way they picked up four more agents and two sleepy-looking thieves. In the dining room the meal was set up in hotel restaurant fashion, with baskets of bread, muffins and scones; large platters with different types of ham, scrambled eggs and cheese; grilled tomatoes and grilled kippers; small squares with butter; some chips; both tea (six different flavours) and coffee (and not just Nescafé either!); one bowl with various fruit, a second with grape slices and a third brimming with boiled eggs. Z took a plate and piled it up with food. Then he sat down by A, as he usually did. The older man had always been very nice to him, helping him to feel at home with the Alphabet and their capricious superior.
Who just entered side by side with the man who had, until very recently, been his arch-enemy (or one of his arch-enemies, anyway, Major von dem Eberbach was fully capable of keeping an entire rooster of arch-enemies). The major carefully carried a steaming Eberbach mug. He didn't even glance at the mounds of food, just marched to the head of the table and sat down, lifting the mug to his mouth without as much as putting it down first. Z was comforted that at least some things hadn't changed. Unless they were in a particular rush, the major always drank his coffee first, then ate before he, finally - drank some more coffee.
"So," Major von dem Eberbach then said. "What was that idea you said you had, Dorian?"
Further down the table R dropped a fork into his coffee, knocking the cup over and spilling the content onto S and T.
Z raised his eyes and met Y's. The man looked just as stunned as Z felt.
Lady Red's house was less luxurious than her sister's. Still, the building was well-shaped and looked nicely planned, with traces of Tudor. There was a nicely kept little garden surrounded by a high, blossom-girded hedge. So close to central London the place must have cost a sizeable sum.
Conrad and Heinz paused outside to study the lay of the land. Both agreed that while more modest the building was in better shape than the one they had visited the previous day.
Then they marched up to the house with Heinz in the lead. He lifted his hand to ring the tulip-shaped door bell, when they heard rapidly approaching steps. However, there was a certain lightness to the steps, rather than a pounding. They turned to look towards the side of the house. In another second a waist-height, blond figure in a red cape came into view. The cape and the curly hair was all they saw, as he had pivoted around the corner and now faced the direction he had come from.
"Ha! Ha, ha and ha! Ha, ha! Got you! Ha! And you! Ha!" The "ha"s were less laughter than some kind of sound effect. An abrupt twitch of the narrow shoulders under the cape also accompanied each "ha". "And you! Ha!"
Then the character pivoted back, leaped in their direction, obviously saw them, misstepped, fell and landed on its butt on the thick, white gravel. A long, black rapier slipped out of a small hand and bounced with a decidedly unmetallic crash. Large, very blue eyes stared at them for several seconds. Then the boy agilely got back on his feet, retrieved his weapon of choice and approached them with some suspicion. "Hallou, " he said.
"Hello there, child," Heinz replied. To smile kindly was easy. Not that he had ever allowed Klaus to wear such a flamboyant cape during his adventures - and the weapons Conrad had far too often confiscated tended to be real, smuggled out with great skill and determination from the Eberbach Armoury Collection. The sight still brought back fond memories.
"Hallou," was repeated.
"Do you live here, child?"
"Is your mother home? We wish to speak with her."
"My mother had to go away. But you don't mean my mother, do you? You mean my Auntie. I live here with my auntie. Auntie Elizabeth?"
Clever child, Heinz thought. "Yes, I meant Lady Red. That is your Aunt, yes?"
"Yes. Are you reporters? I'm not allowed to talk to reporters." The thick plastic rapier rose between them in warning.
Heinz gently parried with his walking stick. "We are not reporters, young man. Though you would do well to remember that advice. Reporters are never anything but trouble. If you give them an inch they'll take your whole hand."
The boy laughed brightly, eyes shimmering in mirth. He was an uncommonly beautiful child. "If you're not reporters, who are you? I'm not allowed to talk to strangers either." He rapped the walking stick lightly with his rapier, as if in challenge.
"That is also wise advice, young man," Heinz said and blocked another blow. "My name is Heinz, Graf von dem Eberbach. I come from--"
"Eberbach! Are you a very poor person?" The rapier withdrew and he was scrutinized in detail, as if the boy had never seen a very poor person before.
Heinz frowned. "Certainly not, young man. The Eberbach family is very well to do. We have holdings in many countries and an established family fortune. Why would you ask such a thing?"
"My aunts talked about you. I hid in the servant elevator." The rapier once more attacked the walking staff.
"About me? Oh, yes, about ... me. What did they say about me?"
"That you need money. I have almost 50 pounds in my piggy bank. But I always get money from my uncle when I need any. Unless uncle's James is there. They said you were out to trade money."
The walking stick's next impact with the rapier might have been slightly hard, but the boy took the blow gamely. Then he bashed the walking stick severely for its offence.
"I'm sure your aunties are mistaken. Do you remember their exact words?"
"Exactly? No. They said you would ... trade money roughly? No ... That you were! Yes, that's it! That you were rough trade for money! That's what they said! What does that mean? You don't trade money, you buy things for money. Uncle's James says that you can have the world itself if you have enough money. Uncle's James is strange, though."
Heinz was busy defending himself from the increasingly more aggressive rapier and formulating his next question, when the door to the house opened. A smartly dressed man in his forties observed the mock battle with reproach. The rapier was lowered.
"Master William, you better come inside. Sirs, how may I be of assistance?"
"We are here to see Lady Red."
Klaus waited, without much patience, while Dorian blotted his lips with a napkin.
"As we discussed yesterday," Dorian finally said, "you want to infiltrate Saleem's harem and learn what the girls know. They must have seen something. Saleem must know too, but he isn't telling."
"Stupid Arab probably thinks the bloody thing can be dealt with tomorrow or something fucking idiotic like that. Or else he's starting a bloody blood feud."
"That sounds like him. Anyways, since you cast doubts on my ability to sneak in under his radar--"
"The man'd make you with his back turned. Besides, he's already seen you in drag."
Dorian snorted and turned up his nose. "And since you think dear G wouldn't past muster either--"
"Not for more than five seconds. The bastard gets physical with his women - and quickly too. I've seen him. Disgusting! Like a horny dog surrounded by willing bitches!"
"And since you seem dead set against even a highly respectable kilt uniform, dear--"
"Showing knees is for little boys! Not for grown men!"
"--, though I would bet a Michelangelo that you would look extremely dashing that way, I do have something else in mind." Dorian turned towards the door. "Do come in, my dear."
"Rough trade!" Heinz grumbled as the cab wound its way back towards central London. This visit, too, had been a bust, as Lady Red had been off, visiting a relative. "Those women were calling our Klaus rough trade!"
"Outrageous," said Conrad, who wasn't quite certain what that term actually meant. "That boy was remarkably well-behaved for someone who has apparently grown up with such rude women."
Heinz had to smile. "My thoughts exactly. Quite a little charmer, wasn't he? Though he could use a haircut. But those women! Rough trade! This can't be tolerated! Granted, our Klaus might have a few rough edges, but we reared him ourselves! The boy's a gentleman!"
Butler-trained reflexes prevented Conrad from betraying his own sentiment on that particular subject with even a blink. "Of course, sir."
"Conrad? I've heard the term, but ... What does that actually mean? Rough trade?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well, whatever it is, it doesn't sound good! I will not have these Limeys call our good boy bad names!"
Klaus snorted. So, Dorian had realised that Klaus wasn't going to let him make a spectacle of himself and had therefore dressed up one of his thieves as a woman. Didn't he think that Klaus would recognize the man?
Pushing back his chair he stood. As he approached the transvestite he noted that the man looked rather uncomfortable and while the curves were roughly in place, he didn't give off a more feminine air than Dorian himself usually did. The blue skirt was pretty enough, though, if one liked that sort of things: clinging to the hips and showcasing long, narrow legs.
He turned back to Dorian. "This is your grand master plan? Saleem will see through this charade in four seconds flat! Look at these!" He gestured at the small protrusions on the dressed up thief's chest. "Besides, Saleem likes them top-heavy. You could at least have stuffed the front some more. This is hardly even a B-cup. And the lines are wrong! What did you use, cotton? They're supposed to be shaped more like this," he said and grabbed the rightmost bulge, intending to fluff it into proper shape.
Then he froze.
The thief squealed.
Klaus couldn't move.
"You know," said Dorian. "I'm starting to get a little jealous. Could you please let go of Jen's tit?"
"Mr. Wymer and I have had business together for years," Heinz explained as the cab took him and Conrad through London's dwindling streets. "A bone china company near Newcastle, one of my first more lucrative investments."
"I remember it well." They had drunk Schnapps to celebrate that too.
"Yes, well, Mr. Wymer's not a member of the aristocracy, but I'm fairly sure he'll be able to answer a few of our questions."
"Very good, sir. Since Mr. Wymer isn't directly involved I shall attempt to speak to his servants. They might have some additional insight."
Plan complete, they both leaned back in their seats, ready to get started.
Dorian stood in the hallway outside Klaus's room and knocked softly. He had tried twice already, with no success. "So, I have a transvestite in my gang. You have one too. I don't see why you should be so--"
The door was wrenched open. "That's a woman!" Klaus growled. He was briskly drying off his right hand. His shirt edge looked suspiciously wet, as if Klaus had been in a real hurry to wash himself.
"I am aware of that," said Dorian. "We just don't talk about it. Didn't the name give you a clue? Jen is short for Jennifer, you know. But Jen's actually transgender. That means--"
"I know bloody well what it fucking means!"
"Good. Then I'm sure you appreciate that it took me quite a bit of encouraging before Jen agreed to dress like a female. But I do think Saleem will be convinced, don't you? Even if he gets grabby. Like certain other persons whom I will not mention."
"I thought it was cotton!"
"Yes, yes, likely story." Dorian made honking motions with both hands. "Herr A has told me how--"
"I did! I had no idea!"
Klaus was looking rather wild-eyed, so Dorian decided to relent. He walked up to him, put his hands on the man's hips and leaned in for a kiss. The lips under his were tense, but accepted his attention. During the night they hadn't exchanged a hundred kisses - or even fifty. Actually more like seven. The ones exchanged had been delightful, though, and he most definitely wanted thousands.
"It's fine," he said and traced a line of kisses up Klaus's neck. "I'm just yanking your chain. Of course I understand. Everything's fine."
As long as Klaus allowed him to touch, everything was fine in Dorian's world.
"I sent Jen off to infiltrate Saleem. Jen's one of my best, actually. Very competent. I'm sure it'll work out well." He pressed closer and batted his eyes, mostly hoping to tease Klaus out of his annoyance. "You're not angry with me, are you?"
Klaus snorted. "I'm pissed with myself. I should have seen. You're bad for me. You make me lose my edge."
Alarmed, Dorian withdrew. That sounded potentially extremely ominous.
Klaus eyes, however, were not cold as Dorian for a second had feared to find them. Instead of renouncing their budding relationship, the German shrugged. "Keeping my head around you will be a challenge. I must smarten up." Then the corners of his lips twitched upwards. "I like a good challenge."
Bonn. NATO Headquarters. Alphabet's room.
The five Alphabets remaining in Germany might not be working quite as diligently as their superior would have approved of, but then again, they very seldom did even when he was present. Possibly they took his absence as an opportunity to laze about just a little. Still, they were all working, when D's phone rang.
D, senior Alphabet and thus in charge, quickly lifted the phone. Major von dem Eberbach was in the habit of calling in to check on them at uneven intervals and he expected the phone to be answered promptly.
"It's me, H. I can't speak long. Are I and J there?"
"Sure. U and V as well."
"Good. Put me on speaker."
D waved everyone over and switched on the speaker. The others, who had paused to hear who called - all of them fearful to find out if it was the major and if he was on his way back, perhaps even in the lobby already - quickly surrounded his desk. "They're listening."
"I can't speak long. I? It's on! It's happening!"
"Are you sure?"
"Almost! You should see them! Major von dem Eberbach is using Eroica's first name and they sit together and the major hasn't hit him even once! B swears he saw the major touch Eroica's back once!"
U and V began to whisper amongst themselves in excited tones. J reached for the nearest phone, the one on C's desk. "I'm calling the team in Switzerland," he announced.
"But you have no positive proof yet?" I asked. At some point the agents had assigned him to be the official -though, of course, unofficial- information collector on the von dem Eberbach-Red situation. At the moment he was very frustrated at not having been chosen among the men selected for the London assignment.
"No," H answered. "I'll keep you posted. I must go now, we're about to move." Then he disconnected.
D hung up. The five men shared meaningful looks. All of them were smiling.
"Mr. Wymer told me that a Lady Dross is holding a ball tonight," Heinz said. "Everyone who is anyone will be there. If Countess Disken moves in society she might very well participate. Mr. Wymer had an invitation and was kind enough to give it to me. He has accepted, but doesn't really want to go. I must use his name, of course, but we're similar enough that I doubt an usher will make a scene. Do I have suitable clothes with me?"
"Certainly. Since I knew that you would visit noblesse I told Fräulein Karger to pack with this in mind. I noticed a tuxedo in the large green bag."
"Excellent, Conrad. I knew I could trust you. You're a gem. Did the servants have any information?"
Conrad hesitated. "Well, it appears that there recently was a bit of a scandal surrounding Lord Gloria. He was falsely accused of some crime. And currently there is another one brewing regarding Countess Disken and their mother, the late Dowager Countess Gloria. The city's all abuzz with rumours, everything from Countess Disken poisoning the Dowager Countess to the Dowager Countess dying from shame due to something Countess Disken said regarding Lord Gloria. Ah ... I heard plenty of gossip about Lord Gloria as well. Nothing else criminal, more about him being ..." He couldn't just come out and say that the man appeared to be "Light enough in his loafers to climb Everest without a Sherpa, if you catch my drift, eh?" and madly in love with their Klaus. "... somewhat eccentric and notoriously interested in art and beauty."
Heinz grunted. "Any word about Countess Disken and our Klaus?"
"Not about our Klaus and Countess Disken, no. They ... did link his name to Lord Gloria, though."
"Oh? Well, as I said before, he must have introduced Klaus to that woman. Bad form, that. She's his sister, the man ought to know she's a gold digger. Still, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he will also be at the ball."
"We have received Intel that a new assassination attempt will be made tonight. And your ... man ... reported that Saleem's been invited to some fucking ball," Klaus said, frowning.
"Lady Dross has always been terribly fond of hosting events. She arranges balls at least three times a year. She'd do it more often if she could afford to, but it's a bit of an open secret in society that, well ... The family fortune is dwindling. Nothing noticeable to outsiders, mind you, she keeps up appearance." Dorian noticed Klaus looking at him blankly, but kept going. "Still, her balls are most popular, some of the highlights of any season. She always features some visiting dignitary, but also always has some surprise planned, be it an exotic animal, a circus act or whatnot. I'll never forget, and this is quite amusing, one year she even--"
"A simple 'yes' would have done. How's the security? Do you have the blueprints?"
"Seriously, Klaus - I haven't broken into every estate in London. Besides, her son was two years below me at Eton. "Fammy" we used to call him. Sickly boy, broke his bones left and right as I recall it. Lady Dross was an old acquaintance of my mother; I saw her at the funeral. Our families visited on occasion. I get invited to all her balls. I've gone a handful of times, mostly when friends of mine--" Boyfriends, though temporarily such. "--expressed an interest in participating. I don't keep track of all affairs I'm invited to, but I would be sorely surprised if I don't have an invitation to tonight's event hiding somewhere. Normally my butler would have reminded me to send a declination, but, well, you know the situation. I haven't accepted either, but that never is a problem, not for me. Someone must have put all envelopes somewhere. I'll ask Bonham if he knows where they are, but I'm sure he does."
"Whatever. Is there anything in that wardrobe in my room that I can actually wear to a ball? You said my tux was ruined."
Again, Dorian felt a warm thrill at having Klaus refer to the room as his. He didn't let it show. "The wardrobe should be stored with all basic necessities, so there should be." An idea occurred to him. "Want me to help you change?"
Klaus threw him an annoyed glare. "I can get dressed by myself."
"I'm sure you can, darling. I was more thinking of helping you get out of the clothes you are currently wearing."
Klaus privately thought he reacted well to Dorian's clothes of choice for a large society function ball. "You look like a plum which a bird has shat on," he finally said.
The sharp look he received amused him.
"Philistine," Dorian said with a snort, then turned up his nose and walked past him towards the entrance of Lady Dross's oh so humble home.
"Idiot," Klaus answered gamely. He felt like a penguin himself. Surprisingly though, the outfit found in the vast wardrobe hadn't been too gaudy.
"The Earl of Gloria," he heard Dorian announce to the usher as he handed over his invitation. "With companion."
Which would be me. Fuck, how did I get myself into this mess? We're going to a fucking dance together. What's next? Will I pull his hair and ask him "Willst du mit mir gehen?" Or a bloody movie and making out in the back seat?
It wasn't even just "a dance". It was a bloody ball and he was going with the man prone to be voted "Most likely to be seen in any crowd, including in a circus". He was introduced as Dorian's "companion". If only to an usher, but still. Everyone knew what a "companion" meant. At least when the companion in question accompanied a flamboyant dandy like Dorian. Dorian had no doubt brought boytoys to previous events.
But it wasn't a real date or anything! It really is for a mission, Klaus reprimanded himself sternly. Now you are going to go in there and you are going to stay by his side and you are going to smile and you are going to catch that bloody killer before that fucking Arab gets himself offed.
Then they were inside. Dorian had spent considerable time chatting with Lady Dross over the phone. Apparently he had charmed her since childhood and she hadn't hesitated to agree to help. She had already let in a few Alphabets, disguised as waiters. More would join as guests during the event. Klaus would have preferred to go as a waiter himself, but on being informed of this fact Dorian had gone temporarily deaf. So Klaus had found himself dressed up penguin-style and escorted, first to House Dross and then inside. Where people stared at him left and right and gossiped to high heaven about him being there with a man!
No, they're not, you're just being stupid and paranoid. If anything, they're staring and gossiping about the peacock you're with. Not about you. If anything, half of them probably would like to trade places with me, so they could get into Herr Peacock's pants.
Dorian, who - Sigh, when doesn't he? - primped around, gaily being the centre of attention and gracing one cluster of people after another with his brightness. Klaus allowed himself to be swept along, paying scant attention to his immediate surroundings as he instead scanned the layout of the hall, noting various Alphabets and trying to kick-start his sixth sense into alerting for any danger.
So far, nothing.
A hand brushed his and he turned towards Dorian, who chatted with a bloated mademoiselle who looked like a velvet blueberry.
"This is Lady Dross, Klaus. My lady, my companion, Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach."
"Oh - military, how charming!"
She held out her hand, palm vaguely downwards. Klaus - who had been drilled for many a long, boring hour on how to respond - automatically took the offered appendage and bent over the heavily veined flesh. The act always made his skin crawl, but tradition was there for a reason and this one had been engraved in him from an early age. Besides, the old biddy could get them all thrown out if displeased. Klaus might not be the politest man in existence, but he would do anything to accomplish his mission, even smarming up to such a woman. He smiled stiffly while she and Dorian chatted, but after a few minutes he nudged Dorian that it was high time to move on.
"Saleem is expected to arrive about now. Until he shows up we should blend in with the other guests."
So they circulated at a leisurely pace as Klaus took stock of the already arrived guests and familiarized himself with the surroundings. He also cursed Saleem for taking Lady Dross up on her invitation. House Dross was a security nightmare. Anyone could get in. There weren't even any metal detectors. Luckily the layout was fairly open and not completely impossible to keep track of. At least eight meters to the ceiling. An elegant staircase led up to the uppermost floor - wide at the bottom, narrow in the middle to swell again towards the top. White marble pillars lined the very sides of the room - ornamental only, presumably, not holding up the ceiling, but with enough space around them for someone to play hide and seek. Same thing with the large marble urns with various flower arrangements in all the colours of the rainbow. In one corner a long-haired man hammered on a huge, black piano, looking half stoned. Beside him loitered two flute players, a clarinet player and two violinists.
X, carrying a tray with bubbly, approached them. Dorian took one of the crystal glasses and lifted it to his lips. Klaus also took one. He would hold on to it for a while - also lift it occasionally, but without drinking. He would not risk getting drunk on a mission. He had done that once already, which was unforgivable, with Mischa in Spain. Afterwards he had sworn that that time must be the last.
"Report," he muttered.
"We have covered all entry points. Nothing suspicious so far, sir, but this is not a secure area."
Klaus snorted. By lifting his drink, he signalled that X should resume circulating. Of course the area isn't bloody secure. It is a fucking security nightmare!
"Here comes the Desert Stallion," Dorian said sotto voce.
Klaus turned towards the door. Oh yes. There came the Arab, all right. In some demented show of respect he had limited his harem to only a modest four women. None of them half-nude, but all scantily dressed for a fancy ball. One of them wore a white gauze bandage on her upper right arm. All four cosied up to Saleem as the man deigned to kiss Lady Dross's hand. Klaus wanted to shudder - and if F even hinted at a second hand kiss through Lady Dross Klaus wouldn't just send the man to Alaska, he would send him to fucking Siberia. Their undercover agent with the KGB - codename Pink Ant Eater - was due to be relieved anyway. It disgusted him to see Saleem lean in close to Lady Dross and apparently say something that made the old dame giggle and blush like a school girl. Did the man have no shame? The woman could be his grandmother!
"Should we move away so he doesn't see you?" Dorian asked.
"Nein. He might distrust NATO, but he can complain to Fatso all he likes. You have the invitation and Lady Dross knows the score. He can't get us thrown out. Fuck that wanker."
"I would really rather not, dear. The man's a buffoon! No sense of artistic beauty at all." The latter words spoken with great determination and revulsion, as if that was the worst possible crime.
Klaus nodded, more for the buffoon sentiment than for the artistic bullshit.
Then Saleem saw them. He actually misstepped, his eyes went wide and one hand slipped over one of his hanger-on women's titties. Then he marched towards them, leaving his entourage behind with his long-legged gait. He stopped before them, looking from one to the other, before addressing Klaus.
"So, you let the queer catch you at last?"
Perhaps it looked that way. And perhaps he had. But never mind. "The fop's nothing but a convenient way to get inside," he said, allowing his annoyance to bleed into his voice and let Saleem read whatever he wanted into the tone. Klaus wasn't concerned about Dorian actually believing the words. Dorian was smart - for a Brit - and he would know that Klaus wasn't just using him that way. Besides, if Klaus actually had been doing just that, he would never have been so blunt right in front of him.
Saleem's right eyebrow rose. "What's his price for escorting you here, then? Are you spreading your thighs for NATO?"
The women had finally caught up with their sheikh. Now they tittered and glanced between Klaus and Dorian. The one with the gauze in particular looked as if she envisioned that scenario right then and there.
Klaus, on the other hand, envisioned an uppercut to the smirking Arab's chin - or perhaps a quick foot to the man's groin. He was torn between the tempting options and his duty to NATO. Wanker!
"So crude, Saleem," Dorian broke in. "Sadly, that option was never on the bargaining table. I will get a certain painting instead. One I think you might remember."
Saleem pulled back his head and if looks could have killed Dorian would have been severely wounded. Klaus watched the men's interaction with interest. Somewhat to his surprise it was Saleem who finally turned away from Dorian's triumphant gaze. "By Allah's will I will find the man who shot at my doves," he told Klaus. "Don't get into my way!" Then he started to lead away his mini-harem.
"What was that about?" Klaus asked once the man got out of hearing range.
"Nothing, really. Saleem and I had a discussion about a certain painting a while back. I let him think I got it, that's all." Dorian lifted an eyebrow. "Or would you have preferred if I let him believe that your virtue is negotiable?"
Klaus snorted. "We must circulate. I must keep everything in check."
While he looked around he let Dorian decide in which direction they moved. Dorian spoke to guests and easily took up any slack Klaus gave in his surveillance. As they walked, the evening's entertainment started. Lady Dross had engaged a group of professional dancers to show the guests the steps. Two pairs instructed while two others showed off. Klaus identified the dance as vaguely Spanish.
Twenty minutes later Klaus shook his head in annoyance. "Mein Gott, the Arab could just have painted a target on his fucking back and sat down on the stairs outside. That assassin could be bloody well anywhere!"
Dorian mouthed his champagne. He too had drunk sparingly, presumably also wanting to keep a clear head. Suddenly he started to cough. Thinking that the sparkly had gone down wrong Klaus lifted a fist and prepared to whack the other on the back. A hand was held up, stopping him. "No," Dorian said, then continued to cough a couple of times. "Well, I mean - yes, but no. They're dancing over there."
Klaus stopped scanning the crowd and blinked, then quickly turned. The dancing exhibition continued. A blue and a golden couple now instructed, while a black and a green one danced. It was the last pair which had caught his full attention.
The killers were, indeed, dancing over there.
Effortless elegance. Two bodies moving as if directed by a single mind. Never a missed beat; never a hesitation. Legs moving, skirt billowing, ridiculously long scarf fluttering. Expressionless faces gazing over the partner's shoulder at nothing at all. As much emotion as animated dolls - eerie, but standard for professional dancers. Klaus had seen the like before. The petite woman's head hung back as if her neck lacked support; as if she actually was a doll in the large man's arm. Despite her otherworldly gaze she never made a move out of step, apparently trusting her partner utterly.
A twirl and a hop and a lift and a skip - and like the sun coming out - the leading partner smiled. Blindingly so and his face transformed, showing so much love that girls in the audience gasped with envy. Perhaps the expression especially captivated them since the man was - supposedly - a professional dancer, who shouldn't show such emotion as not to distract the viewers from his moves. Klaus could just about hear the females in the audience think, How that man must love that girl, to smile so against all rules!
Klaus found dancing rather pointless. Still, even he must admire the skill displayed. The nearness between the bodies, flowing together in a socially accepted parody of intercourse, somehow loaded with simmering passion and boundless love.
And all of it. Every single bit of it. Every move; every expression; every shared look. A lie.
It wasn't even a man and a woman dancing.
Well, perhaps not everything was a lie. There was a nearness there that bespoke an intimate knowledge of one another's bodies. Only - not from sex. At least Klaus sincerely doubted the possibility. But he had seen the smaller partner in the larger's lap, sleeping as content as a petted kitten and with just as little concern about possible sexual connotations.
And the smile - so bright and warm and unexpected. It had been nothing but the most carefully taught expression, deemed suitable for the occasion, to distract the onlookers and deepen the illusion of a couple deeply in love. Klaus even doubted the taller partner capable of feeling such strong emotion.
Whatever else he was, Lutz Black was not a passionate man.
"This is wrong," Klaus muttered, just loud enough for Dorian to hear. "We have reliable information about the killer. He is supposed to be a man named Kal Henderson. We have a folder on him dating back to 1958."
"Far from be it my place to cast doubt on NATO's skill as an information gatherer, my dear," Dorian answered. "But fact remains that I am seeing relatives of mine over there, pretending to be professional dancers - and doing a fair job of it too, look at that lift there - expert! Unless they have taken this up as some sort of hobby - which I judge highly unlikely - something smells funny."
"Agreed. They are here for something and it is not to teach some high and mighties to do the fucking tango. We can't arrest them, though, there is no outstanding warrant. At least that explains the sleeping gas. I'll inform the 'bet." He clicked on the sender on his wrist and spoke into it. "Index here. Highest alert. The green dancers."
As he spoke he felt Dorian's hand touch the small of his back. When he lowered his wrist, the hand patted him once.
"They won't hurt me without reason. Shall I try talking to them?"
They had already been seen. Lutz's eyes - pale like water just before it turns to ice - had repeatedly traversed the entire room. While they remained half-slitted as if the man concentrated completely on the dance and the "woman" in his arms, Klaus had no doubt that both Lutz and the murg -Raphael? Gabriel? Pointless even to guess. - took full stock of everyone in the area. For all Klaus knew the murg might even occasionally lead the fancy steps, leaving the older brother free to surveil. The unofficial national sport of Black, Tower Bandy, relied on half of each team steering the blindfolded partner by a hand to the shoulder. If the murg could control his brother thusly while in a flat-out run, then a tango or whatever they did should be a piece of cake.
Just then, the dance ended. Each pair exchanged bows and curtsies. Then arms were ritually offered and accepted. The couples walked away from the floor, presumably for a pause. A red and a golden pair took their place and the music started up again, a little quicker this time.
Klaus still watched the retreating figures. For a moment he was struck by the height difference between the murg and its brother. During the dance he had seen a tall man and a petite woman. For a moment though - but no longer - he saw a medium-height "woman" and a giant.
A number of questions demanded answers. What would the presence of the Black brothers alter? What were they planning? Killing Saleem? If so, how did they plan on doing it?
Damn everything to hell! He must get Saleem out of there, snotty wanker or not.
"Go after them," he ordered.
But before Dorian had time to take more than a step, the first shot rang out.
The bang was muffled, but Dorian hadn't spent the last years pursuing a gun maniac without learning the difference between a popped champagne bottle and a rifle shot.
But they just left the room!
Another muffled bang and a woman started to scream.
Klaus studied the ceiling, turning his head this way and that. His Magnum had materialised in his hand, but he didn't appear to aim it anywhere yet.
"Second story," Klaus then growled. "Get Saleem--"
"--out of here!"
"Yes, but do be--"
Klaus already rushed towards the door Lutz and the murg had disappeared through.
"--careful," Dorian finished.
Fighting an urge to follow Klaus he turned and dashed towards the protection of a marble pillar. Not that he thought that his cousins would hurt him. Still, he wasn't completely convinced about the brothers' guilt. Yes, they were assassins and they were, undoubtedly, present. But the first attempt had failed. And not due to a daring rescue, courtesy of his beloved major. The latter he would have bought, in an immovable object up against an irresistible force kind of way. But apparently the shooter had, simply, missed. That was highly unprofessional and unthinkable for a shooter of Lutz's or a murg's calibre! While not particularly talented in the field himself - oh, all right then, he stunk - he had seen the brothers train. On one memorable occasion they had done so blindfolded, using a similar sort of sound-based aiming system as used for shooting for the visually impaired. So ...
A rather worrisome idea occurred to Dorian. Perhaps the brothers' presence was owed to the assassin, rather than the assassination. He knew that the brothers - and Lutz especially - were used as some kind of boogie men in criminal circles. "Behave or Lucifer'll get you." Perhaps this was some sort of shake down of the underworld. The brothers might be there to take out the assassin. If so, the shooter himself would have no reason to avoid hitting Dorian. The Blacks would avenge him, sure, but Dorian didn't want to be avenged. Dorian wanted to be alive.
He wished he could have shared his thoughts with Klaus. He also wished he could run after him, to help him with whatever needed doing. Just to see that everything was all right. But that was neither here nor there. As he worked his way towards where Saleem lay half-hidden under his harem, worry tore at him. What if Klaus gets wounded, even--
He told himself sternly not to be silly, that nothing had changed - that nothing likely ever would change in this regard. Not for many years, anyway. Klaus would leap like a happy dolphin into dangerous situations until the day he was retired - and likely beyond, if Dorian knew the man. Short of kidnapping him and tying him to Dorian's bed - not a bad idea in itself, mind you, and possibly an option worth considering if Klaus refused to take vacations in the future - there was nothing that could be done about it.
Luckily, Klaus was really more of a killer whale than a sweet dolphin. The man could take care of himself. Or so Dorian hoped.
Torn between wanting to reach the second floor, to deal with the shooter, and common sense, which told him that Lutz with brother must have something to do with what had happened, Klaus was glad he had previously scoped out the route he now followed. At the end of the twisting corridor a stair would lead to the first floor.
There was no time to wait for the Alphabets - Where are the lazy sobs anyway, napping? - so he pushed forward, gun aimed at chest-height; eyes and ears at highest attention.
The corridor turned and he quickly scanned the new area. Several doors, all to the right. The first one with a sliver of light shining through to the side. Obviously a trap. Or coincidence? Or neither. The assassins he sought might have gone through and in their haste had not managed to fully close the door.
A sound - Click. - came from further down the corridor. Another trap? A board setting in a wall panel? Or someone shifting his weight.
No dust on the floor, so no visible footprints. As to be expected of a high-class residence, sure. Still a bloody nuisance in these situations.
The brothers might have continued down the corridor, so all rooms were empty or had servants in them, cleaning or whatever. Or the Blacks could be hiding, waiting for him. if he continued they might - or might not - jump out after him.
Damn it! Where are those 'bets? I don't have time to wait!
A split second later he heard the sound again. This time he located the origin as one of the last doors before the corridor turned out of sight. Repetitive sound - a trap, surely? Or something completely harmless. A servant, cleaning. Two servants, fucking. Whatever. The Black brothers were professionals - they would not make that much noise. Not if they were hiding. But it might be a trap ...
Better safe than sorry and to have checked the first room needlessly. If he did, at least the 'bet would have time to catch up with him. Klaus went for the slightly opened door. He could be wrong, but then, that's the nature of the game. He really had no time to ponder matters. Mind made up and Magnum levelled, he pushed open the door.
The first thing he saw on stepping inside was the tall figure standing motionless by the window, looking back at him with blank disinterest. Lutz and--
And that was when a weight pummelled into him from behind, making him stumble forth.
Dorian reached Saleem in time to note that the four harem ladies had the situation well in hand. One had been wounded - judged by the relative lack of blood, the bullet must have only burned her skin on passing through her shoulder pad. Another woman showed Saleem how a bullet had ripped her miniscule purse. Saleem himself sat leaning against a marble pillow. The third lady - she must have thrown herself over him to protect him bodily. Saleem, for his part, looked shell-shocked, but fussed over each woman equally.
Since no further shots had been fired and Saleem was currently in a protected area, Dorian opted to stay put, rather than to get back out into the open.
That no more shots had been fired actually worried him.
Come on, Klaus! What is going on?
Before he had time to fire claws sharper than razors settled over his throat, icy cold against his skin. Three grams of pressure, Klaus knew that all to well. Three grams was all it would take. "A gnat can land on your finger," Baal had explained. "But if it presses down, that's all she wrote." Then the scalpel-like blades would break skin and slice right through the vein pulsing beneath. He'd bleed out on the floor before he'd even fired a shot. Klaus kept still.
Behind him, the door closed with a click.
Before him, Lucifer Black, dressed in form-fitting, glittering green, moved the corners of his lips back into a smile. "Hello," he said. Then the smile dropped. "Don't scream."
"Hello," Klaus replied, keeping his voice down. He didn't scream. Not because he was terrified by the prospect of abrupt, wet death, but because a) screaming would accomplish nothing and b) since the Black brothers hadn't killed him yet there was a good chance that they didn't plan to. He didn't mind taking risks, but to invite needless death was plain stupid.
"Hello," said the murg and leaned into Klaus's field of vision. It smiled too, but unlike its brother, it managed an expression that looked completely natural. Only its eyes drooped some, as if it felt sleepy.
He, Klaus corrected himself. Not an it. It's a he. He's a he. Whatever.
Currently dressed more like a 'she', but that was merely an assumed role. The face was fairly androgynous though, with smooth features; clear, blue eyes, and white flaxen hair, flowing down to the shoulders. Far longer than he remembered from visiting the country of Black, but then, that was a few months past now.
"I hope you are well," said Lutz, tilting his head slightly and opening his eyes a little wider in a question.
As long as your brother's claws don't slip, Klaus thought. They weren't actual claws, of course. Merely an interesting arrangement of slivers of sharp metal running down the inside of the fingers. Deadly as any large predator's claws, though. "I'm fine," he said. "What happens now?"
Lutz turned his eyes to the murg and waited.
The murg blinked once and looked confused.
Dorian watched, slightly disgusted, at how Saleem fawned over the women - especially the more recently injured one. He understood enough of the rapid Arabic to get the gist of how Saleem called them his beloved little doves; his brave kittens and so on and so forth. In between he also made a series of interesting threats towards whoever had ordered him to be assassinated.
A group of Alphabets were back in the main hall. Together with the guards they herded the remaining guests out of the building. Lady Dross helped them even though she cried continuously. Dorian made a mental note to write her in the morning, saying that he had enjoyed himself immensely. That he couldn't wait to see what she had thought up for her next party.
That is, as long as Klaus came back without a scratch. Dorian did realise that these things could take some time, but ... He started to get very nervous.
Then he noticed a movement along the side of the room. A man walked towards him, against the general stream. Not anyone he knew, yet the man looked oddly familiar.
"You are here to stop Saleem from getting killed, right?" asked the murg.
Klaus didn't nod, as to do so would require an ambulance on stand-by at the very least - if not a hearse. "Ja."
He was smiled at brightly. "Well, then we really don't have a problem. You see, he won't get killed."
"How come? You are here. Are you not here for him? Are you here for the assassin, then? Kal Henderson? Are you also protecting Saleem from him?"
"Ah, no, not as such," said the murg. With its unoccupied hand it scratched lightly under its fall of semi-white hair. The blades at Klaus's throat shifted. "You smell good. Lutz, can I tell him? About Kal? I think that would be easiest, really. And he's almost like family, isn't he? Through cousin Dorian?" Lashes batted towards the big brother. "Please? Love you bunches and bunches?"
Lutz's head tilted some more. Finally he nodded. Then he looked Klaus in the eyes and fucking meowed! Klaus hated being meowed at.
"Goodie good!" said the murg. Then it lowered its hand from Klaus's neck. "Kal was a nice man. A bit set in his ways and stubborn as a red goat, but I liked him. He was our guest for well over a month. I think he would have done well in our family. But he is dead now. These hands killed him." Hands were raised and fingers fluttered. For some reason Klaus got the impression that "these hands" really were the raised appendages in question, rather than those of some other murg, which otherwise could have been the case. "We use his name for special work. Also, Saleem knows us and if he knew it was us he would try to get us to tell him who hired us."
With the scalpel blades no longer pressed against his throat, Klaus felt reasonably sure he could get a shot off, if necessary. He'd have to be quick, though, and one shot would be all he got. The murg might have lowered his hand, but the "claws" were still close enough to gut Klaus within a second if he moved unexpectedly. For a little while yet, though, he was willing to listen.
"What do you mean by 'special work'?"
The murg glanced up at its big brother again. Lutz merely looked back. He appeared faintly bored. "Failing," the Murg finally confided. "Raphael shot to miss."
A distinct headache began to burn behind Klaus's right eye. "Why?"
"They wanted to impress Saleem, of course. So that they could be all brave and save him and he would like them best and not flirt as much as he does."
Klaus felt an almost overwhelming need to forcefully introduce his forehead to a wall. Repeatedly. "So the wanker was never in any danger?"
"Of course not."
He really would bang his head against a wall. Repeatedly. But not right now. "And why this get-up? Why are you dressed as dancers?"
The murg finally pulled away. It pirouetted, making the long dress flutter about, then fell backwards onto it's brother's lap. "Amn't I pretty?"
"'Aren't I, for some reason. I hate the English language. And I've seldom seen anyone so colourful. But why are you dressed up?" He was now the only one aiming a weapon. A fact that didn't seem to bother the brothers in the least. Very annoying.
Gabriel smiled sunnily.
"Raphael is dressed just like me. We'll do the switch and split. Two persons look the same, both go in at different times and both go out at different times. No one will realise. I don't have any gun powder residue. Easy pie! We do that all the time."
Klaus nodded slowly. "Smart. I get it. Are you done shooting at the git?"
"At least for now. They only paid for two attempts to start with."
"And all of them are in on it? The entire bloody harem?"
"Jopp." Which, Klaus knew, meant "yes".
Making sure that the gestures were non-threatening, Klaus holstered his Magnum and scratched his right eyebrow.
"Right. Fine. Whatever. Then I can leave His Highness to his messed up sex life and get on with some real work. Oh, and if the bints want to try this crazy shenanigan again, tell Raphael from me that he really doesn't have to miss completely. A little flesh wound never hurt anyone."
The man really did look familiar. Something about that strong nose; that narrow, long face and those large eyes with disproportionally small irises. Something ...
The stranger had reached Dorian. He studied him with inscrutable eyes. His posture was straight; his bearing impeccable. Then he bowed. The move was barely more than a few degrees of angling the neck. Dorian all but expected to hear the sounds of heels clicking together. Then the man straightened. He was about Dorian's height, perhaps an inch or so taller.
"You are Dorian Red, the Earl of Gloria," was stated, in a clear, clipped, German accent.
"Correct. You have me at a disadvantage, sir. I'm afraid I do not know who you are."
"Heinz von dem Eberbach. I believe you know my son."
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