House Of Cards by Margaret Price
Summary:

After twenty-five years of resisting Eroica's advances, Klaus finally gives in, only to have the Earl drop a bombshell that convinces the Major that the world he knew ended without his knowledge and was replaced with a cruel parody. Nobody breathe or the house of cards will collapse.

Spoilers: Through “Emperor Waltz” with references to the hiatus after that story.


Characters: A, B, Bonham, Dorian, G, James, Jones, Klaus, The Chief, Z
Genres: Action/Adventure, Alternate Universe, Crack, Drama, First Time, Hurt/Comfort
Warnings: graphic violence
Challenges: None
Series: Stories That Don't Fit Anywhere Else
Chapters: 36 Completed: Yes Word count: 70980 Read: 406111 Published: 19/04/2007 Updated: 19/04/2007
Story Notes:

Category: CIA!Dorian, OutOfTheCloset!Klaus

Disclaimer: Not only are the Eroica characters not mine, neither are the plot bunnies that inspired all this. The CIA Directors and NATO Command personnel mentioned herein actually are real. No disrespect is intended to these individuals. Their depicted actions are purely the result of my twisted imagination.

Notes: This story would not exist at all if Yoiko had not written "More Than Meets The Eye." With her kind permission, I have melded versions One and Two, incorporating them into the Prologue.

Next, I must thank Filigree, whose fledging story "Honour Among Thieves," -- which was abandoned in 2002, and which she kindly allowed me to adopt and (totally) rework -- formed the basis for what is now "House of Cards." The incorporated material ends at the conclusion of chapter four.

Thanks: Jim for fight coordination and putting up with his Mom running eleventy billion plot ideas by him. K.M.Anderson for information about the Washington D.C. area. Library Ninja The Hunter for the proper way to store archived documents. Esther and Riothouse for their patience for 5 months while I bounced bizarre plot ideas around, for their input and critiques of said ideas, and for beta reading.

Warnings: AU, violence, fist fights, angst, guns, bombs, terrorists, and spy stuff, plot twists, crack-humor moments, a world tour, planes, boats, and other seagoing vessels, exotic locations, and other surprises.

1. Not In The Cards by Margaret Price

2. Wild Card by Margaret Price

3. Ace Up Your Sleeve by Margaret Price

4. Go Fish by Margaret Price

5. Raising The Stakes by Margaret Price

6. Wrong Signals by Margaret Price

7. Two Of A Kind by Margaret Price

8. Raise, Call, Or Fold by Margaret Price

9. Cards On The Table by Margaret Price

10. Ante Up by Margaret Price

11. Mechanic by Margaret Price

12. Misdeal by Margaret Price

13. Reading The Cards by Margaret Price

14. Stacking The Deck by Margaret Price

15. Bug by Margaret Price

16. Snap by Margaret Price

17. Agent by Margaret Price

18. Full Boat by Margaret Price

19. Split by Margaret Price

20. Bottom Dealing by Margaret Price

21. Queer Hand by Margaret Price

22. Marked Cards by Margaret Price

23. Dead Man's Hand by Margaret Price

24. Go For Broke by Margaret Price

25. Hit And Run by Margaret Price

26. Bust by Margaret Price

27. All Bets Are Off by Margaret Price

28. Hit Me by Margaret Price

29. On The Come by Margaret Price

30. All In by Margaret Price

31. Tell by Margaret Price

32. Pair by Margaret Price

33. Showdown by Margaret Price

34. Holding All The Cards by Margaret Price

35. Fold by Margaret Price

36. Alone by Margaret Price

Not In The Cards by Margaret Price

HOUSE OF CARDS

An expression for a structure or argument built on a shaky foundation,
or one that will collapse totally if any one element is removed.

*

Prologue

Not In The Cards

Something not likely or certain to happen.

*

There are certain Laws of Nature that remain immutable.

The sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Gravity is a one-way proposition. Death and Taxes are inevitable.

Dorian Red Gloria, the Earl of Gloria, will continue to be the most frivolous, ridiculous, foppish homosexual the world has ever known until the day he dies.

And Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach of NATO intelligence will continue to be a bad-tempered, duty-driven, repressed homophobe until the day that he dies.

These are the Laws of Nature.

Who knew that even these laws could be broken?

*

Castle Gloria
Late June 2002

Dorian did not even turn over in bed when a hand touched him on the shoulder. It can't be morning already? "What is it, Bonham?" he muttered sleepily into his pillow.

"Not Bonham."

Dorian nearly jumped out of his skin at the unexpected and familiar voice of Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. He rolled over, switched on the light, and blinked up at the officer in astonishment. What the hell? "Major? What on Earth...? Do you need me so suddenly that you have to break into my house?" He struggled to sit up, his mind in confusion, which was not helped by the next thing the Major said.

"That's one way of putting it." Klaus had to force the next few words from his mouth. "You win."

Dorian's mind went from confusion to totally blank. Win? Win what? Oh shit, he can't mean what I think he means! "Major...what...are you telling me...exactly?"

"Exactly what you think I'm telling you. I've finished running. I'm here to..." Klaus drew a deep breath. "To...do it. Here. Now." Before I change my mind again.

"Major, if this is a joke, it's not very funny."

"Do I look like I'm joking?"

Dorian had to admit that he did not. "May I ask why the sudden change of heart after all this time?"

"My father died last month..."

"I know, I sent--" Dorian broke off, catching his breath as realization dawned. "You've been fighting me all these years because your father wouldn't approve?"

Clearly uncomfortable, the Major shifted on his feet. "That's--" He waved a hand in the air. "What difference does it make why I'm here? I'm here. You've won." He reached up, loosening his tie.

Dorian practically sprang to his knees, reaching out a hand to stop him. "No, Major, not yet..."

Klaus was clearly taken aback, not believing what he was hearing. After he finally came to this decision, it had taken nearly a week for him to get up the courage to do this. Now he was being put off? "What?"

Dorian threw a furtive glance towards his bedroom door. "We don't want anyone walking in on us, do we?" he said seductively.

"Lock the fucking door," Klaus growled.

Dorian gave a small laugh. "In a house full of thieves? Really, Major, that will slow them down a total of three seconds."

Klaus drew a deep breath. He'd been so distracted that he hadn't thought of that, dammit.

Dorian reached up, adjusting the Major's tie. "Tomorrow night. I'll be able to have everything arranged perfectly then. No one to disturb us." He gave a small smile. "Dinner beforehand, perhaps?"

The Major nodded. Leave it to the Earl to plan a romantic evening at the drop of a hat. "Fine. I'm in town the next few days."

"Splendid."

Klaus looked the other man in the eye, drew a deep breath, and kissed him as gently and as tenderly as he knew how. The response was not what he expected. But then, clearly he had taken Lord Gloria--no, Dorian, he had taken Dorian completely off guard. Finally, I turn the tables on you. He straightened and gave a small smile. "I'll call." With that, he turned and left.

* * *

When Klaus arrived at NATO's London office first thing in the morning, he quickly discovered that all hell had broken loose and, apparently, Eroica was at the heart of it. There had been a ridiculously reckless break-in in the office of NATO's Supreme Allied Commander: Europe. A break-in in which some very sensitive materials were removed--with a calling card left in its place.

When the Major learned that the Earl was already in a holding room, he stormed in, beside himself with rage. "What the fuck were you thinking?" he snarled, slamming the door behind him. "You don't have blanket immunity, you idiot thief!"

"I know that, Major," came the calm reply.

"When did you pull this off? Huh? Before I arrived last night or after I left?"

"Before you arrived. I'd only just got back, in fact." Dorian threw his hair over his shoulder, the picture of nonchalance. "It was the second time I'd been there, you see..."

"What?" The Major found himself at a loss for words. Before he could get his thoughts in order, the door opened and several men he had never seen before entered. A moment later, and to his further dismay, he found himself being locked in another interview room.

* * *

With nothing else to do, the Major sat in the room, glowered at the two-way mirror, and chain smoked. He could just imagine the tale Eroica was spinning for the men in the next room. He prayed the idiot had the decency not to mention his visit in the middle of the night. That would just be the icing on the cake.

When the door finally opened, Eroica entered flanked by two men the Major would soon learn were CIA. "Waiting impatiently as ever, Major?" Eroica said as he took a seat. He held out a hand, introducing Agents Clancy and Ludlum.

"Whatever this bloody thief has been telling you is probably a lie. He was not acting under any orders from NATO, either here or in Bonn."

"We know that, Major," Agent Clancy replied. "Agent Marshall was acting for the CIA."

The frown on the Major's face deepened. "Who the fuck is Agent Marshall?"

"I am," Eroica replied. "Now that the operation is finally over, I can tell you who I really am."

Klaus blinked, leaning back in his chair. The Earl's tone was completely different, and his accent was...off. It wasn't quite American, nor was it English any longer. His expression was completely businesslike. For the first time in his memory, the intense gaze from those clear blue eyes made the Major uneasy, and not because of any underlying sexual innuendo. Something was very, very wrong here.

"First of all, I'm not English," Eroica began. "Nor am I a thief. Well, I am now, but I wasn't before. I've been working undercover for the CIA since before we met."

Klaus felt all the blood drain from his face. "All these years?" he asked in a remarkably quiet voice. He felt as though the world had ended and no one had bothered to tell him.

"My job was to infiltrate the underworld to track down an information leak. After establishing myself as Eroica, I was to move into the intelligence community. You can imagine how ecstatic my superiors were when you turned up so soon after I made contact in Germany. Iron Klaus, the best intelligence officer in NATO. When things turned out to be bigger than expected, my mission was altered and everything was...shall we say, orchestrated after that."

By this time, Klaus had to concentrate just to remember to breathe. "You were ordered to try and seduce me? Is that what you're saying?"

"Not quite," Eroica replied. "I was ordered to get close to you. Then your Chief hired me for that job in Rome and I was in like Flynn." He gave the Major a sideways glance. "My talents were sought by all sorts of unsavory individuals in the intelligence community, thanks to your idiot Chief. A lot of people got rich selling the information you were--"

Klaus slammed a fist on the table. "You bugger, if you're gonna accuse me of--"

"No, Major." Eroica held up a hand. "You're no traitor. That's one thing about you I'm sure won't change overnight."

The Major felt his face grow very hot at this remark. He did not reply, his eyes narrowing.

"My job was to infiltrate the intelligence network using the Eroica persona. Who would suspect a foppish fag of being CIA?" Eroica said mildly. "Last night's theft was the final piece to a puzzle I've been putting together for some time. As it turns out, an advisor to your Chairman of the Military Committee is the top man in this...house of cards."

This revelation was almost as shocking as Eroica being CIA. No wonder Interpol never arrested him. "What? You can prove this?"

"I can now. The information is on its way to the proper authorities. And the, er...gentleman in question should have been placed under arrest when he arrived at his office this morning. And everyone on the list of contacts is in the process of being rounded up."

Klaus put a hand to his head. It was almost too much for him to take in. His eyes flashed up to the Agents flanking the Earl...no, CIA agent...no...oh, hell.

Eroica glanced over his shoulder. "If we could have a moment alone, gentlemen?"

"Yes, sir." The agents withdrew.

The Major waited until the door was closed before he spoke again. "Who are you, exactly?"

"Exactly, Major, I'm an American from New York named John Robert Marshall. The Earl of Gloria and Eroica are--were my cover."

Klaus found the familiar voice with the mixture of accents disconcerting. "Do you honestly expect me to believe that you've been taunting me all these years as a cover?"

"Deep undercover, Major. The whole persona of the over-the-top, gay art thief was part of the act." Eroica tossed his hair back and shook his head, going on to play with one of his curls in a way the Major had seen a thousand times before. He smiled and fluttered his eyelashes.

"Stop that, damn you," the Major snarled, feeling his heart turn over at the same time. "Was there ever a real Earl of Gloria?" He saw an odd look pass behind the other man's eyes, but could no longer interpret what it meant. "Tell me, did you laugh your ass off after I left last night?"

"No, Major. I was too shocked."

"You were too shocked! How the fuck do you think I feel? All these years, and now I learn it was all a lie? Something orchestrated to...to..."

"You weren't supposed to turn out to be gay!" Eroica blurted out.

The Major could not have looked more hurt if he had been physically struck. "You and your fucking CIA superiors. You've ruined my life!"

"What life, Major? Aside from NATO, you have no life," Eroica said harshly.

"Bastard," the Major snapped. "Who are you to judge me? You show up out of nowhere and turn my life into a living hell for decades, and now--"

"I'm not the one who suddenly turned queer."

Klaus jumped to his feet, his hands balled into fists. "I should've known you were a Yank with those too straight teeth."

"I feel I should be offended, if just on principle alone."

"How about I knock a few out for you?"

Eroica crossed his arms. "Fine. Just so long as you don't try kissing me again."

This was like a bucket of cold water. Klaus took a step back, his mind reeling. "Do you have any idea how hard it was to resist you all this time? Do you even care? All those years of innuendo and outright declarations of love--a lie!" He ran his fingers through his hair, a pained look coming to his face.

"With a black eye or two in return," Eroica spat.

"I didn't hit you more than three times," the Major shot back. "And only when you got me so--" He broke off and closed his eyes, taking a moment to get hold of himself. "I thought I'd figured out what you were talking about with all those flowery declarations of love." His voice hardened as he went on, "Now you tell me it was all part of a script orchestrated by some fucking American in some Goddamn CIA plan."

Eroica got to his feet. "I didn't choose you as a target, Major."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

Eroica tried to ignore the biting retort. "You were chosen because you were the last person in the world who could possibly turn out to be--your words, Major--a fucking faggot."

Klaus felt his anger rising again. "Get out of my sight before I beat the shit out of you."

Eroica drew a deep breath. "This will probably mean nothing to you now," he began slowly, waiting for the other man to look up, "but...I've had nothing but respect and admiration for you as an intelligence officer all this time. You really are the best NATO has. They're just too bleedin' stupid to realize it."

"You're right," Klaus said coldly. "It means nothing now." He turned away, closing his eyes when the other man said, "It was never my intention to hurt you, Major. I'm...truly sorry."

"Just...get out."

Klaus did not turn, hearing the door close behind him. He slid into the chair again, putting his head in his hands.

For Iron Klaus, the finest officer in NATO intelligence, the world had just ended.

* * *

Wild Card by Margaret Price

Chapter One

Wild Card

An unpredictable or unforeseen factor.

*

Eroica sat staring out the window, not really looking at anything, which was a shame. The garden was at its peak, every flower competing for attention. The abundant flora had announced the arrival of summer long before the calendar finally agreed. What had been a collection of bare sticks and brown tree trunks a few short months ago had burst forth into leaf and bloom, just as they had done every year since he'd taken possession of Castle Gloria. He felt a pang of sorrow when he realized this would be the last time he would enjoy the beauty of the castle's legendary rose garden.

The twinge caught Eroica by surprise. It wasn't until that moment that he realized he thought of Castle Gloria as home. His permanent home. Here, in England, not the small town in western New York State where he was raised, or New York City, where he was first approached by the CIA while attending Julliard. How odd. Just when did that happen?

Despite the difficulties of the assignment, there were things about the persona of Eroica that he would definitely miss. The flashy cars for a start. And the seemingly unlimited wardrobe. He was, after all, an actor at heart. It was easy to get into the part with the proper costume, and there never seemed to be any lack of those. He liked his team, a combination of real thieves and agents who were just like a family to him now. Bonham was very much his right hand man, the strategist. John Paul, the hacker and technician and his twin brother, Jones, his wheel man. Officially, James was the head of the operation. His handler. Not that this seemed to matter. After a nearly disastrous incident in the initial stages of establishing the Eroica persona, everyone looked to the Earl and Bonham for direction from that point on. No one seemed to trust the little man who held the purse strings. In fact, no one seemed to know much about him. Was he CIA, SIS, Interpol...and what was his real name, anyway?

Eroica sighed. Nearly twenty-five years, and what did he have to show for all his hard work? A persona that was his only a short time longer. No wife. No lover. No family. No close friends outside of the Eroica team. And the only man whom he would have considered an equal as a colleague now hated him more than ever before. He knew the Major was going to be angry when he learned the true nature of the operation. But the sudden revelation about the man had changed everything. Iron Klaus--gay! And...he had looked genuinely hurt when he learned the truth. Who would've guessed that the man of Iron would actually melt after...? Oh, hell. Why do I care?

"M'lord, your tea's getting cold," Bonham said as he placed some papers on the table, startling the Earl out of his thoughts.

"Y'know, Bonham, I think I'm getting sick of tea," Eroica replied, giving him a playful sideways glance.

"Yes, m'lord," Bonham replied with a smirk.

Before Eroica could reach for the papers, James came charging in waving the folder in his hand. "Haven't you finished yet?" the little man demanded as he dropped into a chair. He gave the Earl's untouched breakfast a disapproving scowl. "Your debriefing--"

"Isn't until next week, at the very least. They have to finish with everyone in NATO first," Eroica replied. An amused smile came to his face as Bonham wordlessly poured him a cup of coffee and handed it to him before taking a seat himself. Eroica took a sip, giving James an innocent look. The determined expression on James' face did not change and the Earl sighed heavily. "Do we really have to go through all the tedious prep work first thing this morning? We already did hours worth last night."

"The sooner you get debriefed, the sooner we can be finished and get out of this museum," James snapped. "We should've been done years ago."

"Don't you dare blame that on me!" Eroica snapped. "How was I to know Iron Klaus would turn into the Eternal Major?"

"It's your fault he did!" James snapped back. "You always had to be just a little more over-the-top, didn't you? God! Why couldn't they've given me a proper agent instead of a second-rate actor!"

Eroica exchanged a long-suffering look with Bonham, who rolled his eyes. They'd heard this complaint on and off almost since day one. "Hardly second-rate, considering no one sussed me as CIA. Not even Iron Klaus himself."

"He was too busy trying to avoid you."

"They were all too busy trying to avoid me, you stupid, bureaucratic twit!" the Earl said harshly. He received an astonished look from both men. "If you'd bothered to watch what I was trying to accomplish instead of criticizing every five minutes, you'd've seen that. Some handler you turned out to be!"

"At least I know what I'm doing..."

"Bullshit! You're the one who almost ruined everything to begin with."

James sat back, his eyes wide. "When?"

"When you tried to kill Caesar Gabriel's friends, you moron! I was trying to establish Eroica as a narcissistic, non-violent individual, and you're trying to kill people!"

What followed was a deafening silence as the two sat glaring at one another.

Bonham cleared his throat. "You might want to have a look at these, m'lord," he said evenly, nodding toward the seemingly forgotten papers on the table.

Eroica sighed heavily. He picked up the papers and scanned down them, his eyes widening as he did so. His mouth dropped open and he looked up sharply. "This is from today?"

Bonham nodded. "There's more. Check the next page."

Eroica did. "Oh, bloody hell." He read through all the papers before leaning back in his chair, running a hand through his hair. "God, what must the Major be thinking about all this?"

"Who gives a shit what that machine maniac thinks?" James snapped angrily. "We're done with him, and NATO, and this whole Goddamn assignment the minute we get debriefed."

Eroica exchanged another long suffering look with Bonham before he made a start on his breakfast.

* * *

Brussels, Belgium
Late June 2002

Eroica learned exactly how the Major was taking the news when he was summoned to NATO's European headquarters in Brussels the following Monday. When he arrived, he followed someone down a very familiar hallway. He thought he was going to be taken to the office of some General he had never heard of. Instead, he was taken to the office of the Supreme Allied Commander: Europe, General Joseph Ralston.

Oh, shit, I hope he's not going to dress me down about breaking into his office, Eroica thought as he stepped through the door. To his surprise, the Major's Chief from the Bonn office was there already, looking decidedly ill. He found himself looking around for the Major himself, finding him conspicuous by his absence.

"Thank you for coming so quickly, er...sir," General Ralston said as he held out a hand, indicating the Earl should sit.

"Lord Gloria or Eroica," Eroica said as he sat down in front of the ocean of mahogany the General called his desk. "I can't break cover, officially, until I'm debriefed." He leaned back and gave the men a bright smile. "So I must remain in character, you see," he said airily, playing with one of his blond curls. "I was afraid you'd called me here to scold me for breaking into your office." He gave the man an innocent look through his eyelashes. "You're not going to scold me, are you?"

"Let's just say I'd rather you didn't do it again," the General said evasively.

Eroica gave the General a sly grin. He found himself amused that this seemed to make the Chief uneasy. "Alright," he said, crossing his chest with one hand. "Just what did you call me for?"

The General cleared his throat, throwing a glance at the man beside him before saying, "It's to do with Major von dem Eberbach."

Eroica sighed heavily. Shit. Now what? "Oh?" he said mildly. "What about him?" He expected to hear any number of things, but not what was actually said.

"He's gone."

"Gone?" Eroica scowled. "Gone where?"

"That's just it. We don't know."

Eroica was suddenly deadly serious. "What do you mean you don't know? How can you misplace Iron Klaus?" He was delighted to see the Major's Chief actually squirm under his intense gaze. He turned back to look at the General. "What's happened?"

"Over this past weekend, Major von dem Eberbach entered NATO's Bonn headquarters and completely gutted the Intelligence Department. Files, safes, computer hard drives, every data base on the server--all meticulously gone through, emptied, copied, or removed completely."

Eroica felt his heart in his mouth and sat back in his chair. Christ, it's worse than I thought. The Major hasn't been captured, he's taken leave of his senses.

"Somehow, he loaded a virus into the NATO computer network. It got into the other military agencies worldwide when they attempted to access the net. It turned out to be relatively harmless, except that it erased any traces of his actions. It's anyone's guess exactly what information he took, what his intentions are, or where he went."

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Eroica breathed, still not quite able to take it in. Iron Klaus gone rogue. It was a terrifying thought. And it was real.

"There's speculation that he's been planning this for some time. One of the few things we do know is that he took copies of some very important and dangerous documents."

"Such as?"

The General sat back in his chair but did not reply.

"Look," Eroica snapped in a no-nonsense tone, "you asked me here for a specific reason. If you're even thinking of asking for my advice on something, I'm going to need all the facts." His voice hardened further, "I do actually have top secret clearance. Now, what did he take?"

The General drew a deep breath. "That's just it, we don't know exactly. We just know what files were gone through. He could've taken everything. Locations of terrorist cells, names of contacts and their locations, weapons caches, clean money deposits, false identity papers, lists of safe houses, as well as details of secret treaties, scientific advancements in weapons..."

"Do you know anything for certain?" Eroica asked.

"He took the Alphabet," the Bonn Chief replied.

Eroica realized at some point he had gone past shock and horror, having gone completely numb. "All of them?"

The Chief nodded. "All of them. No one has any idea what he could have possibly told them to make them go along with this...this... But they followed him. Family members report receiving the usual pre-mission emails--untraceable, naturally--so no one suspected a thing. It's possible they believe this to be a legitimate mission."

"Suffice it to say," General Ralston broke in, "it is patently obvious Iron Klaus has no intentions of returning."

"Where the hell could he go with the whole Alphabet in tow?" Eroica suddenly realized he was on his feet. He had no conscious memory of getting up, and found he could not sit still as he paced the room. "The Schloss?"

"The Major's butler knows nothing other than he was...out of sorts, shall we say? He came here to be debriefed after his meeting with you in London."

The scene with the Major in his bedroom flashed into the Earl's mind. Fuck, he can't mean that. "What meeting with me?"

"The one in NATO's London office after you broke into my safe," the General said sharply.

"Ah." Eroica nodded. "I see. Then he came here, met with you, probably had a formal dressing down, went back to Bonn, cleared out the Intelligence office, and fell off the face of the Earth. Right?"

"Lord Gloria!" the Chief snapped.

The General held out a hand. "No, he's right on the nose," he said calmly before turning back to the Earl. "Major von dem Eberbach called the person who looks after his Estate in his absence and told them he would be away for some time. He then had his butler pack a suitcase of generic clothes and had it delivered to his office. Since he frequently did this when being sent on a mission, no one thought anything of it."

"What's he doing for money?"

"All accounts not connected to his Estate have been closed," the General informed. "Obviously this is so we can't track his movements."

"You trained him well, I'll say that for you," Eroica said ironically.

"As did you," the Chief replied.

"Pardon?"

"How do you think he was able to get all that out of headquarters? Even Iron Klaus would raise suspicions with an armload of files and computer hard drives."

The man had a point. "So...how did he get it out?"

The General gave him a steady look. "We were hoping you could tell us that, Eroica."

* * *

Ace Up Your Sleeve by Margaret Price

Chapter Two

Ace Up Your Sleeve

A hidden or secret advantage or resource.

*

It was a very boring security tape, Eroica decided. It was the main lobby of NATO's Bonn headquarters. He'd been there himself countless times over the past twenty odd years. Several times over the three days in question, the Major came and went. Each time, he passed through security with his usual air of indifference.

"You believe he started removing things over the weekend?" Eroica asked as he rewound the tape.

"Saturday."

Eroica shook his head. "He was already working things out Friday, possibly sooner, but that's on another tape I should imagine. That's probably when he got his Alphabet lined up for this...mission as well."

The General and the Chief exchanged an astonished look as the Earl fast-forwarded the tape to the point where the Major left the building on, according to the date stamp, Friday afternoon, presumably for lunch.

"Look how he's carrying himself here," Eroica said, pointing at the screen, letting it play through.

The Chief shook his head. "He looks just the same."

Eroica gave him a look that sent a chill down his spine. "Look again. And this time, look at his left arm."

"He's holding a cigarette. He's always holding a cigarette. Filthy habit."

"He is also holding his arm very firmly against his body," Eroica said, pausing the tape and tapping the screen with his finger. "He's holding something in place under his suit coat. Look how he keeps his arm in place, even when he takes his gun out." He slowly shuttled the tape forward. "I'll bet my eye teeth he's using his shoulder holster to keep papers or files in place. He'd've set the metal detector off with anything else."

"Good...God..." the General breathed, watching as the Major returned his gun to his holster after passing through the metal detector. "He's right. He just...walked right out with it."

Eroica gave them a patient look and turned back to the screen. They watched as the Major came and went over the following two days, entering the building empty handed and leaving with something tucked under his arm. On Sunday, the suitcase from the Schloss arrived and was set behind the Reception area. A few minutes later, someone in a janitor's uniform came with a hand-truck and took it away. Eroica smirked as he watched this. Several minutes later, the man returned with the suitcase and a set of car keys in his hand. He had a brief word with the guard behind the desk, waved a hand in the direction of the parking area, and then left the building, returning a few minutes later.

"Oh, Major, you were paying attention," Eroica said admiringly. He turned to the baffled men beside him. "Obviously, you gentlemen weren't."

"Dammit, Eroica, don't talk in riddles!" the Chief snapped, having forgotten the CIA man's identity beneath the familiar foppish exterior.

Eroica grinned at him. "You just sat there and watched the Major remove everything from NATO, and you didn't even notice, did you?"

"What?" the General thundered.

Eroica rewound the tape, walking them through the entire process. "The suitcase from the Schloss arrives here." He pointed as it was placed behind the Reception desk after being checked by security.

"Yes, and someone from maintenance took it away," the Chief snapped impatiently.

Eroica gave him an innocent look. "Chief, when did the maintenance workers in your building start working Sundays?" he asked mildly, receiving a startled look in reply. He turned back to the screen. "A few minutes later he returns, apparently from the fifth floor. But did either of you notice that, in the interim, the suitcase has got larger?"

The Earl's wrapped audience leaned closer to the screen. "Christ," the Chief moaned, sitting back in his seat. "He's right."

"And he doesn't take it through the metal detector, either. He talks to the guard, probably to complain about that asshole Major making him take his suitcase to his car, and then goes around the metal detection arch, out the door, probably taking every hard drive from the fifth floor with him."

"And he walks back in, cool as a cucumber," the General added as he, too, sat back in his chair.

"He's Iron Klaus," Eroica said admiringly. "He finished whatever he needed to do, and then left for the last time." He punctuated his statement by pausing the tape just as the Major glanced up at the security camera as he headed for the front door. He had the same sly look on his face that had caused many a KGB agent to lose their nerve, and sent Alphabets home to pack for Alaska.

"Smug bastard," the Chief muttered.

Eroica turned off the tape and got to his feet. "Good luck finding him."

* * *

"No."

"Eroica."

"No."

"Lord Gloria."

"You can call me every name in my personnel folder, the answer is still no!" Eroica stood with his arms folded, a determined look on his face. "I'm done. With my assignment, NATO, and especially Iron Klaus. I'm supposed to be being debriefed, not looking for your rogue agent and his merry men."

"You're the only one who can possibly get close to him," the Chief said as forcefully as he could manage.

"Surely you are joking?"

"I watched the tape from the interview room, Agent Marshall. Something happened between you two, didn't it? Eroica finally got to him. He's actually in love with you, isn't he?"

Eroica snorted. "Don't delude yourself. He hates me. He's always hated me."

"I don't think so."

The smug look on the Chief's face set off an alarm in the Earl's head and his eyes narrowed. "You threatened to out him, didn't you?"

"That would be against--"

"You fucking bastard! You did! No wonder he went over the edge!"

The General broke in before this confrontation could go any further. "For whatever reasons, you've been closer to Major von dem Eberbach than anyone, even his own family. And you've just proven you know him better than his own superiors." He received a dark look from the Chief.

"So?" Eroica said acidly.

"So...your mission has been amended."

Please, don't tell me what I think you're going to tell me.

"You have one more man to catch before Eroica can retire." General Ralston picked up a folder from a pile and held it out. "Iron Klaus."

Bloody fucking marvelous. "General, I'm CIA not NATO."

The General smiled and the Earl was reminded of the Major. Was that evil smile part of NATO training? "You've been a part of NATO since you helped stop the assassination attempt on one of my predecessors," he said calmly.

Eroica gave a snort. "That was in 1979, General, and had nothing to do with General Haig and everything to do with my orders to get close to Major von dem Eberbach."

"Who is--was--a NATO operative," Ralston added, still holding out the folder.

"Who could have been the source of the information leak," Eroica rejoined.

"And who is now a considerably more dangerous threat."

Good come back, dammit. Eroica heaved an exasperated sigh before reluctantly taking the folder from the man's hand. "If you tell me you want him ‘Dead or Alive,' General, I'm leaving, orders or no."

The General did not reply, merely smiling back.

Eroica sat down, opened the folder, glanced at its contents, and closed it again, looking up. "Tell me everything you can about his movements after he left headquarters Sunday."

* * *

Agent Marshall had expected it to be difficult to return to the persona of Eroica after revealing his true identity to so many, but he slipped back into character like slipping into his favorite pair of tight-fitting jeans. The Earl's flashy nature was such a part of himself now, he could no longer tell where John Robert Marshall ended and Dorian Red Gloria began. This was good for his cover, but would probably be a bitch to deal with when he was finally debriefed and reassigned.

Reassigned! Fuck that. After twenty-five years, I'm retiring.

Not surprisingly, James had not been happy when informed about the extension to their mission.

When Eroica returned from Brussels, he found a portion of the staff already packed and ready for new orders. It was only then that the Earl discovered that only a handful of his band were actually government agents.

Eroica informed his people that there was a delay in an operation he had been planning and that orders would be forthcoming when he returned. After that, he had Bonham and John Paul contacting everyone they knew amongst their underworld contacts to see if they could track down the Major and his Alphabet.

* * *

Go Fish by Margaret Price

Chapter Three

Go Fish

An expression used to dismiss someone or an idea as absurd.

*

Jakarta, Indonesia
Early August 2002

Eroica stood looking through the sweltering haze that obscured most of the tall buildings in downtown Jakarta. He could not seem to get away from the heat. He remembered how it had obscured the two Petronas Towers looming high in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where he had just spent another fruitless search. He found the memory had him automatically comparing those towers to the numerous phallic objects that were so much a part of Lord Gloria, Pervert Extraordinaire. Then another set of twin towers came to mind, sheets of flame, dust and debris, bodies tumbling into space, and he felt a pang in his heart followed by a lump in his throat. Could the Major have become so sufficiently unhinged and vengeful that he would trade the secrets in his possession to a group capable of doing such things to innocent civilians? In his heart, Eroica prayed the answer was still a vehement no, but as the days of searching stretched into weeks, his resolve started to falter.

It was glaringly obvious that all the official channels had no clue as to the Major's plans. After his expert hacking-job at NATO, there hadn't been so much as a whisper from him. This was a blessing and a curse as time ticked by. He could be doing nothing more dangerous than dropping off the face of the Earth, removing himself forever from world politics. Or, he could be gathering everything he needed to start World War III from the safety of an isolated location. Oh, hell, he could be starting up his own country for all anyone knew.

And I'm supposed to find him. Then what? Eroica didn't want to think about that one. "Find Iron Klaus and bring him back," the General had said. Yeah, right. The KGB had tried unsuccessfully to do that for decades. The Soviet Union collapsed and they never managed to get him to Moscow. How could they expect a small band of thieves to have any better success?

They want me to kill him. They won't say it in so many words, but that's what they want.

The only problem that Eroica could see in this scenario was the fact that he was more likely to be killed by the Major than vice versa.

Bloody fucking marvelous.

* * *

"That was another waste of time," Bonham said as he followed Eroica and James out of a large office building.

"It's like a trail of bread crumbs." Eroica sighed heavily, pushing his sweat soaked hair out of his face. "This is hopeless."

I could've told you that weeks ago, James thought, giving him a sideways look. "I wish you'd come up with something else to say," he moaned. "It's not like the man wants to be found."

"Thank you for the positive input, James," Eroica snapped. He looked up at the sun beating down on them. "I'm not sure which is worse; freezing to death in Alaska, or baking in Indonesia." He looked around. "Let's get out of this heat. My head is already killing me."

"I'd still like to know what we're supposed to do when we do find him?" Bonham said reasonably.

"How the hell should I--?" Eroica broke off, a hand going to his pounding head. "Sorry, Bonham," he said more gently. "I have no idea what I'm going to do, actually. They said to find him and bring him back. They never told me exactly how I'm to go about doing that."

"Some master of improvisation you are lately!" James sneered.

"You know, I liked you better when you were sniveling."

"Fuck you! No...never mind, the Major already tried that, didn't he?"

Eroica gave him a dangerous look, a hand balling into a fist. "Mark my words, James. I'm going to happily beat the shit out of you when the Company finally decides to give up and debrief me."

"Sssh" James hissed, looking around.

"James, we're in the middle of Jakarta," Bonham said coldly. "How many of these buggers do you think even know that the CIA is ‘the Company'?"

"I don't care. I know."

"Swell," Eroica replied sarcastically as he moved into the shade. "You keep that piece of intel all to yourself, then. Enter in your PDA so you don't forget."

James gave him an annoyed scowl before looking down at his PDA. "We'll try Rio next," he said, tapping out a few things as he spoke. "I got a hint of a blip from there yesterday about some odd bartering transactions--"

"Because the Nazis hid in South America? Is that the logic behind this ridiculous fishing expedition?" Eroica interrupted. "Christ, why don't we just give up and hand this back to NATO?"

James and Bonham exchanged a meaningful look. Before either of them could think of a suitable comeback, a large black sedan came screaming towards them, scattering pedestrians in its wake.

"Bloody hell!" Bonham gasped, taking an alarmed step back as the car practically ran them over as it pulled up in front of them.

"Why don't you watch where you're--!" Eroica's admonition was cut off when a familiar blond man got out of the passenger side, gun in hand. "Z..." he said in a small voice.

"If any of you tries to run, I'll kill you," Z said coldly as he pulled open the back door. "Get in."

Eroica exchanged a helpless look with Bonham, who shrugged and did as ordered. James opened his mouth to object, only to have a hand clamped firmly over it. Eroica lifted him bodily off his feet, and practically threw him into the car.

"I'm unarmed, and so is James," Eroica said calmly as he turned back to the glowering Z. He locked eyes with the other man. "Bonham, surrender your weapon, please," he ordered without turning.

Bonham gave a horrified squeak, but did as ordered. He held out his gun, which was taken by the driver. Eroica did not take his eyes from Z's face. He was stunned by the hard lines of anger etched into it. This was not the face of an innocent. This was the face of a trained killer.

"We won't fight or try to escape," Eroica heard himself saying before he calmly got into the car himself.

The solid black divider between the front and rear of the car went up as Eroica got in. He caught a flash of a blond head and realized the driver was Agent G. James started to make some noises of protest and was quickly silenced by Eroica. "Will you shut up! We don't want to antagonize them," he snarled between his teeth. This was not helping his pounding head, either.

"We don't want to antagonize them!" James squeaked.

"James, for once in your life, shut up!" Bonham snapped with uncharacteristic venom.

Eroica gave him a startled look, drew a deep breath, and leaned back in his seat. The CIA and NATO wanted him to find the Major but had been very thin on instructions about after that. Eroica closed his eyes, hearing a familiar hiss. He knew exactly what that meant. Knock out gas. His last thoughts before passing out were to wonder if this was how his superiors had planned to eliminate the persona of the Earl of Gloria.

* * *

Moving... No, swaying.

The world is swaying.

Why is the world swaying?

One after another, Eroica's senses kicked in. After motion came hearing, registering creaks, splashes, and the hum of an engine. Then came the smell of seawater and the reek of diesel fuel. I'm on a boat. Not a good thing. He had never faired well on small boats. He had often found himself wishing he were like the real Earl, descended from pirate stock. He struggled further into consciousness, finding more darkness. This was followed by waves of nausea and the seemingly perpetual pounding headache. On top of this, the fumes were making him cough. God, I hate small boats.

There were voices close by, murmuring amongst themselves, but too low for him to hear any actual words. He moaned and coughed as he tried to move, which turned out to be a mistake. "I'm gonna be sick," Eroica said in a low voice, hoping it would gain someone's attention.

It did. The response was several curses in German. Then someone large was hauling him up and placing his upper body over something rough and wooden. He realized vaguely that the wooden ridge scraping his stomach was the gunwale of a boat that was skipping smoothly along the water. His face was pointed in the right direction. "If you're gonna be sick, do it that way," came the order in English, "or you'll have it back in your face."

There was no gracefully or dignified way to do this. Eroica could hear the water moving beneath him as he emptied his stomach into the waves he had no idea how far below. He was held firmly in place until he was sure he would not be sick again. At least whoever it was holding him held his hair back so it didn't get soiled. Then he was set back down and leaned against more wood. He was given some water to wash his mouth out, and something dry to help settle his empty stomach.

After a moment, Eroica was moved back onto something softer than the wood deck. He rested on his side as awareness finally returned in full force. He couldn't see anything because he'd been blindfolded. His hands were tied behind his back and secured against his body. His ankles were also bound.

He listened for a minute, trying to get his bearings. "There's no need for all this," he said mildly. "I'm not exactly going to go anywhere."

"Nein," said a low voice. "You stay as you are."

Marvelous. "Look, I am perfectly willing to-" Eroica didn't even realize that he had dropped into his placating voice until he was cut off.

"Eroica is always willing, isn't he? You're lucky we don't throw you overboard like that for what you did."

Oh, bloody hell. Why don't I just kill myself and save you all the trouble? Eroica shook these thoughts from his mind and tried to recall his last clear memory. Bonham and James were beside him in the backseat of a car, Agents G and Z in the front. "The others...?"

"They haven't woken up yet."

This person had to be one of the Alphabet, but Eroica couldn't tell which. He seemed to be trying to disguise his voice. It wasn't petite G, the voice was too deep and had an odd growl in the tone. Strange to think of any of the Alphabet with the backbone to growl. Then again, they had survived the command of Iron Klaus and had shown the backbone to abscond with him. That is, if that was what they had done. Eroica still didn't know exactly what the Major had told them.

"May I ask where you're taking me?" he said, trying to keep his voice even as he heard another man approach.

"You've been looking for Iron Klaus, haven't you? To question him?"

Question him? Sure, why not? "Yes."

"Well, he has questions for you, too."

Eroica felt his heart miss a beat at what he perceived to be a threatening tone and he suddenly felt very light headed. "Questions..." he repeated quietly. Questions meaning interrogation? By Iron Klaus? Oh, hell, if his mind really has snapped... A hand suddenly gripped his shoulder, causing him to jump and give a startled cry of alarm.

"Do you think we're like the KGB?" This was a new voice, lacking the other's bravado. "There will only be questions."

"You'll forgive me for being dubious. I've seen Iron Klaus question people before..." As he spoke, Eroica suddenly realized who this new voice belonged to. "Z," he added.

"Don't try to use any friendship you might have had, Herr CIA," Z said coolly.

Well, that answers one question. He told them that much.

"And don't even think about trying to flirt with him, Eroica. You hurt him with that...act."

Another question checked off. "I know. That was never my intention, Z." There were disbelieving snorts in reply. He heard the man who had dragged him to the side of the ship move away and counted at least three others.

"We're not NATO anymore, Herr CIA. We answer to our own names now."

Which are? After a lengthy pause, Eroica realized that he was obviously not on the A-list for learning those names. There was a muttered conversation and then Z was back at his side, pulling him to a sitting position. "Drink," came the order as a cup was held to his mouth.

Eroica pulled back as best he could. "What is it?"

"Something to keep you from getting sick again."

"It's a drug, isn't it?"

"It will make you sleepy, nothing more."

Eroica wondered if the liquid would be forced down his throat if he refused. Then he remembered that he had promised to cooperate and drank without further protest. Clearly, they had been ordered not to harm him, which did not really ease his mind. It could only be because the Major wanted to do all the harm himself.

Over the next few hours, he lay quietly dozing where Z left him, trying to judge where he was each time the choking smell of diesel fuel caused him to cough to the point that he rose to the surface. There was a lot of open water in this part of the world, and thousands of tiny islands available to renegades. At some point, he heard Bonham and James wake, the latter causing quite a commotion. He had no idea what occurred, but the little man's protests were very abruptly cut off. He wondered if they'd gagged him instead of drugging him. He found himself wishing he had not been blindfolded in order to watch the altercation.

Eroica surfaced from a doze when the engine slowed. He sensed the boat turning in a tight place, threading between surfaces that threw back echoes, and then nudging up against a stable surface. A dock, presumably.

Eroica smelled the unmistakable scent of chloroform when the first man returned to his side. We must be somewhere I'd recognize. "Aren't I helpless enough for you?"

"We can't trust you, Herr CIA."

A moment later, a damp cloth was held over his mouth and nose. Despite his best efforts, Eroica still struggled against the powerful grip as the fear of being smothered overpowered him. Within a few seconds, he slipped below the surface of consciousness once more.

* * *

Raising The Stakes by Margaret Price

Chapter Four

Raising The Stakes

To increase the cost or risk of an activity.

*

Eroica woke to a world that was no longer swaying beneath him. His head was still pounding and his stomach was protesting, although not as badly as before. Bloody chloroform.

The air was cool around him, not stifling as it had been in the heart of Jakarta. His nose picked up the scent of wood-smoke and something cooking, reminding him that it had been a long time since he'd last eaten, which wasn't helped by the fact that anything he had previously consumed was lost over the side of a boat.

The surface beneath him was very soft and smelled of clean linen. That was when he realized he was naked. A small shift of position amended this. They had left him in his underwear. That was something, at least. He was still blindfolded and bound hand and foot. This time his hands were tied in front of his body, his elbows from behind, making it impossible to move his arms. Almost impossible to move at all, in fact.

As his head continued to clear, Eroica realized more things. The soft surface he was lying on was a bed. He heard birdsong and insect-noises coming from one part of the room, probably from an open window. A ceiling fan whirred nearly silently overhead, the reason for the lack of suffocating heat. Then he became aware that someone was in the room with him, only a few feet away. He focused his mind on the sounds they were making; a series of soft clicks, hushed rasping noises, and metallic whispers. It was a familiar and comfortable sound.

Or at least, it had been at one time.

Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach was cleaning his gun.

Eroica's throat still burned from the diesel fuel and he gave way to a few dry coughs before he finally spoke, using German rather than English. "I know how this will sound. But you didn't have to kidnap me. I would've come willingly."

Klaus gave a small grunt. "Bringing half of Langley with you," he replied tersely, in English. He was not about to be taken in by any false courtesy.

"No. I would've come alone, if you'd asked."

"And you expect me to believe that?"

Well, it was worth a try. "Probably not. You've good reason not to believe a word I say."

Klaus did not reply directly, saying instead, "You didn't cut your hair."

Eroica was thrown by the sudden non sequitur. "My hair?"

"After your mission was over, you didn't cut your hair."

"Did you cut yours?" There was a long silence that told Eroica the answer was probably no.

"And you're still dressing in those ridiculous clothes. Why?"

"Because my mission isn't over. They tacked on the job of locating you first. Until I'm formally debriefed, I have to..."

"Continue to play the part."

"Yes." Eroica took comfort in the man's business-like tone. He was, after all, a trained agent and understood the rules of the game.

"Is that why your English accent is back?"

Eroica frowned. "I don't understand..."

"In the holding room. When you told me who you really are, you spoke with a different accent. Part English, part American. It's gone now."

I did? "I can't be John Marshall until the Earl of Gloria..."

"Is eliminated."

Christ, do you have to put it like that?

"It's to occur as an accident," Klaus stated flatly. "With that flashy red Maserati of yours, on a side road near your estate."

"What is?"

The quiet laugh this question received was about as reassuring as the Major's friendly smile. "I know a great deal more about you than I ever did when I was in NATO." Especially now that I have all the information in the little bug's PDA. "Your cover is part of something codenamed Project: Eroica. At its conclusion, the Earl was to be eliminated, and you along with him."

Eroica gave an involuntary shudder. "Now you're just trying to unnerve me, Major."

There was a long pause.

"Major," Klaus repeated coldly. "You know I'm not NATO anymore. Are you trying to--?"

"No!" Eroica broke in defensively. He could almost feel the heat of the man's anger and wished he could throw his hands up. "It's just... I've never called you anything else." He pulled at his bindings to make his next point. "I'm not exactly in a position to assume I have the right to call you by name, now, am I?"

"You have a valid point." More snaps and clicks followed as Klaus started to reassemble his gun.

"What would you have me call you?"

"Major will do. What name shall I call you?"

The Earl considered a moment. "Eroica. It's a name neither John Marshall nor the Earl of Gloria can lay claim to."

Klaus gave a small grunt. Another valid point. "The accident..." he went on. "Did they tell you who was supposed to be in the car?"

"I didn't even know--" Eroica broke off, drawing a deep breath to steady himself. "You obviously know more about this than I do, so just spit it out. They sent me on this wild goose chase because they were hoping we'd kill each other. Save them the trouble." The next sound was a loud snap as a magazine was put into place. Then a bullet was chambered. Great. Iron Klaus with a loaded gun. I'm dead no matter what.

"What happened to the real Earl of Gloria?" Klaus asked suddenly.

Eroica shifted uneasily, being all too aware of his helplessness. "I don't know." His next words came out in an angry rush of words. "And don't think I didn't ask, either, because I did. Dozens of times."

"And what did they tell you?"

"They told me that I was the Earl of Gloria, and the sooner I got that into my head, the sooner we could get on with the mission."

"And now?"

"Shit, Major, I don't know. It's all fucked up, now."

There was a rustle of papers. "According to the records," Klaus said calmly, "CIA Agent John Robert Marshall died on the 26th of November, 1975. The victim of a drunk driving accident during the Thanksgiving holiday rush. He was buried with full honors in his home town in Western New York State. Among the mourners were Agent Marshall's widowed mother, his three sisters, and his former fiancée along with her future husband."

"Thank you for the obit, Major," Eroica said sourly.

"You no longer exist, Agent Marshall."

"You're really enjoying this, aren't you?"

"Just who do you think they had in that flag-draped casket?" Klaus asked coldly, putting his gun down with an audible clunk.

"No one. It was empty."

"Please, tell me you're not really that naïve," Klaus groaned. "Why do you think you were chosen to impersonate the Earl? It's not just your acting ability. It's because you were a dead-ringer for him. The obituary has a photograph of you. Just some minor plastic surgery to fix your cheek bones..."

Eroica felt his heart in his mouth. Somehow, he had always suspected that the real Earl was dead, but had assumed it was from his own excesses, not... "Are you saying...they killed him?"

"No way of knowing for certain without an exhumation and DNA comparison. Even so, this just confirms what I've always suspected. Our governments are run by idiots. You represent a massive investment in recruitment, training, and placement, Agent Marshall. To kill you because the mission is over is wasteful. To successfully indoctrinate you into going along with whatever was asked of you is--criminal."

"You've certainly changed your tune."

Klaus frowned. "What do you mean?"

Eroica opened his mouth only to close it again. Shit, what the hell am I doing? How easy it was to fall back into the habit of baiting the man. The man who now had a loaded weapon beside him and had every reason in the world to use it.

"What do you mean?" Klaus repeated more firmly.

Eroica drew a deep breath and plowed ahead. "I asked you about your moral code once because you were so accepting of that KGB mole in Vienna."

"Vienna?" A pause. "When you had that breakdown over the statue?"

Just keep twisting the knife, why don't you? "Yes," Eroica replied, choosing to not rise to the bait. "Do you remember what you said? I'll never forget it. You said that one is capable of anything once one's mission is completely hammered into one's mind."

Klaus sat back in his chair. He didn't recall the exact words, but they certainly sounded like him. "And you think I should feel that way about you, is that it?"

"I don't know anymore. You seem to've re-written your morals. You're the one who used to say he'd do anything for a mission."

"And you? Are you willing to die for this one?"

Eroica felt his heart in his mouth. Is that a threat? Oh, hell. "Major..."

"Are you?"

Eroica felt sure that at one time the idealist who was John Marshall would have answered, "If I have to." But that man no longer existed. And now the Earl of Gloria would soon be erased from existence, leaving only Eroica, whose code of ethics ran along completely different lines. He didn't even hesitate in his reply. "No, Major, I'm not. I-- Oh, hell, I'm no spy. Half the time I didn't even know what I was stealing. I'm just an actor who didn't know what the hell he was getting himself into. I got all caught up in the romance and intrigue. That's one thing the Earl and I have in common."

"Then there's hope for you yet," Klaus said as he stood up and holstered his gun. "We'll talk more later."

"Wait! You're not leaving me like this, are you?" Eroica pulled at his bindings. "Some clothes would be nice. Some food? And a trip to the loo wouldn't go amiss, either."

There was a long silence that followed. He knew Klaus was looking at him in his usual intense way and wondered what could be going through his mind. He jumped when the blindfold was suddenly pulled off. He stared up at the man standing over him. It was odd seeing him out of his "uniform" of business suit and tie and in what could only be considered casual clothing. His hair was indeed still long, but pulled back. The pained look was still in his eyes. A look that had haunted Eroica since that day in the holding room. But there was something else there that he couldn't quite decipher. If Klaus really wanted to hurt him, he was helpless to prevent it. Then he remembered the Major's midnight visit to his room. His open declarations that the chase had ended and the Earl had won. A tender kiss on the lips. What if he had other things in mind? Oh, Christ...

"Major, I know I said I'd cooperate, but there are some things..." He could not keep his voice from trembling, nor could he stop himself from tensing up. He received a blank look in reply. Then the meaning of his words came through all too clearly and anger moved over the German's features like a storm cloud.

"After wiggling your ass and flaunting a legion of pretty boys in front of--"

"Despite what you may've thought, Major," Eroica broke in sharply, "all those pretty boys were just so much window dressing. Eye candy. Props, like my clothes." He met the officer's accusing glare as unflinchingly as he could. "As tempting as it was at times, I always went to bed alone. I couldn't take the risk. No one, male or female, has ever shared Eroica's bed with that intent."

This was obviously a startling revelation. Klaus's eyebrows went up and he drew himself to his full, imposing height. "And no one will now," he stated flatly. "You will not be touched with that intent by me or anyone else."

Eroica knew his fear was palpable and concentrated to keep himself from breaking eye contact. He had spent more than half his life meeting the Major's attacks head on. He couldn't risk stopping now when he was uncertain as to the man's mental state. "Major, you have no idea how difficult it was for me to not tell you the truth all these years. I really did admire you. I just couldn't say it. So...I finally decided to use ‘I love you' in its place."

Klaus seemed unconvinced and remained unnervingly silent.

"May I ask why I'm practically naked?"

"We had to be certain there were no tracking devices on you. Your clothes were destroyed."

Destroyed? The smell of smoke! "You burned what I had on, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"I could've told you--" Eroica broke off and closed his eyes, sighing heavily. He doesn't trust you anymore, idiot! If he ever did. "Never mind."

"They will be replaced." Klaus waved a hand in the general direction of the far wall and Eroica saw his luggage that had been in his hotel in Jakarta. Iron Klaus hadn't lost his touch. He probably had a group of Alphabets checking his party out of the hotel while G and Z were snatching them off the street. His party!

"Someone will be in shortly so you can shower and dress," Klaus was saying. "And you'll get some food. You won't starve."

"Bonham...and James?"

"They're safe, for the moment."

"For the moment?" Despite the heat, Eroica shivered.

"Yes."

"I'm going to be brutally honest with you, Major. Reassurances or no, you scare the hell out of me now," Eroica admitted shakily. "Am I to be touched with any other intent by you?"

Klaus scowled. "What other intent?" he said suspiciously.

"You beating the shit out of me."

This actually caused an amused look to flash briefly across Klaus's face. "If you continue to cooperate, you will not be harmed. Your thieving skills and contacts might be useful. I don't know yet."

Eroica nodded, watching in silence as the officer left the room, leaving him alone with his thoughts. He lay back and stared up at the ceiling. He shivered as the cool air from the ceiling fan played over his bare skin. Or was it something else? Something like the fact that he suddenly realized with unquestioning certainty that his world had irreversibly changed forever.

* * *

End Notes:
We have now reached the point where Filigree's original story stopped. Here on out is uncharted territory. Please keep your seatbelts fastened and be sure your seatbacks and tray tables are in the full upright and locked positions.
Wrong Signals by Margaret Price

Chapter Five

Wrong Signals

The deliberate play of a card for the purpose of giving information to a  partner.

*

"Sir, I think you should listen to this," the agent once known as A said. It was still difficult for him to call Klaus by name, and equally difficult for the Major to break the habit of calling his men by their previous codenames. Time would take care of this. If they all weren't killed first, that is.

Klaus looked up from the computer screen before him. "What is it, A?"

"It's from the bug in the room with...erm, the Earl's men. Something...odd."

Klaus's eyebrows went up. He had hoped to learn something by keeping Eroica separated from the others. He went over, slipped on a pair of headphones, and listened to several minutes of James griping.

*

"Why did they have to lock me up with you?" Bonham moaned.

"Shut up!" James snapped. "You have no idea how serious this is."

"You're joking?"

"They're gonna interrogate the Earl."

Bonham sighed heavily. "That's bloody obvious, James. And us too, most like."

"Don't you realize? I started the deprogramming already. To switch off the impersonation."

"Come again?"

"As soon as the mission was over, I was supposed to start the deprogramming..."

*

Klaus sat back in his seat, his eyes narrowing. Did he just hear correctly? "Play that last bit back."

A nodded and did as instructed. Then he paused the recording and waited as Klaus continued to scowl, mulling over James' bizarre phrasing. Surely, his English wasn't failing him that badly. After a moment, he signaled for the recording to continue.

*

"James, what are you babbling about?" Bonham moaned. "D'you mean all that debriefing prep work?"

"No! Not debriefing, deprogramming."

"Deprogramming of what? The Earl? Eroica?" A pause. "All of it?" Another pause. This time James could be heard making a small affirmative noise. "You were ordered to-- When?"

There was the sound of James shifting around before he replied. "Actually, I sort of wasn't..."

"Sort of wasn't? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Christ! No wonder he doesn't know if he's coming or going. You fucking moron! Why didn't you reverse it after the mission was extended?"

A long pause followed, in which Bonham demanded, "Well?"

James cleared his throat. "I don't know how."

"Oh, bloody marvelous! You're lucky I'm tied up, James, because I could wring your neck right now."

"It was part of the debriefing orders! I started before the order about the accident came through," came the defensive reply.

"I already told you what I think of that bit of bureaucratic stupidity."

"I didn't order it! I've been trying just as hard as you to keep him from quitting the search."

Bonham gave a derisive snort.

"Now we're all gonna get killed."

"Just wait until I get loose, James. I'll see to it that you go first!"

*

Klaus looked up when the recording was switched off at this point.

"Nothing more after that but the stingy bug crying and whining that it isn't his fault and Mr. Bonham threatening to kill him if he talks about eliminating the Earl any more," A informed.

Klaus nodded. This explained some things, but only added to a growing list of other questions he needed answered. He had accused the Earl of being indoctrinated. James referred to it as being programmed. It was all so much semantics.

"Who's working on the CIA research?" Klaus asked finally.

"We are, sir," a voice called from across the room.

Klaus got to his feet, crossing to former Agent P, who was in charge of a small group who had been reassigned from the Major's original task.

"Still nothing on Agent Marshall after the staged funeral in 1975," P informed. "And the Earl of Gloria seems to vanish completely from early 1975 until mid-1976. Shortly after that, thefts credited to Eroica began, the most prominent being simultaneous thefts at three major art museums at midnight, Christmas Day, 1976."

Klaus raised an eyebrow. "Eroica's grand entrance into the international underworld?"

"Seems to be, sir."

Klaus nodded and then scowled down at the papers the man had handed him. "See what you can find about Project: Eroica," he instructed.

P exchanged glances with his team before looking up. "You think it's more than a Black Ops codename, sir?"

"Eroica's men were talking about Project: Eroica as if it pertains directly to Agent Marshall rather than the operation as a whole. I'd like to know exactly what it encompasses."

* * *

Klaus returned to Eroica's room to find him showered, dressed, and sitting at the small table the officer had used when cleaning his gun. The Earl was staring down at a plateful of food. Agent R was outside the room standing guard, while Agent G remained inside.

"I thought you said you were hungry," Klaus remarked, looking at the seemingly untouched meal.

Eroica looked up. The first thing he noticed was the haunted look was no longer in the officer's eyes and found himself wondering if this was a good or bad thing. "I've lost my appetite," he replied, pushing the plate away. He coughed and then cursed. "That damned diesel engine's given me a cough! Between that, those bloody drugs, and that face-full of chloroform, I feel too nauseous to even think about food now."

Klaus turned accusingly to G. "What drugs?" he practically demanded.

G shifted uncomfortably under the intense gaze. "Lord--er, Eroica was seasick, sir. We gave him something for that. Nothing more."

Eroica snorted, getting to his feet. "Nothing more," he spat, waving a hand in the air. "I've been threatened, manhandled, mauled, stripped, searched, poked, prodded, tied up, and drugged! Now I have a splitting headache, I ache from head to foot, and I still can't get warm after being left practically naked in here. You call that nothing?"

"G, get Eroica some aspirin and a blanket," Klaus said acidly, ignoring the angry glare from the Earl. "At least we can do something about your aches, pains, and chills."

"You've done quite enough already, thank you very much."

Klaus gave a derisive snort, folding his arms. "You're a fine one to talk."

Eroica charged over to him. "If I didn't think you'd shoot me, I'd deck you right here and now."

"Go ahead. It'll be the first time you've acted like a man since I met you!"

"Bastard!" Eroica took a swing at Klaus, who took a step back, easily evading the punch. This only succeeded in overbalancing the Earl, who practically fell over.

Klaus caught him automatically. "Feel better?" he taunted.

Before Eroica could decide if he wanted to lash out with a knee, he suddenly felt very dizzy. "No," he replied in bewilderment. He sagged further into the other man's arms, clinging to him to keep from falling. Naturally, this was taken completely the wrong way by Klaus.

"God dammit, don't you start that again!" Klaus was just about to let the Earl drop to the floor when G caught his breath. "Sir, I think he's fainted!"

Klaus blinked and looked down at the now limp form in his arms. If he hadn't fainted, Eroica was certainly making a valiant attempt to do so. He threw one of the Earl's arms over his shoulder and half-carried, half-dragged him to the bed where he carefully set him down.

Eroica's eyes rolled in his head as he struggled to get hold of himself. "Great, now I'm dying..."

Klaus gave a grunt of disgust. "You're not dying, you idiot," he snapped. "You're probably just...dehy..." His voice trailed off as he leaned the man back onto the pillows, his hands coming in contact with very hot skin.

The Earl flinched when Klaus touched a hand to his forehead. "Christ, Major, your hands are freezing."

"No, you're burning up." A worried look creased Klaus's face as he looked over at G. "We need a doctor."

"You'd actually send for one?" Eroica said in surprise.

Klaus turned sharply back, giving him a dark look. "What exactly did they tell you? That I'm gonna start World War III?"

"They told me that you gutted NATO intelligence, stole highly sensitive material, sent a virus into the intelligence community's computer network to cover your tracks, and then vanished without a trace--taking twenty-six highly trained agents with you. What conclusions would you draw, Major?"

Klaus's eyes narrowed dangerously. "So, Iron Klaus has been transformed into a terrorist."

"For all I know, on top of everything else, you've got access to Anthrax and are poised and ready to post it to your former superiors. Your Chief, at the very least."

"Now that is a very tempting idea," Klaus remarked aridly, a hand going to his chin. After a moment, he gave the other man a steady look. "Do you really think I'm capable of actually doing something like that?"

"Up until a few weeks ago, I'd've said no. Now, I don't know. You're the last man on Earth I expected to go rogue. I don't know you anymore." Eroica closed his eyes and sighed, conceding, "I supposed you could say the same about me, though, couldn't you?"

Klaus wanted to say that he wished he had never gotten to know the man at all. Instead, he turned to G, who had been listening nervously across the room.

"How do we go about finding a doctor, sir?" G asked practically.

Klaus straightened, drawing a deep breath. Now that was a very good question. Cut off from NATO resources, finding a doctor that they could trust would take time.

"Where are we?" Eroica asked, receiving a harsh look in reply. "Dammit, Major, I know you don't trust me, but I'm hardly in any condition to go running off and telling the world where you are. And I have considerably more contacts in the underworld than you do. Now...where are we?"

Again, Eroica had a valid point. "Bali," Klaus replied. "On a private estate just outside the city of Ubud."

"Bali," Eroica repeated. He put a hand to his head and struggled to concentrate. "Private estate outside--" He caught his breath, his eyes growing wide. "No. We're not..." He looked around the room as though seeing it for the first time. "Is this the small room in the guest house?"

"Yes."

"Shit!"

A small smile came to the Major's face, confirming what the Earl had only just realized. They were on a large, privately owned estate that Eroica knew well. The owner of record was the Earl of Gloria himself.

"You clever son-of-a-bitch," Eroica muttered admiringly.

"The last place on Earth anyone would even think to look for me," Klaus said with a smirk. "Incidentally, you have a first rate satellite uplink. CIA, I take it?"

"Yes. That's brilliant, you smug bastard." Any activity tracked from the equipment would be thought to be by the Earl or his men searching for the Major, not the other way around.

Klaus inclined his head, silently accepting the compliment.

Eroica closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. "Dammit, I can't think. Bonham will know who to contact."

"Can you trust him?"

Eroica nodded. "He may be with the Company, Major, but he's not a Company man."

Klaus's eyebrows went up. "I'd've thought he was SIS, not CIA."

Eroica gave a small smile. "Unlike myself, he has the dubious honor of having been born in the States, but raised in England. Just...let me talk to him first. He won't let me down."

Klaus gave the Earl a steady look. Someday I may tell you how true that is.

* * *

Bonham wasn't sure what to think when he was taken out of the room in which he and James had been held for who knew how many hours. He was led blindfolded to what he thought was an interrogation room. Instead, he was told that he was being taking to the Earl. Then he learned why. "Strewth!" he gasped when the blindfold was removed and he realized where he was. Across the room, the visibly ill Eroica lay on a bed, covered with a sheet. Klaus was in a chair a few feet away.

"Don't just stand there," Klaus snapped impatiently. "Come in!"

"Major..." Eroica held out a hand. "Could you...give us a minute?"

Klaus got to his feet, looking from one to the other. "I'm not leaving you two alone."

"Fine. Just...back off a bit, then. You make Bonham nervous." Eroica waved at Bonham, beckoning him over.

As if to verify this, Bonham gave the Major a nervous sideways glance as they exchanged positions. He sat in the chair Klaus had vacated and listened to what the Earl had to say. A few minutes later, he crossed to the door.

"I'm at your disposal, Major," Bonham said calmly.

Klaus's eyes flickered, a hint of a smile curling the edges of his mouth. "Just like that?"

"He needs a doctor. I know who to call. It's as simple as that."

Klaus nodded approvingly. "Follow me."

* * *

After what seemed like forever, the doctor came out of Eroica's room, his face grave. G came up behind him, closing the door to the bedroom. Not for the first time, Klaus was struck by how young Dr. Al Rabeeah was. In a brief exchange when he arrived, Klaus learned a great deal. The man's English was nearly flawless, having only the slightest hint of a Middle Eastern accent. He was clearly a Muslim practicing medicine in a predominately Buddhist part of Indonesia. It was obvious that he was extremely fond of the Earl, and Klaus could not shake the feeling that he had met the man before, but could not for the life of him recall where.

Dr. Al Rabeeah went to where Bonham was waiting nervously beside Klaus, the latter stepping back to allow the smaller man to take the lead. This had been agreed on earlier, so as not to arouse the doctor's suspicions.

"You should've called me sooner," the doctor admonished as he took a seat at the dining table.

Bonham threw a quick glance in the Major's direction before taking a seat himself. "We didn't know he was that ill. He didn't say anything until he collapsed."

"Oh, I'm not blaming you. And I've given his lordship a firm talking to about this," the physician said as he sat down.

"What's wrong with him," Klaus injected firmly. Just get to the point!

"He has a very nasty case of the flu."

"That's it?"

"Don't brush it off. Influenza kills thousands of people each year," Dr. Al Rabeeah replied sharply. He turned back to Bonham. "Has Lord Gloria had a flu shot in the past year?"

Bonham shook his head. "He had a bad reaction to one a few years back. Can't have ‘em anymore."

The doctor nodded, sitting back in his seat. "He said he's been traveling quite a bit."

"Yes," Bonham said, adding quickly, "You know how he gets. Has to have something he sees right away."

The doctor gave a small smile. "Yesterday, not tomorrow."

"Exactly."

"Well, he's not going anywhere today, tomorrow, or another week at least." He scribbled out some prescriptions and held them out to Bonham. As he started explaining about them, Klaus stopped him, calling Agent G over, who had been introduced earlier as Eroica's nurse, Greta.

Dr. Al Rabeeah did not even break stride. He simply turned to "Greta" and explained about the medications. When he was finished, he gave a small laugh. "Oh, yes," he added with a chuckle. "He's convinced that he has Malaria, not the flu."

Klaus rolled his eyes at this. Why does the idiot always have to be so melodramatic? At least he didn't say it was Anthrax or Small Pox. Malaria was bad enough.

"That's not possible, is it?" Bonham asked practically.

"Anything's possible, just highly unlikely," the doctor replied. "I've taken some blood, just to be safe. I'll get back to you if he's actually right."

Dr. Al Rabeeah was then escorted out. One of the Alphabets was sent to fill the prescriptions. G returned to the Earl's bedroom, leaving Klaus and Bonham alone together.

Two Of A Kind by Margaret Price

Chapter Six

Two Of A Kind

Two cards of the same rank.

*

The Major had taken the seat vacated by Dr. Al Rabeeah. When he sat back to study the other man, it suddenly struck Bonham that the officer didn't have a cigarette in his mouth. In fact, now that he thought on it, he hadn't seen him with a cigarette once since he arrived. Normally the Major would have been smoking like a chimney. With this in mind, Bonham cautiously glanced around the room.

"What are you looking for?" Klaus asked, his eyes narrowing. "The room is clean."

"That it is, Major," Bonham replied. "No ashtrays."

"Ah, so you noticed that."

"Hard not to with you."

Klaus gave a small grunt. "I smoked when I was under stress."

"And you're not under stress now?"

Another grunt. "I create my own stress now. And...it's very peaceful here."

Bonham studied the Major as though seeming to see him for the first time. After a long silence, he asked, "What now?"

"I have some questions for you."

"I thought you might."

An amused smile played at the edges of Klaus's mouth. He leaned back, crossing his arms. "Eroica tells me that you're not a Company man, Mr. Bonham. He believes your loyalties lie with him." He paused a moment to let this statement sink in before asking, "Is he deluded?"

Bonham replied almost immediately. "If you're asking if I'll betray my country, Major, the answer is no. Conversely, I won't betray the Earl, either."

"You won't betray the Earl?" Klaus repeated.

"No."

"And what of Agent Marshall?"

Bonham scowled. "I don't..."

"What will you do when your country orders you to end Project: Eroica by eliminating Agent Marshall?"

Bonham gave a start when the project name was mentioned. He shifted in his seat beneath the officer's intense gaze. "You know about the project?" he said in a hushed voice.

Klaus's eyes flickered. Not as much as I'd like to. "I know your feelings concerning that bit of...bureaucratic stupidity."

This caused Bonham to sit bolt upright and he cursed himself for not having realized sooner. The drugs had muddled his thinking. "You had the room bugged!" First he felt angry, then he decided it was probably for the best, considering all he had said to James. Klaus responded with a small smile, causing the older man to sigh heavily. "Oh, bugger. If you know that, then you know the answer already."

"I want to hear it from you."

Bonham met the Major's gaze levelly. "No, sir. I would not kill Agent Marshall if ordered to. It would be a monumental waste of talent."

Klaus's eyes flickered again. My thoughts exactly. "What did James mean about deprogramming him?"

Bonham sighed heavily. "Just what you think he meant. It's just a technique to help him... I dunno. Get out of character; I suppose is the best way of putting it." He looked at the closed bedroom door, shaking his head. "He shouldn't've started without orders, but...we all thought it was finished. Then they tacked this mission on after blowing his cover." He turned back, adding sadly, "He's not the Earl of Gloria, and he can't be John Marshall until this is over. So now...he's nobody."

"That's where you're wrong," Klaus said as he got to his feet. "He's Eroica."

Bonham frowned, looking up at him. "Come again?"

Klaus did not reply, leading the way into the next room.

* * *

G looked up when the bedroom door opened, relaxing visibly when he saw Klaus. He scowled when Bonham entered but said nothing.

"Excuse us, please..." Klaus gave a small smile, adding, "Greta."

This caused G to grin and giggle. He gave the astonished Bonham a bright smile. "You didn't know the Major had a sense of humor, did you?"

"Uh, no," came the startled reply.

G giggled again. "Neither did we!"

"Out!" Klaus ordered, waving his hands toward the door. His voice lacked any of its former venom, and he actually had a small smile on his face. He waited until G was gone before holding out a hand to Bonham, indicating that he take the seat at the bedside.

"M'lord?" Bonham said as he sat down, touching the Earl's arm. He was stunned at how hot he was to the touch and wondered just how high his fever was.

Eroica opened his eyes at the familiar voice, giving Bonham a weak smile. "Out on bail?" he asked softly.

"You might say that, m'lord."

"Oh, shit, Bonham, stop calling me that. Everybody knows it's a sham," Eroica moaned.

"I've...kind of got in the habit." Before the Earl could think of a suitable comeback, Bonham said, "The doctor says you've got a bad case of the flu."

"Bollocks, I've got Malaria. He just won't admit it to my face."

"Is feeling sorry for yourself part of your real persona or your fake one?" Klaus injected sharply.

Eroica looked up, seeing the Major for the first time. "Fuck you, Major."

Klaus gave a small grunt. "Good. You're sounding more like a man every day."

Eroica shifted in bed. "I'd show you the kind of man I am, but I'm too busy dying just now."

Klaus rolled his eyes. "I can see that being an idiot is an integral part of your personality."

"You're just eating this up, aren't you? Some Divine retribution for tormenting the great Iron Klaus all these years."

Despite everything, Bonham could see them getting back into the pattern of sniping at one another, which was not what the Earl needed at the moment. "Sir, please, you're supposed to be resting..." he broke in.

Eroica gave him a stunned look. "Quisling! Turncoat!" He sputtered a moment before finally spitting out, "Benedict Arnold!"

Bonham responded with a heavy sigh. Before he could reply, the Earl was demanding of Klaus, "What did you tell him?"

 "Nothing," Klaus said firmly. "I asked him about his loyalties."

"Bastard!"

"He's loyal to you, you bloody idiot! Just as you thought."

Eroica's mouth dropped open. He looked at Bonham, who was clearly embarrassed.

"And I asked him about the accident that was planned for you," Klaus informed. "Mr. Bonham agrees that it would be a waste of a valuable resource."

Eroica put a hand to his head, which was already spinning, giving Bonham a horrified look. "You knew about that?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you were going to-"

Bonham jumped to his feet. "No, sir. Never. They'd've had to kill me first."

A small smile twitched at the edges of Klaus's mouth. "You see?"

Eroica closed his eyes. "Christ, I don't know what's what anymore."

Bonham gave him a sympathetic look before turning to the Major. "Is that all you needed from me, Major?"

"Not unless you can give me all the information on Project: Eroica," Klaus replied, receiving an astonished squeak in reply.

"It's probably in James' database," Eroica said without thinking.

"Database?" Klaus repeated. For the first time in his memory, he prayed the Earl would keep talking.

"His PDA was tied into it, I think."

"Where is it?"

"In his office in Castle Gloria," Eroica replied tersely. "You'll never get anywhere near it. You have an all points out on you, NATO wants your head on a pike, there's probably a bounty on you by now, and the Eroica gang-what's left of it-will be more than happy to take out Iron Klaus just for the shitty way you've treated them over the years."

"What's left of it?"

"What few government agents were at Castle Gloria were recalled a week after we started searching for you. The only ones left will be the real-" Eroica broke off, a startled look coming to his face. "Why the hell am I telling you this? I'm supposed to be arresting you!"

"Force of habit," Klaus replied, an amused smirk passing over his face.

"Smug bastard, taking advantage of a dying man..."

Klaus rolled his eyes but refrained from commenting. He stood thoughtfully a moment before asking, "What else is in that little bug's database?"

"Who knows?" Eroica moaned, waving a hand in the air. "Why don't you take Bonham to England so he can show you where it is and find out for yourself?"

* * *

Bonham knew Iron Klaus had balls. He'd seen the man on missions, facing down the KGB with little more than his overpowering personality. But this still didn't prepare him for the audacious plan the Major came up with in order to retrieve James' database. Even his own men were shocked by the plan, and not just because Klaus announced that he would be taking Bonham alone. It was the way he intended on going about it that shocked everyone into silence.

Before he left, P gave Klaus what little information he had discovered pertaining to Project: Eroica. It seemed that the operation had officially been proposed in the early 1970s, although P had been unable to find the exact specifics other than it was initiated by Richard Helms, who was removed as Director of Central Intelligence early in 1973. His short-lived replacement, James Schlesinger, did nothing concerning the project, which was very likely still in the developmental stages.

By the time William Colby, the next Director, was appointed, the U.S. was in the midst of the Watergate scandal. Colby put a temporary halt on the project. After the resignation of President Nixon in 1974, the project appeared to have been officially cancelled.

"Appeared to have been officially cancelled?" Klaus remarked as he read this highlighted section of P's notes.

"Yes, sir," P replied. "I'm in the process of trying to find the names of the persons put in charge of the project. I have those from the original one, but don't know if they're the ones who continued after the termination order came down. Or even if the termination order came down."

Klaus nodded approvingly. "Good. Keep digging." I want to know exactly who is responsible for making my life a living hell for the past twenty-five years.

It seemed clear that Project: Eroica had been cancelled on paper only to be carried out as a Black Ops for reasons yet to be determined. No wonder they were in such a hurry to eliminate the Earl. The head of the CIA in 1976, the same year that Eroica made his grand appearance, was George H. W. Bush, later President Bush, the father of the current U.S. President. Now, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the United States' current war on terror, this throwback to Watergate and the Cold War would be a monumental embarrassment, to say the very least. Just what did the CIA have Eroica doing all these years?

* * *

Bonham decided that he would think about this as just another job, doing as he always had, playing the part of manservant and right hand man. He glanced at the Major and shuddered. It had been difficult enough working with the man when the Earl was around to keep him under control. Now the man was wanted by every government agency on the planet, and he had to work with him one-on-one. Perhaps the Company really was trying to get them all killed.

"Will you relax," Klaus hissed under his breath. "This is first class. You're supposed to be calm, not fidgeting like a two-year old."

"Sorry," Bonham said in an equally low voice. "I'm always jittery in first class. Every time we fly this way, James pitches a fit about the cost."

Klaus gave a small grunt, leaned back, and closed his eyes. "Good. So long as you act normal."

Bonham gave him a stunned look, his eyes wide. Normal! There is nothing normal about any of this.

* * *

Bonham lead the way from the airport, a porter pulling a cartful of luggage behind him. He saw the Earl's car waiting at the curb and John Paul having an animated conversation with someone who seemed to want him to move. Bugger. Well, here goes...

"Bonham!" John Paul said happily, glaring at the security man at the same time. "I told you they'd be along in a moment."

The security man gave him a dark look, said a few choice words under his breath, and moved away.

John Paul turned back just as the older man moved to the rear of the car. Then he looked around. "Where're James and the Earl?"

"James is chasing a chance of a hint of a blip...or hell, he's on the estate in Bali sulking because we wanted to come back and check things this end," Bonham replied, as the porter loaded the luggage in the car. "As for the Earl, um..." He turned to the main doors just as a blond vision in a brightly colored, long, flowing, gauzy affair swept from the building and then stopped dead. "John Paul! What a marvelous surprise!"

Bonham winced at the way the disguised Klaus beamed at the man beside him. Don't look. Don't think. Don't want to be here.

"My lord," John Paul grinned, "you look fantastic. Is that new?"

The "Earl" twirled in place. "Isn't it fabulous? I got it in Istanbul. Or was it Sri Lanka?" He gave a tittering laugh, waving a hand in the air and causing the gold chains on his wrist to jangle. "Somewhere warm and tropical where people don't wear many clothes. James will know. He nearly had a cerebral hemorrhage when he saw the bill."

Bonham had to admit that the Major was just as good at impersonating the Earl as the Earl was at impersonating him. Better, perhaps, because he could be as outrageous as he wanted and no one would bat an eye.

John Paul leaned closer to Bonham's ear, saying in a low voice, "When you said Bali, I was almost expecting him to be wearing a sarong."

Bonham closed his eyes, shuddering at the mental image this produced. You don't know the half of it. This is already so wrong.

"How about these sunglasses?" the false Earl went on, motioning to the colorful plastic monstrosity on his face that successful hid the intensity of his wrong colored eyes.

"My lord, they're you," John Paul grinned.

"That's just what I thought!"

"M'lord, the bags are in the car," Bonham said woodenly as he pulled the rear door open.

"Splendid. I have so missed England." The "Earl" ran a hand under John Paul's chin as he walked passed him, adding, "And my boys." He looked at the porter briefly over the top of his sunglasses and smiled. "Make sure you tip this handsome young man...handsomely," he purred seductively.

Please, Lord, just kill me now so the Major won't have to later, Bonham prayed as the man got into the car and then called, "Come along, Bonham!"

"Yes, m'lord."

* * *

End Notes:
Enter Aoike-crack.
Raise, Call, Or Fold by Margaret Price

Chapter Seven

Raise, Call, Or Fold?

A decision a player must make after an initial bet to increase an additional amount, put in an equal amount, or drop out of the game entirely.

*

As the car pulled away from the airport, Bonham threw the false Earl a sideways glance before addressing the driver. "I expected Jones to be picking us up, not you, JP," he said mildly. "I thought all the government issued thieves got recalled."

John Paul threw a quick look into the rearview mirror, a puzzled look passing behind his eyes before he said, "They did. Probably forgot about me, I expect. Didn't think you'd come back. I had a feeling you might, though."

That's because they thought I'd've killed the bugger by now, the disguised Klaus thought darkly. He gave a small snort to signify his disgust in general before leaning back in his seat. "Has anything new come through since we left?" he asked mildly. "I'm getting tired of chasing shadows."

"Just the sudden activity from the Bali compound," John Paul replied. "Bonham said that's where you've come from, so it's not all that surprising. Especially since that's where you've left James."

Klaus did not reply, his reaction masked by the enormous sunglasses.

"I told JP that James was sulking," Bonham volunteered.

A small smile twitched at the edges of Klaus's mouth. "I supposed you could call it that."

John Paul threw another glance into the rearview mirror. "You both look knackered. Why don't you get some sleep? I'll wake you when we get to the Downs."

"Good idea," Bonham agreed quickly. "You get some sleep, m'lord."

Klaus turned to him but did not reply. He leaned further back in the seat, giving the appearance of dozing, but remaining alert the whole way to the Downs.

* * *

Klaus was rather amazed at the reception the "Earl" got when they arrived at Castle Gloria. The thieves that were left swarmed around him, issuing happy greetings, and arguing over who would carry in the luggage. He let Bonham sort everyone out as he followed John Paul inside. There was a further flurry of activity in the entryway before the three were left on their own again.

"Would you like to lie down for a while, m'lord?" John Paul asked mildly, glancing at Bonham and then to the main staircase.

Klaus gave him a steady look. "No," he said calmly, dropping all pretense at the same time. He saw John Paul throw a bewildered sideways glance in Bonham's direction. "You needn't pretend anymore, either," he said in his own voice.

This caused John Paul to jump, a startled look coming to his face. That wasn't the Earl's voice. It was very familiar, though. In fact, it sounded like...

"Oh, shit!"

A small smile curled the edges of Klaus's mouth. He surprised the men further by pulling a gun from beneath the voluminous outfit. "I've been in and out of this art gallery I don't know how many times over the past twenty-five years," he said calmly, "and never once have I heard you called ‘JP.' CIA?"

"SIS...sort of."

"Sort of. Because you were forgotten?"

"I suppose..." John Paul said evasively.

Klaus frowned but did not pursue the matter, turning his gaze back to Bonham.

"How the hell did you get that cannon past security?" Bonham demanded, finding his voice at last.

Klaus's amusement was clearly evident even behind the enormous sunglasses. "I didn't." Before he could go on, there was a knock at the front door. Bonham and John Paul exchanged a nervous look that turned to surprise when they were ordered to answer it, finding four men in business suits on the other side.

"Come in," Klaus called, going on to introduce Agents J, K, L, and M. "You didn't really think I would travel without backup, did you?" he said coldly.

Realization dawned. "When you stopped at the Gents in the airport..." Bonham gasped. "They were there already. That's when you got the gun."

"The new security measures only allow specific persons to carry firearms on planes," J informed calmly, "but that doesn't mean you can't check them through in your luggage. Especially with valid military ID."

John Paul looked at Agent K and caught his breath, recognizing him as the porter who had put the luggage into the car. K gave him a small smile before he turned to Klaus. "The database, sir?"

"James' office." Klaus finally removed the sunglasses as he turned to Eroica's men. "Take us to it," he then ordered.

* * *

A low whistle escaped Agent K when he took a seat before James' computer. "This is first class," he said in awe as he looked over the hardware.

John Paul and Bonham exchanged a nervous look. They were seating against the far wall under the watchful eyes--and guns--of the other Alphabets.

Klaus gave a non-committal grunt in reply. "Patch into the satellite uplink. I want to see what progress has been made in the last day."

"Yes, sir."

John Paul gave a small smile, thinking this would be impossible. Then K pulled out James' PDA and linked it into the computer. The device contained all of the passwords needed to get into any of the numerous systems. K still had some difficulty, and finally looked over at the captives.

Klaus followed his gaze. "Do you know how to get the link working?" he asked.

"Yes," John Paul replied. He folded his arms and sat back. "And before you ask, no, I'm not showing you how."

"He has the Earl and James hostage," Bonham informed nervously.

John Paul gave him a horrified look before turning to Klaus. The man had not removed his disguise, which he found very disconcerting. The Earl never had so intense a look in his eyes. "What are you gonna do to them if we don't cooperate?" he asked fearfully.

"Nothing," Klaus replied coldly. "Eroica is far too ill to--"

"Ill?" John Paul gasped, sitting bolt upright. "What did you do to him?"

"He has the flu," Klaus shot back angrily. "Christ, why is everyone so sure I'm gonna start using biological weapons?" He threw his hands in the air in disgust.

John Paul continued to eye him suspiciously. After a long pause, he said slowly, "I'll set up the link, but only if you let me talk to the Earl first. I want to hear he's okay from him."

Klaus scowled, his eyes narrowing. "Fine." He had K send an encrypted email to the others, utilizing a prearranged system. After several minutes, a reply came back acknowledging the order and stating that another message would be forthcoming when all was ready.

* * *

Within half an hour, a video link was established and Agent G was in front of the camera, his expression grave. "We've told Eroica that you want to speak with him, but I should warn you, he's very weak."

Despite himself, Klaus felt his heart turn over. Damn the man for making him care. "Why? What's happened?" he demanded before John Paul could even open his mouth. John Paul looked up at the man standing behind him and was stunned to see worry etched into his usually unreadable features.

A guilty look came to G's face. "Nothing," he said quickly. "We moved him to his own room in the main house yesterday, that's all. He's been awake all night coughing, so we called the doctor this morning. He's concerned about the results of the blood work."

"Shit, don't tell me the idiot really does have Malaria," Klaus moaned.

"No, sir." G had to fight to keep a straight face. "But the doctor's insisting that the Earl be hospitalized if there's no improvement in the next forty-eight hours."

There was a long pause as Klaus thought this over. There would be no way of controlling the Earl if he were hospitalized. He could expose everything the moment he was left alone. Conversely, if he were not given proper medical treatment, it could endanger the man's health, possibly fatally.

"What are your orders?" G asked finally.

"Do as the doctor instructs," Klaus replied. "If Eroica says anything to jeopardize your position, use the cover story--"

"No, sir!"

"Yes, dammit, you'll do as I say. You tell them that you and the others were unaware that this was not a sanctioned mission. I won't have you following me into a court-martial and trial for treason."

"Sir, we knew what we were getting into--"

"I don't have a wife and family waiting for me to come home to like some of the others, G. And I'll be hanged if I do the CIA's dirty work and allow Eroica to die from something as simple as influenza!" Klaus said adamantly. "Is that clear?"

Before G could respond, Eroica said, "Let me talk to him, G." The agent turned and then moved out of the way so the Earl was on camera. He looked drawn, haggard and...well, ill.

"You really do care, don't you, Major?" Eroica said in mild surprise. He saw several things flash across the German's face, the pained expression being one of them. Then he realized how his words might be taken as a taunt and quickly said, "I won't betray your Alphabet. I care about them, too. Whatever quarrel we may have, I hold nothing against them. Your men are very loyal."

Klaus glanced down at John Paul. "As are yours. My compliments."

A short coughing fit prevented the Earl from replying. He struggled to focus on the split screen showing himself and the Major. Then he really looked at it, squinted a moment before his eyes opened wide. "Good God, Major! Are you actually dressed as me? I thought I was seeing double."

Klaus shifted uncomfortably on his feet. He had yet to remove his disguise and quickly pulled off the curly blond wig. "After all the times you've impersonated me, it's about time I did it to you."

Eroica leaned back on his pillows and gave a small laugh. "Oh, John Paul, you must get a picture of this for me. It's a Kodak moment if ever I saw one."

John Paul could not prevent the smile from coming to his face at the loud harrumph this remark produced from the Major. "M'lord, I wanted to make sure that you and James were unharmed," he said quickly.

"I haven't seen James since Jakarta," Eroica replied. "The Alphabet tell me he's still safe and unharmed. Bonham was with him until the doctor was called. I'm sure he can tell you better than I can."

"And yourself, sir?"

The Earl gave him a wry smile. "I'm in a beautiful, exotic, dare I say, romantic location that's surrounded by bohemians, artists, and..." he said with as much of his old flamboyance as he could muster before he sighed heavily. "And I feel like death warmed over." As if to punctuate this, he had another small coughing fit. "Bugger, I wish I could stop coughing," he muttered. Then in a serious tone, he said, "I'm otherwise unharmed. It's your decision, of course, but I think it might be in everyone's best interest to cooperate. Things aren't anything like we were led to believe."

This last remark surprised even Klaus, who had to struggle to keep his face neutral. "What of your band of thieves?"

"That's up to them," Eroica replied. He gave the officer an admiring look. "You know, I really didn't think you'd go to England to get James' database, Major. And I certainly wouldn't've thought you'd do it dressed as me. You continue to amaze me."

"Good. If I'm still unpredictable to you, then no one will be able to guess my movements."

Klaus's eyes narrowed when the Earl leaned back and closed his eyes. The man looked and sounded horrible. "Don't you dare die before I get back, you CIA son-of-a-bitch. I've made a promise to kill you with my bare hands. No flu bug is gonna steal that privilege from me."

Eroica could not help smiling. "And here I thought it was because you cared about me, too," he sighed in mock disappointment.

"Don't push it, Eroica."

"Is that an order, Major?"

"Damn right!" Klaus suddenly realized he had allowed his amusement to creep into his voice as well as show in his usually stern features. He was instantly serious again. "G!" he thundered.

G's face appeared before the camera. "Sir!"

"Have A get ready with his report. We'll reestablish the video link with him in the operations room."

"Yes, sir." From behind him, G heard, "Major...?" and moved aside.

"What now?" Klaus asked impatiently, although his tone wasn't nearly as sharp as it had been in the past.

Eroica gave a small smile. "Good luck."

"You idiot," Klaus snorted, cutting the link.

Bonham had been watching the Major intently during this entire conversation. As John Paul got up to allow K to take his place, he noticed that the worried look on the officer's face actually seemed to deepen. "Strewth! It's true."

Klaus came out of his daze and turned to Bonham in some bewilderment. "What's true?"

"You...and the Earl," came the amazed reply. "He said it finally happened. I--we--didn't believe it. You're in love with him. That's what he meant about you really caring. It wasn't about your men, it was about him."

Klaus stiffened visibly. He could feel all the eyes in the room on him. His own men were privy to the truth, although he knew even they were in shock. "What difference does it make now?" he replied sharply. "The man who professed his undying love and devotion was a lie. An illusion."

"He's still the same person physically. And don't forget, Major, I saw you when the doctor gave his diagnosis," Bonham pointed out. "You had that same look on your face just now."

"That proves nothing," Klaus snapped defensively.

"Doesn't it? You're concerned enough about his health to endanger your freedom to see he gets proper medical attention. If that's not love, I don't know what is."

Klaus felt his face burning, his heart suddenly in his mouth. Dammit, this is why I never wanted to get involved. Now my judgment's gone straight to hell. It was Bonham's next words that really stopped his heart. "Help him with the database, John Paul."

"What?" John Paul was obviously horrified by this. "Are you mad? You don't know what's been going on here."

Bonham drew a deep breath. "And you don't know how the Company planned to end the project."

John Paul's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

"Tell him," Klaus ordered. "He'll never believe me."

John Paul looked from one to another. "Tell me what?"

Bonham drew a deep breath, telling the horrified John Paul exactly what had been planned to end Project: Eroica. Upon hearing this, the other man's knees practically gave way. The Major was nearest and caught him as he fell, helping him to sit down, and then ordering someone to bring a glass of water. He had expected a strong reaction, but hardly expected the man to nearly pass out.

"Disavowed..." John Paul muttered. "That's what happened. I wasn't forgotten. I was disavowed."

Klaus scowled and looked over at Bonham. "What's he babbling about?" He received a don't-look-at-me shrug in reply.

All Bonham could think of was the American television program Mission: Impossible. "The Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions." Surely, he can't be meaning that.

John Paul looked up, his eyes glassy, automatically taking the glass of water as it was handed to him. "The others...who were recalled," he said quietly. "They never made it back."

"What?" This was Bonham, who now stood before the shaken John Paul. "Make sense, man!"

"They were ordered to take the Earl's jet back to Langley."

"But the jet's still in Jakarta," Bonham replied. Then he turned to the equally bewildered Klaus. "Isn't it?"

"Still undergoing repairs," Klaus verified.

John Paul looked Bonham in the eye. "The others. They never made it. The plane went down over the Channel. Engine trouble supposedly." He gave the Major an apologetic look. "We thought you'd done something, Major. That you thought the Earl was onboard."

The horrified Bonham gave a small strangled noise, seeing an equally horrified expression flash across the Major's face.

"How many onboard?" Klaus asked.

"Three, plus the pilot."

"Bloody hell!" Bonham exclaimed. "They're gonna pick us off one at a time!"

Klaus exchanged a knowing look with his men. "That should've been obvious when they ordered you to kill the Earl," he said bluntly.

John Paul made a visible effort to get hold of himself before saying, "I'm with you, Major."

Klaus gave him a steady look. "Just because you think your superiors are out to kill you doesn't mean I'm gonna trust you."

John Paul nodded. He expected no less. "A truce, then?"

Klaus considered and then nodded. That he could live with. "Yes, a truce." Because I'd really like to know who is so keen on eliminating some of the most talented agents I've ever encountered.

* * *

Cards On The Table by Margaret Price

Chapter Eight

Cards On The Table

Being up front in telling someone what one thinks or is planning to do.

*

It took a few minutes before the video link with A was finally established. Klaus listened as the update, or lack there of, was given on the team's progress in his original mission.

"Nothing yet from the black market sources," A was saying, "but they promise to have something within the next few days."

Klaus gave a derisive snort. "They've been saying that for weeks now, bloody Arabs. It's always tomorrow with them. Why is it the only ones with any ambition are the terrorists?"

A small smile played across A's face but he did not reply. He had heard this several times over the past few weeks, not that he didn't agree.

"Anything else?" Klaus asked.

"D and E managed to contact someone who may be able to bypass the black market altogether. The man claims to have a source, but wants front money before he'll give any further information."

"How much?"

"One million U.S. dollars."

Bonham gave a low whistle when he heard this.

Klaus's only reaction was raised eyebrows. He stood thoughtfully a moment and then nodded. "Fine. We'll be in touch using the next designated channel."

The link was cut and Klaus turned to look at Eroica's men. "How does one go about getting something to eat in this art museum?" he asked calmly.

* * *

Eroica watched as Agent G shut down the computer and moved it out of the way. "I meant what I said, G," he said in as forceful a tone as he could manage.

G turned, a puzzled look on his face. "When?"

"Just now, to the Major. I won't betray any of you." Eroica closed his eyes. "I considered you friends once. I...hope to again."

G's eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure everyone will agree after what you did to the Major."

Eroica's eyes snapped open. "I did not go out of my way to hurt the man!" he said defensively. "Why doesn't anyone believe that?"

The agent folded his arms, cocking his head to one side. "Probably because of the evidence."

"What evidence? You mean the obvious evidence that Major Klaus Heinz von dem Homophobic Straight Arrow was as queer as a three dollar bill?" Eroica asked sharply. He received a scowl in reply. "Look. Surely as an agent, you can understand that I had a mission to complete and orders to follow. Information was leaking out of NATO. The most and least likely candidate was Iron Klaus."

"Most and least?"

"Most because he had access to more sensitive information than the average agent. Least because...well, he's Iron Klaus."

G could not help smiling at this. It made perfect sense when laid out this way.

"I was supposed to get close to him. I tried to impress on my superiors that the Major did not fit the profile in Eroica's bio of his preferred type. But would they listen?"

"Eroica has a bio?"

The Earl actually laughed. "Of course. Did you think I made it up as I went along? The combination of Lord Gloria and Eroica were my cover. Eroica's official preference is younger men. Naïve blonds, like Z was the first time I met him." He gave a small smile. "As a narcissist, I was supposed to be attracted to men who look like me. Not older, dark-haired, über-alpha males like Iron Klaus. I'm sure I teased him more than I should have, but...it was just so easy getting a rise out of him." He paused briefly, his eyes fixed in the distance. "I wanted to tell him the truth so many times. That's why I said ‘I love you.' I couldn't say I admired him as a fellow agent, but as Eroica, I could say that. After a while, it...didn't even seem like flirting."

"You're the only one who ever had the balls to goad him like that."

Eroica sighed heavily. "I always hoped to one day call him my friend. I never dreamed that...when the mission was over, he'd hate my guts more than ever."

G had to fight not to laugh. "He doesn't hate you."

"Yes, he does. And I don't blame him."

This time G did laugh. "The Major is right, you are an idiot."

Eroica gave him a stunned look. "What?"

"You're just as blind as he is--was," G said, shaking his head. "He doesn't hate you, he loves you."

"You mean he loves the man he thought I was?"

"And none of it was you, is that what you're saying?" G frowned at the puzzled look this remark produced. Then his eyes widened as a sudden thought struck him. "Please tell me you weren't a straight man playing gay all this time."

A tired smile flashed over Eroica's features. "No. Like the real Earl, I'm as queer as a three dollar bill, too. Another of the reasons I was chosen, I reckon."

"So what is John Marshall's preferred type?"

Eroica opened his mouth, only to close it again, the puzzled look returning. "I don't know. James used to drill me for hours when this all started. Don't break character. Don't deviate from the bio. Don't ask about the real Earl, you are the Earl now." He closed his eyes and sighed. "I wonder if the little twit really is an accountant."

"You don't know?" came the surprised reply.

"I don't even know what agency he works for," Eroica admitted. "He's so damned organized. Kept track of all the money so that--" He caught his breath as an extraordinary thought struck him. "Good Lord, what if he's a Treasury agent?"

G's eyes narrowed. He stored this bit of information away to pass on to the Major later. "You should try to get some sleep now that that cough medicine seems to've started working," he said at last. "You'll be able to think better once you've gotten some sleep."

Eroica nodded, turning on his side and closing his eyes. "I'll try."

* * *

Bonham went about ordering some food while John Paul pulled up a seat beside Agent K, who had already started a search of James' database. Klaus told him to look for everything on Project: Eroica. Finding the files turned out to be relatively simple. Opening them was not, as they were encrypted. The men at the computer, expert hackers both, had no doubt that the encryption codes were somewhere in James' PDA. If not, they would just break in somehow.

After several minutes of searching other files, K sat back, giving a low whistle. "Sir, I think we've found the stingy bug's inventory listing," he announced.

Klaus's eyebrows went up. "Inventory? Of what?"

"Everything." K gave John Paul a sideways glance.

John Paul was in the process of scrolling down the list. "If this means what I think it does..." He looked up. "It looks like James was embezzling from the Earl."

"WHAT?" everyone in the room chorused.

"Let me see that!" Bonham demanded, charging across the room. Agent K looked up, receiving a nod from Klaus. He rolled his chair sideways to allow the man to see the screen. "That little son-of-a-bitch!"

The meal arrived at that moment, but was ignored as John Paul took the lead to finish hacking into James' computer. Within a short time, he had broken into several files, finding details of black market transactions, large cash transfers, and some sizeable bank accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

"Something tells me none of this was a part of the operation," Klaus remarked aridly. By this time, he had pulled off the disguise and was seated in a large easy chair, watching as Eroica's men did the work for him.

Bonham had to fight not to snap at him in anger, the smug bastard. He was right and was happily reveling in it. "Major, I have a request."

Klaus's eyebrows went up. "Which is?"

"To accompany you back to Bali so I can strangle James."

This actually made the Major laugh. He got to his feet, crossing to the food that was quickly growing cold. "Give me access to those accounts and I'll give you first crack at him."

"Done."

"What?" John Paul gasped. "Bonham, you don't even know what he wants it for."

The Major's eyes flickered. "Has it ever occurred to any of you to just ask?"

* * *

Several hours later, John Paul had pulled a vast amount of information from James' private computer network. In one section, he found the information on every job Eroica had ever pulled, including a complete inventory of what was stolen, if it had been sold, or where it was currently stored.

Klaus soon realized that this was only the tip of the iceberg. It would take days, probably weeks to go through everything thoroughly. Weeks that he could not afford to spend in a NATO country. "We'll have to take everything with us," he concluded. He looked at the bulky equipment and scowled. "Now, how do we transport that lot?" he said to no one in particular. "I was hoping to use the Earl's jet, but that won't be ready for another day. We can't exactly check this in at the airport. And I don't want to trust it to a freight company."

Bonham's could not hide the smile that came to his face. "Major, the Earl has more than just the jet."

Klaus looked up sharply. "If you're gonna suggest that Zeppelin, forget it. It's too slow."

"And the submarine?"

Klaus blinked. Then his eyes lit up. "Where?"

* * *

Eroica's submarine Aqua Zep was housed on an off-shore island along with his Zeppelin and several other large pieces of equipment. It was also where the overflow of artwork was housed, and Klaus wondered what else might be hidden there.

Before going to retrieve the sub, Klaus decided to address the Eroica gang; to lay out exactly what was going on, the true nature of affairs, and the true identity of the Earl. He surprised everyone by announcing that he planned to do so as himself.

"Major, I really don't think this is a good idea," Bonham said as everyone in the house assembled in the next room. There was still time for the officer to get back into his disguise. "They'll do anything for the Earl..."

"I know." Klaus gave him a piercing look. "And I'm not the Earl. I'm the one who scares the hell out of them." He received a hesitant nod in reply. He drew himself to his full, imposing height and turned toward the door. "I'm not gonna lie to them. They deserve to know the truth and they deserve to know who's telling it to them." So saying, he strode into the next room followed by his men, the reluctant Bonham trailing behind.

There was a collective gasp followed by an awed silence as the officer moved at the front of the room. He turned and surveyed the astonished faces a few seconds. Then he drew a deep breath and did something that no one expected. He asked the Eroica gang for help.

By the time the Major finished addressing the group, everyone's heads were spinning. The Earl CIA? The others killed? Bonham and John Paul spies? James...well, they could believe anything of him.

"Eroica said the decision is up to you lot. I won't force anyone to get involved in this. Talk it over and let me know what you decide. I'll be in the garden." With that, Klaus strode from the room. The moment he closed the door, the room erupted into conversation.

For the first time in weeks, Klaus found himself wishing he had a cigarette as he strode out into the rose garden to await the verdict. He looked at the hundreds of roses in full bloom and was reminded sharply of Dorian. This thought brought him up short. Dorian. Not Eroica or Lord Gloria. Not even Agent Marshall. Yes, this garden belonged to the real Earl of Gloria. The man named Dorian, whose current whereabouts were unknown.

Klaus turned to take in the full splendor of the magnificent and well kept garden. Where are you, Lord Gloria? Why did you give all this up? Or did you? Did you leave all this willingly?

* * *

Ante Up by Margaret Price

Chapter Nine

Ante Up

A small forced bet that everyone at the table is required to pay before each hand in order to participate in the game.

*

Klaus was more than a little stunned when the Eroica gang unanimously agreed to assist him in his quest to get to the bottom of Project: Eroica. He realized later that it really should not have surprised him. Bonham had stressed more than once that the thieves were staunchly loyal to the Earl.

Or at least, to the man they thought to be the Earl.

Klaus shook this thought from his head. No, he could not allow himself to be distracted this way. Until he could prove otherwise, the man lying sick in a bed in Bali was the Earl of Gloria, which meant he would somehow have to go about locating the real Earl.

Klaus gave orders for the entire computer network to be dismantled and readied for transport, leaving the satellite uplink functional until the very last minute. Anyone who wished to accompany him was to pack and be ready to leave when he returned with Eroica's submarine.

Eventually, Bonham managed to pull the officer aside and point out that supplies would have to be laid in before any journey could be undertaken. And since it was highly probable that there would be more items on the island that the officer would want to take along, Bonham managed to persuade Klaus to allow everyone the time to get ready before he departed for the island. At least until the next morning.

"Why don't you get some sleep, Major?" Bonham suggested finally. "You have to be knackered by now." With all the different flights and connections, it had taken nearly a full day to get to England, and the older man was certain the officer had only taken a few thirty-minute catnaps along the way. He himself had practically passed out in his seat on the final leg of the journey.

The Major's reply was a dark look.

"You're in no danger from us, Major. And even if you were, surely that's why you brought your men. To watch your back." Bonham paused a beat before adding logically, "Even Iron Klaus can't stay awake forever."

Klaus was grudgingly forced to concede defeat. He had scarcely slept at all in the long journey from Bali, and had been on his feet for hours since his arrival in England. As Bonham had so succinctly put it, he was indeed knackered. And there was no doubting that he would have a long day ahead of him when he finally got to the island where the Aqua Zep was housed.

"Who took the Major's things upstairs?" Bonham called out to the group of thieves that was in the process of breaking up.

"I did," replied a man who looked only a few years older than the officer himself.

Bonham nodded. "Craig'll show you the way, Major."

Klaus silently following the man up the stairs. To his surprise, he was led to the Earl's bedroom. "Why here?" he asked sharply.

Craig cleared his throat nervously. "Well, when you arrived, we thought you were his lordship, didn't we?"

Klaus closed his eyes and groaned inwardly. He was tired. "Yes."

"Bonham said not to unpack your things because you were leaving shortly." Craig held out a hand, indicating the untouched luggage across the room. "Would you rather use another room?" he then asked mildly.

Klaus considered. The Earl's room was at the back of the house, away from the current flurry of activity. He shook his head. "No, don't bother. It'll just slow everyone down."

Craig did not reply. He simply nodded and left, closing the door behind him.

Klaus took in the room, recalling the last time he had been there. The night he had broken into the castle to confront the Earl. The night before the world ended. He sat down on the bed, kicking off his shoes. How pathetic is this? Sleeping in the man's bed to get close to him. A man who doesn't exist!

For the second time that day, Klaus found himself wishing he had a cigarette. He lay back on the bed and closed his eyes, sighing heavily. Perhaps he should sleep in another room. This was the last thought to go through his mind before he practically passed out from exhaustion.

* * *

At some point during the night, Klaus had woken long enough to climb under the blanket before settling back into sleep. It was the sun coming in the window that finally woke him fully. He had completely forgotten to draw the curtains, which was probably a good thing. Being awake all those hours had completely thrown off his internal clock. He sat up, looked at his watch, and then at a clock, realizing he didn't know if his body thought it should be on German or Indonesian time, the latter of which was six hours ahead of his current location. He looked around the room, getting his bearings, only to have a legion of conflicting emotions inundate his senses. Emotions he was not prepared to deal with at the moment.

Klaus showered, dressed, and then made a thorough search of the Earl's bathroom and large, walk-in closet. He found himself surprised when he saw how the clothes were organized. Outrageous outfits on one side, relatively conservative on the other. At the back of the closet was a large mirror with rows of drawers on either side, similarly organized. Was this Eroica on one side, and Agent Marshall on the other? Or just respectable Earl on one side, over the top pervert on the other?

Klaus exited the room just as Agent M was coming down the hall to wake him. The agent did not even bat an eye when he saw his commanding officer already awake and dressed. He simply stopped, waited for him to get to where he stood, and then turned, giving Klaus a status report as they made their way toward the kitchen. To Klaus's surprise, breakfast was already in the process of being prepared. He looked at the clock to reassure himself that the clock in the Earl's room hadn't stopped. It was indeed only just past six o'clock in the morning.

"No one could sleep, sir," M informed.

From across the room, the cook rejoined, "They were bored. Haven't had a decent job since his lordship left." He grinned when Klaus turned to look at him. "Bonham says you're in charge, Major. So...? What can I prepare for the man in charge?" he asked brightly.

Klaus was taken aback by this. The majority of Eroica's men were petrified of him, the remainder wary, which seemed to include the kitchen staff as well. The cook, whose name turned out to actually be Cooke, seemed to be the exception. "I'll eat whatever you make for everyone else," he replied diplomatically.

Cooke gave him a toothy grin. "Okay," he said happily.

Klaus noticed M was trying very hard not to smirk. He was also failing miserably. The officer waved a hand at him. "Don't just stand there, M, get the others," he said with only a hint of disapproval in his voice. "No, wait... Who was last on watch?"

"L, sir."

"Let him sleep. He can eat later."

This time M did smirk. "Yes, sir." So saying, he left the kitchen.

Cooke suddenly produced a jar of Nescafé from a cupboard and set it on the table in front of the Major. "I've had orders to keep this in stock at all times," he informed as he went on to produce a mug and spoon. "I've already put kettle on." Before the officer could reply, Cooke was turning to his assistants, who seemed to be huddling near the doorway. "Well, come on, you lot. Breakfast won't cook itself."

The assistants made some affirming noises and started to scurry about the kitchen as orders were given.

Klaus ignored this activity as he sat down at the table and measured out the coffee. A few seconds later, the kettle was whistling. "Are you the one responsible for organizing the supplies for the sub?" he asked as Cooke was pouring water into his mug.

"I am," Cooke said happily. "If you're worried I'll forget your coffee, don't be. I've put it at the top of the additions list."

Klaus's eyebrows went up. "Additions list?"

Cooke returned the kettle to the stovetop and retrieved a notebook. He sat down beside the Major and flipped it open. It had tabbed dividers, and he flipped to the section for the Aqua Zep. "I have a standard list of necessary dry goods," he said, sliding the book over so Klaus could see it. "Another for perishables. All I need to know is how many people for how many days, and I can calculate what's needed." He pulled a lined tablet from the back that already had some items written on it, the first indeed being "Nescafé for the Major" in bold script.

Klaus had to admit to being impressed as he scanned down the list. "I'll get an exact head count at breakfast. And we'll be able to stop and pick up supplies along the way, if need be."

Cooke nodded. "That'll help. I'm takin' what I can from the castle stores. Might have to have the lads, um...procure what I can't get right away so as not to slow things down. I assume you'll be wanting to leave as soon as possible?"

"Yes. And if by procure you mean steal, then don't tell me the details."

Cooke chuckled. "Okay."

Klaus had a sudden thought. "Are you procuring because of time or money?"

Cooke's eyebrows went up. The Major was just as direct as he'd always heard. "Both, actually. With James suddenly, well...away, shall we say, the household account is running a bit dry."

"I can take care of that."

Cooke sat back, a surprised look on his face. "Really?"

Klaus nodded, taking a sip of his coffee. "We located Mr. James' hidden accounts. I'll have John Paul arrange a wire transfer into the household account after breakfast. Just let him know how much you need."

"Major, we are thieves," Cooke reminded him with a grin.

Klaus gave him a sideways look. "I thought there was supposed to be honor among thieves," he remarked aridly.

Cooke burst out laughing, slapping a hand on the table. "By God, Major, call me crazy, but I like having you in charge." Before the officer could think of a suitable reply, Cooke picked up a pen, pulling the tablet in front of him. "I suppose I should figure on the sub's full capacity to calculate the number of bodies I'm to be feeding," he said practically.

"Possibly. I don't know yet. I can't take everyone. Somebody's gotta stay behind and take care of the castle."

"Oh, don't you worry ‘bout that, Major. Not all the staff moonlights as thieves."

"Oh? Such as?"

"The grounds staff, for instance. They kind of came with the castle. Even have their own quarters separate from the main house."

This revelation caught Klaus's attention. "What do you mean ‘came with the castle'?"

"You'll have to talk to the senior Mr. Ashford for all the details." Cooke glanced out the window, seeing the man in question already at work in the garden. "To hear him tell it, his family's worked for various members of the nobility in these parts going back to the Norman Conquest."

Klaus was already on his feet. "I think I'll do just that." So saying, he headed out to the garden.

* * *

Klaus had a brief but informative conversation with the senior gardener while the man tended the hundreds of rose bushes. He learned that the Earl's parents divorced when he was in his early teens, the castle having been sold at that time. The cause of the breakup was unclear, although Ashford clearly recalled numerous heated arguments between Lord and Lady. In the end, Lady Gloria left with her three daughters, leaving the young master in his father's care.

Ashford recalled that the Earl and his son moved to Cornwall after the castle was sold. The buyer did not have any interest in maintaining the property, so the servants were dismissed. Naturally, this meant that Castle Gloria fell into disrepair as it sat vacant.

When Klaus asked how Ashford managed to return to the castle, he was told that after the Earl bought the castle back, an agency was employed to search out the servants previously employed there. This was when Ashford learned that the young master Dorian was now the current Earl and had managed to buy back his ancestral home.

"When was this?" Klaus wanted to know.

Ashford stood thoughtfully a moment. "Oh, back in the 70s some time."

Klaus took a stab at the year that Agent P mentioned as being when the Earl reappeared after apparently falling off the face of the Earth. "1976, possibly?"

Ashford frowned. Then his face lit up. "Yes, that's it! The year before the Silver Jubilee. My Mabel was right happy to be back in our old quarters in time to get ‘em all spruced up. She had bunting everywhere by June." Ashford shook his head. "Funny that, what with the Golden Jubilee bein' this year."

Klaus nodded absently, being more surprised to hear of the existence of even a single female on the grounds of Castle Gloria. "And you didn't see the present Lord Gloria in all that time?"

"No. I didn't even know until that agency called that his father passed, God rest his soul. The young master's grown into quite a good-looking young man, hasn't he? Even with him being queer and all." Ashford nodded at the rose bush he had been tending. "Perhaps that's why he finally took such a keen interest in the rose garden. Never bothered with it when he was a lad."

Klaus's eyebrows went up when he heard this. "As if he were a completely different person..." he remarked quietly.

Ashford gave the officer a bewildered look but was prevented from commenting when someone called out that breakfast was ready to be served.

* * *

Mechanic by Margaret Price

Chapter Ten

Mechanic

A person who can expertly manipulate a deck of cards.

*

"I'm not even gonna ask where you got this," Klaus said as he climbed into the helicopter that Bonham appeared with shortly after breakfast. He strapped himself into the co-pilot seat, Agents J and K along with John Paul and Jones climbing into the back and strapping in. Agents L and M remained behind to oversee the preparations and insure that no one decided to go back on their word. The Major reasoned he would be able to determine exactly how many men needed to be ferried over once he saw the submarine. He would need at least enough to get it back to England.

Bonham had an uncharacteristically superior expression on his face. "I'll tell you anyway," he grinned. "I got it from NATO. As far as they're concerned, Major, you are still Agent Marshall."

Klaus had to fight not to laugh. Then a sudden thought struck him and his eyes grew wide. "You did check this thing over, I hope. I don't wanna end up in the Channel in pieces."

"Jones and I checked her from stem to stern, Major. Didn't we, Jonesy?" Bonham called.

"Clean as a whistle," Jones replied from the back. He looked over at his twin brother and grinned. "I have to look after my kid brother."

"I'll kid brother you!" John Paul snorted as he finished strapping into his seat. He was younger by a whole two minutes. "Old coot!"

Bonham ignored this all too familiar argument from the Jones boys. During breakfast, Klaus had learned that while John Paul was an SIS supplied thief, this brother was not. In fact, the only reason Jones was a member of the gang at all was because of his brother. He had failed to realize his dream as a famous Formula One driver, and ended up as the Earl's wheel man, eventually learning to drive or fly anything Eroica required for a heist.

"Not long after we started hunting for you, Major, his lordship became convinced he'd been given the assignment so you two'd kill each other," Bonham was saying as they lifted off. "Save everyone the trouble."

"Do you doubt that now?" Klaus wanted to know.

"No, sir. I'm beginning to think he suspected a great deal more than he's telling."

* * *

The storage facility on the island turned out to be a renovated fortress. The newer buildings had been constructed in the same style so as not to stand out from above. In fact, the building that housed the Earl's Zeppelin was so well camouflaged, Klaus did not even notice it until after they had landed.

Bonham introduced the Major to the facility's caretakers, who turned out to be a group of retired thieves. They maintained everything in the collection with meticulous care and took great pride in giving the officer a tour. While this was going on, Bonham and Agent J returned to Castle Gloria to shuttle the next group to the island.

Klaus was following behind the most senior caretaker, who had been introduced simply as Mark. "Bonham tells me you keep the sub ready to go at all times," he said in as offhand a manner as possible.

"We keep everything maintained in top working condition," Mark replied. "Even that tank the Earl stole over twenty years ago."

Klaus stopped dead in his tracks upon hearing this. "Tank?" he gasped. Behind him, he heard the Jones boys laugh. He turned to look at them, his eyes wide. "My tank? It's here?"

Eroica's men could not help grinning at the expression on the officer's face. "Yes, Major," came the amused reply. "It's been here the whole time."

Klaus could scarcely contain his excitement. "Show me," he said, waving his hands in the air.

Mark scowled, uncertain what was going on. He led the way to a large warehouse in the center of which sat the Major's missing Leopard tank. The officer strode over to it, examining it from all sides before climbing up and then dropping into the hatch.

"Should he be doing that?" Mark asked nervously.

Jones shot a knowing look back at Agent K, who was watching his superior in unconcealed amusement. Klaus looked like a small child on Christmas morning who had asked for a toy and been given the real thing.

Jones looked at his grinning brother before turning back to Mark. "He's the one Lord Gloria stole it from in the first place," he informed. "Been trying to get it back ever since."

"Oooh, he's that Major." Whatever Mark said after that was drowned out by the tank's engine. Its roar was deafening inside the warehouse and forced everyone to cover their ears. When the turret started to rotate, John Paul leaned over to Mark and shouted, "There're no shells in there, I hope!"

Mark grinned, shaking his head vigorously.

A few seconds later, the Major cut the engine and popped his head out of the hatch. To the astonishment of all present, he was grinning from ear to ear. "Klasse!"

"I didn't think he knew how to smile," Jones said in amazement.

"Nor I," replied K. He received a startled looked from Jones before he burst out laughing.

"Enough of that," Klaus said in as serious a tone as he could manage as he strode back to the others. "We've work to do."

"Just waiting for orders, sir," K replied, unsuccessful in his attempt to wipe the grin off his face.

Mark shifted nervously on his feet. "Does the tank meet with your approval, Major?"

"It does." Klaus threw a glance back at the massive piece of machinery. "I'd like to take it to Langley and use it to--" He broke off as an extraordinary thought struck him. He spun around and looked at the tank, his eyes narrowing. He put a hand to his chin, a thoughtful look passed over his face. "Langley..." he practically whispered. "Why didn't I...?"

"Sir...?" K ventured.

Klaus turned back to the others, who saw Iron Klaus appear for the first time since his arrival in England. "You two see what you can make of the computers we saw upstairs," he said to K and John Paul. "If they're like the ones at Castle Gloria, get them ready for transport. Jones, you're with me." He turned back to Mark. "Let's see what condition that sub is in."

"Yes, sir." K replied.

Jones exchanged a look of mutual bewilderment with the others before he hurried after the officer who was already striding across the warehouse, his heels sounding like gunshots on the concrete floor.

"You don't really think he's seriously considering taking that to Langley, do you?" John Paul asked as he watched the others cross the large room.

"I wouldn't put it past him."

"Neither would I. That's what I'm afraid of." John Paul gave K a steady look and then started to laugh. "But I'd pay real money to see him pull it off."

* * *

Klaus stood at doorway of James' office, waiting for the link with Bali to be established. Behind him, he could hear the bangs and thuds as luggage and cargo was taken outside for transport to the sub. He had stunned everyone when he announced that they were not going to Indonesia as originally planned. The new destination was Langley, Virginia. CIA Headquarters, to be specific. Klaus reasoned he'd never learn anything about Project: Eroica unless he went directly to the source, which meant going to the U.S. It also meant doing it disguised as the Earl of Gloria.

Once Bonham got over the shock, he tried to talk the Major out of this decision. Then Klaus informed him what his men had learned pertaining to the legitimacy, or lack there of, of the operation.

"James' database has the name Gregory Tomlinson as the man in charge of the original operation," Klaus informed. "Is this correct?"

"Yes, Major. Still is," Bonham replied. He cleared his throat before adding, "He'd also very likely be the one who gave the order to kill the Earl."

A dark cloud passed over the Major's face upon hearing this.

"There was a doctor working alongside him at the start," Bonham volunteered. "I'll be damned if I can remember his name. I just remember it was something...er, German sounding and a mile long. He could be the one what did the Earl's...er, Agent Marshall's plastic surgery."

Klaus nodded. Then a sudden thought struck him and his eyes narrowed. "Did you ever meet the real Earl?"

Bonham shook his head. "No, sir. Nor Agent Marshall. Not ‘til he came to England. Tomlinson didn't want us confusing the two." He saw a thoughtful look pass behind the Major's eyes. "Major, just what exactly do you hope to learn in Virginia?"

"I'm not sure," Klaus replied vaguely. "The location of the documentation on Project: Eroica, perhaps."

"If what you say is true about it being an unauthorized Black Ops, I doubt it's in the official archive." A small knowing smile came to the older man's face and he gave the Major a sideways glance. "Just give us a location, Major. The lads'll be more than happy to steal it for you."

At that moment, a call came from across the room that the video link was working and Klaus called back that he would be there directly. He then turned to Bonham. "Perhaps one of the ‘lads' should fly ahead and do a recce of the area," he suggested.

Bonham broke into a broad smile. "I know just who to send." With that, he set off to pull the men in question from the group preparing to board the sub.

* * *

Klaus arrived to find the image of a very worried Agent A on screen. The worried expression changed to one of awe when his superior informed him that the funds they needed for their original operation had been procured. And then some.

Klaus laid out his plans to go to the United States and gave orders for his men to see what they could find out about the man Tomlinson. They were also to see if they could find out the name of the doctor who performed Agent Marshall's plastic surgery, as well as the man's current location.

"Are you putting the other mission on hold, sir?" A asked.

"No. That moves forward as planned," Klaus replied firmly.

"Yes, sir."

"I'll be out of contact until the sub is out to sea. Consider the mission on radio silence until I contact you. You have your orders if there's an emergency."

"Yes, sir. Good luck, sir."

* * *

Klaus watched as the last of the computer equipment was broken down for transport. Craig, who had taken him to his room the night before, suddenly appeared in the doorway. He moved aside as some equipment was carried out before crossing to the Major.

"I understand you're gonna be impersonating the Earl again," Craig said mildly.

"You understand correctly."

Craig opened his hand, revealing a contact lens case. "Then you might want to use these."

Klaus scowled. "Why?"

Craig grinned, opening one side of the case to reveal a bright blue contact lens. "Because these'll change your eye color, Major. Even the Earl doesn't wear sunglasses indoors. And everybody knows about his eyes being that striking blue."

Intrigued, Klaus took the case from the man's hand to give the contents a closer look.

"I was a make-up artist in Hollywood for several years," Craig volunteered proudly. "Even dabbled in some special effects. I used to think that was exciting until I met the Earl."

Klaus looked up, his eyes narrowing. "Are you bringing your..." He waved a hand, searching for the correct term.

"Kit?"

"Yes. Your make-up kit with you?"

Craig grinned. "Just my favorite knick-knacks. There's a full make-up room onboard the sub."

Klaus's eyebrows went up upon hearing this. "Good," he said approvingly. "I think your skills will be very useful in Langley."

"Oh?"

"I have several ideas..."

Craig gave the Major a sideways look. Like many of the other members of the Eroica gang, he had never worked one-on-one with the officer before. He was definitely not the way that he had imagined him. So long as everything ran smoothly, the Major did not so much as raise his voice, which was quite disconcerting given his reputation. Everyone was waiting for the explosion that was long overdue.

"Have you ever worn contacts, Major?"

"No." Klaus put the cap back on the case and handed it back. "You can show me how to put them in on the way."

* * *

End Notes:

Klasse! = Great!
It is along the same lines as Klaus yelling "Cool!" or "Awesome!" when he reappears. No wonder K is amused.

Misdeal by Margaret Price

Chapter Eleven

Misdeal

Any departure from the laws of correct procedure in dealing.

*

A few hours after speaking with the Major, Agent A was called to the Earl's room by a very worried Agent G. Despite their best efforts, Eroica's condition was deteriorating steadily.

"Name, John Robert Marshall. Born, September thirteenth, nineteen...nineteen..." Eroica's voice trailed to a mumble as he tossed in bed. "Only son of...of...Edward and Anne Marshall. Father killed in Vietnam, 1971. Educated...um...educated... Accepted at Julliard in New York City in...in... When was that?" A pause. "Contacted by the CIA in...in... Oh, bugger, I don't remember. I used to be so good at this."

G scowled as he put a cool cloth on the restless man's forehead. "Please, you must rest."

"The rest?" Eroica said weakly. "I can't remember the rest. Ask me about Dorian. I think I can do him. No, Eroica. I know I can do Eroica."

As the Earl started to rattle off the particulars of Eroica, the worried G turned to A, who was now standing at the foot of the bed. "He's been babbling like this for the past half hour. Names, dates, places."

"Like preparing for a mission," A observed quietly.

"He doesn't answer to any of his names any more," G said worriedly. "Somehow he's...lost himself."

This only brought back to A's mind the comments James had made about starting the deprogramming. Is this what the little bug meant about turning off the impersonation? "I'll have Dr. Al Rabeeah alerted that we're taking Lord Gloria to hospital." He drew a deep breath. "Then we'll get ready to evacuate if need be."

G's eye grew wide. "Evacuate?"

"I know Eroica said he wouldn't say anything. But look at him. He doesn't even know his own name, let alone who we are."

G turned back to Eroica, who continued to babble on. Unfortunately, A was right. The man was burning with fever and desperately needed proper medical attention. Then a sudden thought struck him and G looked up. "I think we should record what he's saying. It could be more important than we think. Perhaps he'll be more willing to tell us once he's coherent again."

"I'll have someone get a tape recorder--" A broke off as the Earl spoke a name that he had just heard from the Major. Tomlinson. The man named as being in charge of Project: Eroica before and after it was officially halted. Agent A threw a startled look in G's direction before moving to the bedside to address Eroica. "Who did you say you didn't want to disappoint, Agent Marshall? Mr. Thompson?"

Eroica struggled to focus on the face of the man standing over him. "No, not Thompson. Tomlinson. Gregory Once-Again Tomlinson," he said as forcefully as he could manage. "Tell him I know the Eroica bio cold." He paused to cough before going on. "I can pick any lock and open any safe you throw at me. I'm ready. Truly, I am."

"We believe you," G said soothingly. "You need to rest now. The doctor said--"

"Oh, bugger, Dr. Andy," Eroica said, waving a hand in the air. "The man's a fucking rabbit. Doesn't know what he's talking about, the quack. Just another session, just another session. I'm bloody sick to death of sessions."

A's eyebrows went up. Dr. Andy? Was that a first name, last name or nickname? "Dr. Andy? Which Dr. Andy?"

"Which Dr. Andy? There can't be another one with a name like that!" Eroica snorted. He scowled a moment, struggling to recall the name. "What was that bugger's name? His initials were ASS, I remember that. Rather appropriate, in my opinion." He hissed out a few names before blurting out, "Schreckengost! Andrew Steven Schreckengost! Oh, what a mouthful." Eroica closed his eyes and sighed heavily. "Gosh, that's worn me out."

G shushed him, patting him gently on the shoulder. This time, he was more successful in settling the restless man down.

Agent A turned on his heel and made straight for the door where he called for a tape recorder and lots of blank cassettes. If the Earl was going to willingly babble on about Project: Eroica, he was going to get as much of it on tape as possible before the Major called again.

"I'll see what I can do about getting him ready to be moved," G said, crossing to the clothes closet.

A frowned as he realized something and he turned back. "We can't check him into a hospital as Lord Gloria. Not with the Major..."

G gave an amused smile. "Dr. Al Rabeeah's already taken care of that. When I spoke with him this morning, he told me that Lord Gloria's ‘name of record' is D. Robert Greenwood."

"Name of record? He has a readymade alias?"

"Apparently, it's so the Earl's monograms match."

A rolled his eyes. "Is he an honorary member of Eroica's gang, do you think?"

"No idea." G gave a small smile. "Perhaps I'll ask when I see him again."

* * *

Because of space limitations, Klaus had grudgingly accepted the fact that he would have to use the Earl's ridiculously luxurious cabin aboard the Aqua Zep. His own things were deposited within and left for his attention. It was painfully obvious that everyone was making an effort to keep out of his way, and equally obvious that this was going to be next to impossible in the cramped space available.

Klaus had James' databases reassembled and networked together in a small conference type room that was near his cabin. It was large enough to accommodate his agents, and John Paul if need be, yet small enough for it not to be a waste of precious space.

Bonham selected two men who were the best at field work to accompany Agent M on the recce in Virginia. The three were to fly ahead of the group and see what they could dig up in the week's time the Major calculated it would take for the sub to cross the Atlantic. The sub would submerge until it reached international waters and then continue on the surface. Without the drag of the water, it would be able to cruise at a much faster speed. This would also enable them to utilize the satellite uplink to contact the team in the U.S. or the Alphabet in Bali with any updates they might find, or vice versa.

Klaus had not liked the idea of sending only one of his agents along with the thieves. He did not completely trust the Eroica gang, but, unfortunately, his resources were thin enough already. And equally unfortunate was the fact that he was the last person who could afford to be seen publicly. Most of his men were unknown to the CIA and could go unnoticed, being able to pass as tourists.

He calculated it would take a minimum of five days to make the crossing to North America, and then another day to head south to Virginia. This was if they traveled at top speed, made no stops, and if all went well.

Klaus had no illusions that all would probably not go well.

* * *

Eroica gave a soft moan as he turned in his hospital bed. He opened his eyes slowly and looked around in some bewilderment. His eyes finally came to rest on Z, who was sitting in a chair near the foot of the bed and watching him with an intensity he had never seen before.

"Z...?" he said weakly. "What...? Where...?"

"You're in a hospital," Z said evenly as he put the book he had been reading aside and got to his feet.

"Hospital?"

Eroica struggled to get his thoughts together. Had he been injured? No, there didn't seem to be any bandages, although he did feel like he'd been run over by a sizeable lorry. There was a tube from an IV in one arm and another on his face supplying oxygen. Oxygen? This was when he realized that breathing was rather difficult. Oh, hell! What did I inhale? A shift of position brought the realization that he had another tube in an area that he did not even want to think about. Bugger, I hate catheters.

"What happened?" he asked, trying not to sound panicked. "Was it a mission? Oh God, did I screw up your mission?" Eroica closed his eyes, putting a hand to his head. He couldn't make sense of all the images flying through his brain. He must've been dreaming. Unless... His eyes snapped open and he gave Z a horrified look. "The Major!" he gasped. "Is he alright? He's not here, too, is he?"

"No, the Major's fine." Z was now standing at the bedside. "You weren't injured, you have the flu," he said calmly. "Your fever spiked and you became...disoriented. The Major ordered you brought here."

Eroica heaved a relieved sigh that turned into a cough. "That explains why I'm so muddled," he said quietly. "How long have I been here?"

"Since around two a.m. yesterday morning."

The look on the agent's face made Eroica smile. "Oh, poor Z. I'm sorry you had to be the one put on babysitting duty. This must be so boring for you."

"Orders are orders," Z said simply.

"Now you sound just like the Major." Eroica put a hand to his head to keep it from floating away. "What do they have me on? I've had the most...bizarre dreams. You wouldn't believe..."

A scowl creased Z's brow. The Earl seemed unaware of all that had been going on, including everything surrounding his having broken his CIA cover. Did he believe it all to have been a dream? Why else would he pretend to be concerned about the Major's health? Unless...

Z blinked as an extraordinary thought struck him. Could it be Eroica actually had genuine feelings for the Major after all? That he'd had them all along and masked them behind the charade that was the Earl of Gloria?

"I'm so tired," Eroica sighed, breaking into Z's thoughts. He coughed again and moaned, leaning back onto his pillows, a hand going to his chest. "Oh, that hurts. Do I have pneumonia, too?"

"No, sir. You have a respiratory infection," Z informed cautiously.

Eroica caught his breath, which only caused him to cough again. "Bugger, that hurts," he said at last.

"You should try to rest."

"Yes..." The Earl shifted in bed, trying to find a comfortable position, which was difficult with all the tubes in him. "Tell me. How did you check me in?"

"Check you in?"

"I'm not listed as Lord Gloria, am I?"

This brought an amused smile to the agent's face. "No. Your doctor had you checked in as D. Robert Greenwood."

"My doctor?"

"Dr. Al Rabeeah."

"What? But he's in..." Eroica put a hand to his head again as realization dawned. He looked out the window at the obviously tropical location and then back at Z. "This is Bali." A statement rather than a question.

"Yes."

There was a long pause as Eroica got his thoughts together. "It wasn't a dream, was it?" he said seriously. "You really did pick me up at gunpoint."

"Yes."

 "And all the rest of it?"

"Yes, Agent Marshall," Z said, his words driving home the full extent of the truth.

Eroica felt his heart jump and closed his eyes. "I didn't say anything that would...compromise any of you, did I?"

"No."

Good. Eroica opened his eyes, giving the agent a steady look. "Is that why you're here? To make certain I don't?"

Z studied the other man a moment, his expression unreadable. "Yes, Agent Marshall."

Eroica nodded. He knew the rules of the game as well as Z.

"The hospital staff believes you're an actor who wore himself out studying for a demanding role," Z was saying.

The Earl gave an amused grunt upon hearing this. Demanding indeed. "My cover story?"

"Yes."

Eroica drew as deep a breath as his lungs would allow. "Mr. Z, please be good enough to tell me exactly what you lot expect of me."

* * *

"Our research seems to be running along parallel lines," Klaus remarked after listening to a report from Agent A.

He had waited a full day after putting out to sea before chancing contact. He had been dismayed when informed that Eroica had been hospitalized, and relieved that the man had not been so ill as to endanger his men or their operation. The recordings that G had made intrigued the Major even more. He asked that they be uploaded using the prearranged encryption coding so he could listen to them at length.

"I've sent M ahead with two of the Earl's men," Klaus said. "Now that we have a name for them, they can do a proper search. There can't be many people with a name like that in Virginia."

"We've made a bit of progress there, too, sir," A said with a grin. "P managed to learn that Dr. Schreckengost, who goes by Dr. Andy according to Lord Gloria, retired early last year to Arlington, Virginia."

Amusement twitched at the edges of Klaus's mouth. "If you have a street address and telephone number to go with that, I might actually admit to being impressed."

A bright smile lit up A's face. "Actually..."

* * *

End Notes:

Greenwood = Plant / Robert Greenwood = Robert Plant. (Lame joke, sorry.)

Reading The Cards by Margaret Price

Chapter Twelve

Reading The Cards

Fortune telling: an attempt to gain insight about the past, present and/or future using a deck of (usually) Tarot cards.

*

Klaus spent the majority of the time crossing the Atlantic going through the information John Paul and Agent K--assisted by several others--were able to pull out of James' numerous databases. It seemed that James had been doing his own research into Project: Eroica, and had accumulated some interesting data, including further information on Dr. Andy in a file that was named Luftschutzbunker, of all things. Bomb Shelter? This was so incongruous that it leapt out at the men searching the database, the German speakers especially. Was James trying to be clever? The incongruity vanished when the file was opened. Not only did Dr. Andy live in a rather impressive neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia, but he also owned a home that boasted a bomb shelter in the backyard.

Yet another relic of the Cold War.

Bonham suggested that this might be where the records of Project: Eroica were stored, if any still existed. The more they uncovered, the more certain he was that there was no way the records would be in the CIA archives. A bomb shelter would be a perfect place to store them. Especially with proper modifications. The Major agreed with his logic and gave orders that this newest piece of information be forwarded to M's group in Virginia the moment they checked in.

Along with the databases were boxes of documents that Klaus tried to wade through while the others worked on pulling up more information. After retiring for the night, he sat in his cabin reading a notebook--one of several that were discovered amongst the various boxes of papers. They seemed to be journals that Eroica had started after his unsettling encounter with a statue in Cologne in 1987. It had caused the Earl all kinds of anxieties, and Klaus had taken a rather sadistic joy in taunting him over it at the time.

The journals only drove home how deeply John Marshall had gotten into his cover. After a decade, he was no longer playing a role. No longer thought of himself as John Marshall. He had become Dorian, the Earl of Gloria. He had become Eroica. He had to do this in order to survive undetected as well as retain his sanity. What was it about the statue that had shattered this? After the mission in Vienna in 1987, Eroica seemed to have fallen off the face of the Earth, his interference in NATO missions coming full stop. Klaus hadn't thought anything about it at the time. It wasn't unusual for the Earl to disappear for several months at a time only to resurface as if no time had passed. Not so this time.

It had all been a blur then, beginning with the start of the thaw in the Cold War in 1985. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 and things just snowballed from there; the reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the war in the Gulf, the break-up of Yugoslavia and NATO's involvement in the mess that followed...

The next thing Klaus knew, eight years had passed and he was face-to-face with Eroica in the unlikely location of Moscow. The Earl acted as though only a few months had passed since they last saw one another, asking inane questions and seeming to go out of his way to annoy the Major, just as he had always done. It was only now--seven years later--that it occurred to Klaus to wonder what the man had been doing all that time.

As if I don't have enough questions that need answering, Klaus thought as he sat back and rubbed his eyes. What was the original purpose of the Project: Eroica? Why go to all the trouble to create a gay art thief as a mole for the intelligence network? Was it possible Eroica was stealing more than just information? More importantly, after twenty-five years, why end it so abruptly? The events of September 11 might be the answer to this last question. Bad enough to have a Black Ops that was a throwback to the Cold War, worst to have one that was supposed to have been halted after a scandal like Watergate. In the current political climate, this revelation would cause an equally horrific scandal, which was not what the United States needed at the present time. Not with another war in the Middle East looming closer and closer.

* * *

Eroica found the cover story he had been given rather amusing. Visitors were confined to family members only, so Eroica learned that he now had a wife in the person of G and a brother-in-law in the person of Z.

"How on Earth did they decide on you?" the amused Earl asked once the whole story had been laid out. "Did you draw the short straw?"

Z gave him a dark look. "Your doctor said it should be someone you would recognize and--" He broke off, having to force out, "And trust."

Eroica's eyebrows went up. He was prevented from responding when the physician in question came through the door. The concerned look changed into a bright smile when he saw his patient awake and alert. "Allah has smiled upon you again, my dearest Lord Gloria," he grinned, bowing his head slightly and waving a hand before his face.

"Does this mean I'm no longer contagious?" Eroica inquired seriously, throwing a quick glance over to Z.

"Yes, yes. And if you continue to do well, and behave yourself, you should be out of here in a few days."

The Earl gave him a tired smile and held out his arms. "Then come here and give us a hug. Better yet, mara bebus!"

To the amazement of the watching Z, Dr. Al Rabeeah crossed to the bed and hugged the Earl warmly, going on to exchange pecks on the cheek. Shit, is this for real?

When the grinning Dr. Al Rabeeah stood back from the bed, he saw the stunned look on Z's face and laughed. "We seem to have shocked your pseudo brother-in-law."

"I haven't been well enough to tell them about you, my dearest Harlun," Eroica sighed apologetically.

"I think your Major recognized me, although he tried to pretend he was just one of your men."

"The Major?" Z gasped. He was beginning to wonder if anything connected with the Earl was real.

Harlun nodded, saying to the Earl, "He's just as stern as I remember." He laughed as he recalled the Major's reaction all those years ago when he had asked for a kiss.

By this time Z's head was spinning. How was it possible for this man to know the Major without the officer recalling it? The Major remember everything. Then Z learned why.

Harlun laughed again at the bewildered expression on the agent's face. "Lord Gloria saved my life," he stated flatly, going on to explain that he had been a boy when he first met the Earl and later the Major during a mission in Iran. Z had not been on the mission because of his inability to speak Persian--something he had since corrected. Afterward, the Earl could not get the boy out of his mind and returned for him, going on to send him to the finest schools in Europe. As it turned out, the boy Harlun aspired to be a doctor and eventually chose to practice in Indonesia.

"Officially, I am the house physician for a large hotel," he said. "But that's not especially demanding, even in high season. So to fill my time, I help run a free clinic funded by Lord Gloria."

Z's mouth dropped open. He looked at the Earl as though seeing him for the first time. Perhaps he was, considering all the layers to the man's personality that he had kept hidden for decades. "Is that your way of paying him back?"

"The only payment I ever ask of Harlun is a hug and mara bebus." Eroica gave the physician an affectionate look. "Give us thy kiss."

* * *

Klaus tried to shake the cobwebs from his head. After listening to the recordings of the Earl's delirious ramblings for a third time, he had stared into space for nearly half an hour. There was nothing he could do about the man now that he was in a hospital. If he changed his mind and gave the Alphabet away, they would be able to quickly change location. The Earl's jet had been repaired and relocated to Bali, making evacuation a fairly simple operation, especially since they were ready to do so at a moment's notice.

Drawing a deep breath, he returned his attention to the journal and the Earl's precise and, thankfully, legible handwriting.

~

20 February, 1988
The sleep clinic was no damn help at all. Apparently, I don't have a sleep disorder. I have "a mild psychosis brought on by a sudden traumatic event." MILD! A bleeding statue comes to life and they call it mild? I'm going mad and the only thing the "professionals" can do is slap labels on me.

~

29 February, 1988
I've been trying to find Dorian's journals. I'm sure he told me that he kept them when he lived here, but no one seems to know what happened to them. The doctors keep asking me if I had nightmares as a child, but I'll be damned if I can remember. They want me to ask my mother. Yeah, THAT will go over well. Which mother? The real Earl's or the one who thinks her son died in ‘75?

~

18 June, 1988
My men are getting worried. Me with them. I can't function anymore. I've had them pull the last three jobs without me. It's gotten to the point where I'm afraid to be in the dark even a few minutes. I feel like I'm a five year old afraid of ghosts in the closet. I've had to have all the statues removed to the island because they scare me so much.

The doctors are no bloody help at all. James said that I should contact the Company about this. He's afraid it may be a breakdown in that experimental technique they used to prep me for deep cover.

What the hell did I let them do to my head?

~

25 July, 1988
This is it. The day I've been looking forward to and dreading. The flight to the States leaves in a few hours and I'm all butterflies. I don't think I was this nervous when I pulled my first heist. Now isn't that weird? According to James, Tomlinson agreed with him about my breakdown. I'm not sure how he came to that conclusion. I'm sleeping with the lights on, for Christ's sake! I don't think I even slept with a nightlight as a child, not that I can actually remember it. God, I can't seem to remember squat before starting this mission. Everything is such a jumble. I don't know if it's real, imagined, or just part of the bios that were drilled into my head.

If this doesn't work, I have a feeling they're going to have to scrap the project. What good is a thief who can't steal?

~

1 August, 1988
It's been a week, and guess what? I don't have a sleep disorder. I told them that before they wasted my time, but apparently British sleep clinics aren't to be trusted. Whatever. Tomlinson wants me to meet with Dr. Schrekk Scrheckin (I can't spell the bugger's name.) Dr. Andy. He's the one who helped with my intensive training back in the 70s after the Earl made all those recordings for me.

Gosh, that seems so long ago now that I think about it.

~

8 August, 1988
Weeks two and I'm still rehashing my story. I did find out that all the records from the project are archived at Dr. Andy's house! He's got a ruddy BOMB SHELTER in the backyard! I couldn't believe it when I saw it. It's lined with shelves and has boxes and boxes full of all kinds of things down there. He needs a better security system though. My lot could crack it ---

Listen to me. I'm Eroica again. Anyway, the doc showed me one of the videotapes I did all those years ago. I can't believe how different I look. Oh, the wonders of plastic surgery!

~

10 August, 1988
The doc is trying to see if this lovely psychosis of mine is a "simple" breakdown in my training. Simple, he says. I'm no expert, but I would swear the man is just as scared of the statues as I am the way he acts when I talk about them. The Major would call him a fucking idiot. --- Shit. Where did that come from? I haven't thought of that sadist in months. I'm sure he'd love knowing I'm having a complete mental breakdown. He'd probably take credit for it after locking me in that room in the dark with all the bloody statues.

~

12 August, 1988
I was wrong about Dr. Andy being an idiot. He's a fucking rabbit! I thought I was bad, jumping at shadows, seeing ghosts under the bed. But he's even worse! And he's making ME even more jumpy. Bloody hell, the pair of us will end up in a rubber room yet. I wonder if the Major will visit me? Maybe then I can tell him the truth.

~

Klaus sat back in his chair, his eyes fixed in the distance. He had originally planned on putting off reading the Earl's journals. Now he was glad he had not. They were puzzling as well as a gold mine of information. In fact, he hadn't even noticed the inconsistency until he got to the entry of August 10. After the mention of the Major himself, the rest of the entry was written in German, as was the next entry. He paged back finding this oddity started with the entry of June 18. What the hell was that all about?

Klaus stored this peculiarity with the other bits in the back of his mind. Just now, he needed to concentrate one key piece of information, this being the physical location of the project archive. And it was right there in black and white. Would the Eroica gang really be able to steal it without being detected? Klaus gave a snort as the question crossed his mind. This group could steal someone's back teeth without them knowing about it. And if the security system were the same as in 1988, it would be child's play to Eroica's men.

He went to the bridge, finding Bonham chatting with John Paul. Both men looked up expectantly when the officer entered. It seemed to be a routine now. Every time Klaus came across something pertinent, he would have it relayed to America or Bali. This time, he requested that Craig come to the bridge.

"I know where the archive is," Klaus announced to everyone's amazement.

Bonham gave a startled noise. "Where?"

"Just as you thought, Dr. Schreckengost's bomb shelter." Klaus held up the journal. "Agent Marshall learned its location and was good enough to write it down." A small smile curled the edges of his mouth. "He was also good enough to record a few other things." He turned to Craig. "And that's where you come in."

* * *

Stacking The Deck by Margaret Price

Chapter Thirteen

Stacking The Deck

Manipulating a deck in order for the cards to fall in one's favor using sleight of hand or trickery.

*

After more than three days at sea, and one stop for supplies, Klaus wasn't surprised when someone came with the news that the CIA was "suddenly" trying to contact James. More specifically, Mr. Tomlinson was trying to contact James. Messages had apparently been appearing on the little man's PDA over a twelve hour period.

"James must've been keeping him updated on our progress," Bonham speculated as Klaus looked through the messages that John Paul had printed out.

"Can you send a reply?" Klaus asked, addressing John Paul.

"Yes." John Paul scowling up him. "Do you really want to? He doesn't know we're coming." He nodded at the printouts in the Major's hands.

Klaus looked down, reading: "Where the hell are you? Why did you miss your last update? Tell that idiot Marshall he's supposed to be arresting Iron Klaus, not taking a vacation as Eroica!"

An evil smile came to the officer's face. This caused John Paul to exchange a look of mutual uncertainty with Bonham. In the past, that look would've sent a chill down his spine. Well, actually, it still sent a chill down his spine, only this time, the Earl wasn't going to be on the receiving end of whatever the Major was scheming.

"Send him this message..."

* * *

"Looks like Tomlinson got your message, Major," Bonham remarked aridly. He held up a printout. "He wants the number of the sub's satellite phone."

Klaus's eyebrows went up as he read the message. "And he wants to talk to the Earl," he observed in amusement. "How often do they speak?" he then asked.

"Never. I think the last time was when his lordship went to D.C. in the 80s."

"After his breakdown over that statue." A statement rather than a question.

Bonham nodded. "James usually takes care of all the details. Technically, he's supposed to be the one in charge."

Klaus gave the older man a dubious sideways look. "You're joking?"

"No, sir. Not that anyone pays him much mind."

"Until now." Klaus looked down at the paper in his hand and drew a deep breath. At least he only had to do a voice impersonation rather than put on the complete, ridiculous disguise. That could wait until they arrived in Virginia. "Send him the number."

Everyone gave the officer a stunned look.

Klaus twisted some of his long hair around a finger. "If he wants to talk to the Earl," he said in a dead-on impersonation of Eroica's voice, "we'll let him talk to the Earl."

* * *

"I know I've already said this, but I am so glad to be out of that hospital," Eroica said as he was helped from the car by Z. "I don't think I got any rest at all."

"We'll take you straight to your room," Z replied.

"Oh, please, must you? Couldn't I sit on the sofa in the front room?"

Z exchanged an uncertain look with G, causing Eroica to laugh. "I'm hardly in any condition to be running away. And if you're afraid I'll call someone, just unplug the phone."

By this time, they had reached the front door, and it opened before G even reached for the doorknob, revealing Agent A on the other side. "Lord Gloria would like to sit in the front room," Z informed as he helped the man in question through the door.

"I promise to be good," Eroica said playfully, receiving a scowl from the agents. He did not wait for a reply, heading straight to the sofa. He gave a contented sigh as he eased himself onto the soft surface and then shifted in order to recline on the pillows G was quickly arranging for him. "Thank-you, Mrs. Greenwood," he teased before turning to A, his voice suddenly deadly serious. "Mr. A, it is glaringly obvious that whatever the Major told you all was compelling enough for you to follow him--even if it could well get you executed." He paused, his voice dropping further in pitch. "I want you to tell me exactly what it was he told you."

"Why?"

"Because if it's compelling enough for twenty-six trained intelligence agents to pack up and leave everything over, it might be equally compelling for a no-longer undercover CIA operative with considerable underworld connections."

A gave him a dubious look, exchanging glances with the others. So far, the Earl had kept his word, saying nothing that could have endangered them, despite the numerous opportunities that had arisen while he was recovering in the hospital. Cut off from the Major as they were, the tension level amongst the Alphabet was growing so thick it could be cut with a knife. Perhaps having the Earl as an ally would be advantageous, given the circumstances.

A sat down, drew a deep breath, and laid out the Major's original mission to the stunned Eroica. When he finished, the Earl sat staring into space for some time.

"Jesus..." he said in a small voice. "Even Iron Klaus couldn't persuade them..."

A shook his head. "After the success in the Kosovo War, they're looking for more direct means of dealing with terrorists. Especially after what happened last September in the U.S."

Eroica gave him a steady look. He couldn't see NATO, or any other organization for that matter, abandoning counter-espionage activities for bombs. "The Major told you what he intended after he returned from Brussels, didn't he?" Every Alphabet in the room nodded as one. This caused the Earl to shake his head. "Did NATO threaten to out him if he continued to push this?" he then asked. This question received a stunned look. "Thought so, bloody bastards."

He put a hand to his chin, considering all the possibilities, all the different ways he and his men could assist. What the hell had NATO been thinking? Suddenly the implications of the Major's actions, and his current mission to stop him, had a head on collision. Eroica realized that he would have to decide which side he was on before going any further.

The decision did not take long.

"Mr. A, would you be open to some suggestions?"

* * *

"Why, Greg darling, how nice of you to call," Klaus said in his best imitation of Eroica's most irritating of honeyed tones. "It's been simply ages."

"Don't you give me that Eroica crap, Marshall," came Tomlinson's angry voice. "Why the hell did you leave James in Bali? And what the hell do you think you're doing chasing around the Atlantic in a submarine? You're supposed to be catching that asshole German, not playing U-boat Commander!"

Bonham heard the Major give a low growl. He feared the man would reply in his own voice, only to be stunned further when he replied with a combination English-American accent. He had no way of knowing that it was a dead on impersonation of the one the Major had heard in the interrogation room all those weeks ago.

"Okay, I'll just hop on a plane so he can see my name on the manifest and know I'm coming for him," the fake CIA agent replied tersely. "James is in Bali as a decoy and to see to the repairs on the jet. Bonham and I flew very publicly back to England."

There was a long silence in reply.

"My sources indicate," Klaus continued, still in the mixed accent, "that Iron Klaus is on his way to the U.S. He knows I'm after him. He's been leaving just enough of a trail for me to follow."

"What the hell for?"

"He's taunting me. He'll be watching the airlines, I'm sure of it."

"And where do your sources indicate he's heading?"

A small smile crept onto Klaus's face before he gave his reply. "Langley." He wondered if the man at the other end of the line had dropped the phone.

"I take it that's why you're on your way here?"

Klaus raised an eyebrow when he heard what could only be fear in the man's voice. Interesting. "That was the plan."

"Then I'd better tell the Coast Guard not to open fire on you."

That would be nice. "I'll send word when I arrive. Marshall out." Klaus made a slashing motion across his throat and the transmission was cut.

Craig had returned during the conversation and Klaus turned to him. "Well? Have you found a suitable candidate for my double?"

Craig grinned. "I have. And he's keen to do it."

"Good." Klaus turned to John Paul. "Has M checked in yet?"

"No, Major," John Paul replied. He glanced at his watch. "He's due any minute." He saw a thoughtful look pass over the officer's face. "Major..." he ventured, "I've been thinking about what you told us. About that doctor. And...I've had some thoughts about your Doppelgänger ploy..."

The Major's eyebrows went up. "Oh? Let's hear them."

* * *

Eroica sat silently watching as the Alphabets had a conference on the far side of the room. He had offered not only his considerable underworld contacts but also his services as the best thief in the world. It was obvious that the agents wanted to jump at his offer but were also undecided as to whether he could be trusted. He was, after all, still their prisoner.

When the group turned back to look across the room, Eroica smiled. "Well?" he said calmly. He could almost feel the tension lifting.

"We...accept your offer," A said guardedly. "But only the use of your contacts."

"Well, I'm hardly fit to be doing much thieving, am I?"

There were several chuckles in response to this. It was followed by a collective gasp when the Earl went on to say, "I'd like to speak to James, if I may."

Agent A exchanged a nervous glance with the others.

Eroica sat up a bit more, his eyes widening. "You haven't hurt him, have you?"

"No!" A was clearly horrified. They had all wanted to do the stingy bug an injury, but that was as far as it went.

"Oh, thank goodness." Eroica put a hand to his head, closing his eyes. "If you want the cash to carry this out, he's the one to get it." He opened his eyes to see a guilty expression flashing across the agents' faces. "What aren't you telling me...?" he asked suspiciously.

* * *

Bug by Margaret Price

Chapter Fourteen

Bug

A joker, used in some games as a limited wild card.

*

"Oh, my lord! This is all my fault!"

Eroica was taken aback when James was shown in and suddenly burst into tears. He was all the more shocked when the man fell to his knees and clasped his hand, begging for forgiveness.

"James, what on Earth are you babbling about?" the Earl said gently. "And for Pete's sake, get off the floor."

"No, I deserve to be on the floor. I deserve whatever happens to me. It's all my fault! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry."

"What is all your fault?"

James looked up with red-rimmed eyes. "That...that... It... They must've..." His voice caught in his throat and he finally blurted out. "That they want to kill you!" Then he burst into tears again.

Eroica's eyebrows went up and he glanced at the equally startled Alphabets. "Would someone get him some water, please?" He looked down, added ironically, "And a valium."

It took several minutes before the story could be extracted in any kind of coherent manner. Just as Eroica had suspected, James was from the U.S. Treasury Department. He had originally been assigned to keep track of the monies generated by Project: Eroica. Since it was an ultra-secret Black Ops, it had to be self-funding, which turned out to be no problem after the Eroica gang was fully established. Project: Eroica generated more than enough funds to pay for itself.

Around the time of Eroica's mental breakdown, James started to suspect a shift in the direction of the operation. After the principle agent, this being Marshall, became less than reliable, the operation should have been called to a halt. Instead, the operation was merely put on hold "for a few years." Rather than end the project, Tomlinson seemed obsessed with keeping it going.

This was when James started keeping his own private database. The excess monies collected by Project: Eroica were originally supposed to fund other Black Ops. James started tracking the transfer of funds to see if they coincided. For several years, they did. Then at some point, it became apparent that Eroica's exploits were considerably more profitable than anyone could have imagined. Suddenly, "projects" were being funded left and right.

After several years of careful digging, James learned where the money was going, but by this time, he was so far removed from the Treasury Department. He had no idea what to do with the information. At one point, he actually considered contacting the Major to let him handle it.

Then the terrorist attacks of September 11 turned the world on its head. The United States suddenly turned its attention to the monies funding terrorists world wide, tracking international bank transfers. Soon after this, the orders came down to wind up the project by seeking certain information at NATO's European headquarters.

"Someone must've found out that I was digging into their money laundering operation," James said fearfully. "They must've thought it would be shut off, what with all the focus on terrorist funding. So, they ordered the project terminated. And us with it!"

* * *

Klaus listened in a stunned silence as Agent A reported the startling turn of events in Bali. Thus far, Eroica had kept his word, which could just as likely be a ploy to gain his confidence. The Earl had already proven he was very good at lying, having kept his identity as a CIA agent a secret all these years. Conversely, Klaus could not deny that the man's connections would prove invaluable. He also could not deny that the Eroica gang would be all the more willing to assist if they knew their leader was also in on this...endeavor.

"Mr. James says he can assist in the financial end of things, sir," A was saying. "I haven't told him that he already is, in a way."

A small smile crept at the edges of Klaus's mouth. What would James say when he learned they were already using his stash to fund the operation?

"We'll go along with them for the moment," Klaus said finally. "We need all the help we can get. Just don't leave them alone together, even for a second. Not until I'm sure we can trust them."

"Yes, sir." A paused. "He's been asking about Bonham and the others. What should I tell him?"

Klaus thought a moment. "Give me an hour to get his people together. I think they'll be more cooperative if they hear all this directly from him."

* * *

"So, the flu didn't kill you after all," Klaus observed when the video link was established. He found himself relieved to see that the Earl looked considerable healthier than the last time he had spoken to him.

Eroica smiled briefly. "No, no. I'm all recovered, as you can see. You'll still have your chance to kill me yourself when you get back."

Klaus gave an amused snort. "Did A tell you what this is about?"

"Yes. Is everyone there?"

Klaus stepped aside to allow Bonham to answer. A moment later, the Eroica gang were taking their turns happily greeting their absent leader. Once this was done, Klaus was back in front of the camera discussing how best to deal with Tomlinson and Schreckengost when he arrived in Virginia.

"Tomlinson is a bit of a wet blanket," Eroica sighed. "Just think of him as your American counterpart and you'll get on like gangbusters."

"Don't compare me to a bloody Yank traitor," Klaus growled.

Eroica's eyebrows went up at the word "traitor" but he did not comment on it. Just what did the Major consider himself after what he had done? A patriot? A vigilante?

"And what of Dr. Andy?" Klaus asked, breaking into the Earl's thoughts.

"Ah, he's another kettle of fish..."

* * *

Klaus had been surprised and delighted that the Atlantic crossing had not taken forever. They were able to make port along Canada's Labrador coast to pick up further supplies. His chosen double, Jerry, was able leave from this point and fly ahead of the group, meeting with Agent M's team already in Virginia. This would lay the groundwork for what the thieves had already started calling Operation: Doppelgänger.

Just before setting back out to sea, Klaus was informed that the engines were starting to act up. The mechanic onboard assured him that they would be able to make the relatively short journey to Virginia, but if this were not the case, they would still be able to pull into whatever port they happened to be near, since the worst case scenario of being stranded in the middle of the Atlantic was no longer a worry.

Klaus did not remark on any of the problems when they were brought to his attention. He had known things would not continue to go smoothly. Despite the engine difficulties, they had still made good time crossing the Atlantic. After leaving port, he had the sub remain in international waters as long as possible. It was a sure bet that the various U.S. government agencies were tracking the Aqua Zep's movements via satellite, not that he made any effort to hide them. But it wasn't until they actually entered U.S. territory that things seemed to fall apart all at once. First, it was the engines that decided to play up yet again, this time overheating. While they were being allowed to cool down, the Coast Guard started showing an interest. First with a fly over, then a radio call, then a ship appeared on the horizon.

Fuck, was all Klaus could think as he watched the approaching ship draw closer and closer. Obviously, after last September's terrorist attacks, the U.S. was taking no chances.

"Time for plan B, Major," Craig said suddenly, pulling at the officer's sleeve.

Klaus gave him a bewildered look. "Plan B?"

Craig held up the curly blond wig and grinned. "It requires a costume change."

* * *

By the time the Coast Guard ship arrived, Klaus found himself torn between going through with Craig's elaborate "Plan B," or just giving himself up.

"Major, it's an illusion," Craig was saying to the man behind an ornately painted divider. "You have to show a little skin."

"I'm not stripping naked!" Klaus reiterated. "You're as bad as Eroica. A bunch of fucking perverts."

Craig rolled his eyes. "You must've been loads of fun to share a locker room with, Major."

A pair of angry green eyes glared over the top of the divider.

"You don't need to strip to nothing, just to your civvies." Craig turned to John Paul, who had been standing near the door. "Get Lord Gloria's blue robe out," he said, waving a hand in the direction of the closet. "The one that looks like a long smoking jacket."

The robe was retrieved and handed to the Major, who put it on with further muttered protests. He was relieved to find that it covered him almost completely. Illusion or no, he was not about to parade around naked, as he felt sure Eroica would do if their positions were reversed. Craig gave him the blue contact lenses that he had been practicing putting in. They were supposed to be for his appearance in Langley. Now it seemed that a dress rehearsal was being called for as the blond wig was quickly put into position.

The sound of raised voices, or more specifically, Bonham's raised voice coming from out in the hall was the cue the men in the cabin had been waiting for.

"This had better work," Klaus growled as he took up his position behind the divider again.

The door burst open before Craig could answer.

"I told you lot ‘is lordship's not decent yet," Bonham protested, his thick accent returning for the first time that Klaus could recall.

Klaus drew a deep breath, steadied himself, and then turned, all smiles, to look over the divider. "Oh! They're here." He came out from behind the barrier, grudging doing as Craig had instructed and allowing his bare legs to show for the briefest of instants, making it appear as though he wore nothing beneath the robe. "I haven't changed yet." He took a seat, making a show of covering his bare legs before looking over at Craig and John Paul, who were holding up different outfits, one in each hand. He put a hand to his chin, turning his head to one side as though in deep contemplation.

"They would na listen ta me, m'lord," Bonham said apologetically, standing aside to allow the two men from the Coast Guard into the room.

"Sir, are you the one in charge of this...circus?" the first man practically demanded.

"Circus?" came the innocent reply. "Hardly that." He turned back to contemplate his wardrobe. "Which one do you think I should wear, Captain?"

"Ensign," the man corrected. "Ensign Cartwright."

Klaus waved a hand dismissively. "Whatever." He moved his hand to indicate the clothes. "I rather like the sailor suit."

"Sir..." Cartwright practically growled.

"Well, I want to be dressed properly when I'm arrested, don't I?" Klaus said in the most infuriating way he knew how. If it were him, he knew he would blow a gasket to be treated in this manner. He was not disappointed.

"Look, Lord Whoever-you-are...!"

"Gloria." Klaus got to his feet, dropping all pretense and affectation, and shifting his accent back to the combined English-American one he had used on Tomlinson. "And you already know that's a cover." He was inwardly pleased at the shocked look this caused on the Ensign's face. "Or do you?"

Cartwright found himself at a loss for words and turned to the man with him, who shrugged.

The disguised Klaus waved a hand. "Bonham, ID," he ordered before turning back to the Coast Guardsmen. "My name is John Marshall and I'm with the CIA, who were supposed to've contacted you that I was coming under the cover of the Earl of Gloria." He did not wait for a reply, snatching the suit that he had already selected to wear from Craig's hand. It was the only conservative one in the lot, which wasn't surprising since it was his own.

"Excuse me while I get dressed," he said dismissively, waving a hand to everyone.

"Sir, um...Agent Marshall..." Cartwright began.

Klaus was already behind the divider and looked over the top of it. "Search the ship, if that's what you were planning on doing. We're not carrying anything." So saying, he vanished back behind the divider.

Craig was inwardly applauding as he hustled everyone from the cabin. He and John Paul waited alongside the bewildered Coast Guardsmen as Major changed costumes. Bonham appeared with the CIA IDs the same instant the "Earl" exited his cabin.

Cartwright looked at the IDs and goggled. "Um, I'll need to have these verified..."

"Just this way, sir," John Paul volunteered, holding out a hand before leading the way.

* * *

Snap by Margaret Price

Chapter Fifteen

Snap

Word called out when identical cards are turned up simultaneously.

*

Arlington, Virginia
Early August 2002

"That's the house," Agent M said as he and Jerry, the man chosen as the Major's double, jogged along the quiet street.

Jerry threw a quick glance at the house, his eyes rapidly assessing its vulnerabilities. "When would the Major like this to start?" he asked, taking a quick glance at his watch.

"As soon as possible. He wants Dr. Andy seriously spooked by the time he actually arrives."

A small smile curled the edges of Jerry's mouth. If the man knows anything about Iron Klaus, that shouldn't be too hard. The Major had a reputation for appearing out of thin air and vanishing just as quickly. Jerry found himself looking forward to this. "How about this evening? When he goes for his evening constitutional?" he suggested with a grin.

* * *

Once Ensign Cartwright verified the credentials supplied by Bonham, he was ready to beat a hasty retreat, only to have "Agent Marshall" ask if the Coast Guard could give him an escort into port in order to avoid any further troubles. Then the CIA man went on to explain that the sub was experiencing engine trouble, and that he did not want to be stranded in the middle of the Atlantic when he was expected to report at CIA headquarters within the next twenty-four hours.

Several hours later, a horrified Gregory Tomlinson watched as the local news channels showed a live feed of a private submarine being towed into the Norfolk Naval Shipyards in Portsmouth, Virginia escorted by a Coast Guard cutter. The sub's crew was on deck, happily waving at the cameras. In dark glasses and standing at the top of the conning tower was the Earl of Gloria. He was wearing a rather conservative suit and tie over which was a less than conservative, full-length tan duster. He had a hand shielding his eyes from the glare and was watching the news helicopters that were buzzing overhead in what seemed to be mild amusement.

"God damn that asshole!" Tomlinson growled, slamming a fist on the desk.

His mood was no better when the "Earl" called to report he had arrived in the U.S. and asked to arrange a meeting.

* * *

Langley, Virginia
Early August 2002

"What the hell did you think you were doing?" Tomlinson growled between clenched teeth when he was finally face-to-face with the outrageous blond.

Klaus had to fight not to laugh at the man. As it was, he found it difficult to keep the smirk off his face. Not that it mattered. He felt sure that even the real Marshall would find the absurdity of it all outrageously funny and would do nothing to hide it. "My job. What do you think I was doing?"

"Mugging for the camera like some Goddamn Supermodel! You're supposed to be undercover! Not all over the news. I thought you didn't want Iron Klaus to know you were coming."

"I didn't. I wanted him to know that I was here."

"Everybody knows you're here." Tomlinson looked around the park in which they sat. Everyone seemed to be ignoring them, but he knew better, as did Klaus. They were being watched.

The disguised Klaus leaned back and glanced upward, allowing the blond curls of the wig to fall back off his shoulders. "James is convinced the Major is hiding in Indonesia. That's why he really stayed behind," he said casually.

Tomlinson raised his eyebrows. He tried to keep his face neutral, but was unsuccessful at hiding his surprise. "What?"

"He's convinced he's trying to contact the local terrorist group. The ones allegedly with ties to al-Qaida."

"You disagree?"

Klaus allowed a smile to curl the edges of his mouth before he explained that it was more likely that Iron Klaus had simply used the contacts in Indonesia, his intentions being to get into the terrorist network via North Korea, a country known to trade arms with Iraq and Iran.

"Wait..." Tomlinson said, sitting up, "I thought you said he was here."

The disguised Klaus turned to look at the man. If only you could appreciate the irony of what you just said.

"He is."

* * *

While Klaus made contact with Tomlinson, the others were setting up Operation: Doppelgänger. In the back of an enclosed van, John Paul sat with an impressive amount of surveillance equipment that M's team had managed to put together before the arrival of the Aqua Zep.

The plan was for him to tap into Dr. Andy's phone lines but he was unable to do so because of the presence of the real telephone company. He hoped the directional microphone was powerful enough to pick up what was being said until he was able to set up the actual wire tap.

Outside the house, Jerry had taken up his position. He leaned up against a tree, lit a cigarette, and casually looked over from the van to the house. He looked so much like the Major that it was chilling, and everyone gave a collective shudder.

"If this doesn't give that bugger the willies, nothing will," someone observed.

John Paul nodded. He looked over at Agent M, who was dialing the phone. He turned back to the equipment, slipping on the headphones.

Show time.

* * *

"Well?" Tomlinson was saying. "What makes you think that German is here and not halfway to Iran by now?"

Before Klaus could reply, Tomlinson's cell phone rang. The man pulled it out, looked at the display, and made a surprised noise. "Excuse me," he said tersely as he got to his feet, moving away so as to be out of earshot.

Klaus leaned back on the bench, stretched out his arms, and threw a knowing look over at Bonham, who had been hovering some distance away during the course of the meeting. Behind him, he heard Tomlinson's placating voice. "Calm down, calm down. Tell me again, slowly..."

Klaus turned back, a small smile coming to his face. Perfect timing.

After a few minutes, Tomlinson was sitting beside him. "The Major's just been sighted," he stated without preamble.

The disguised Major sat up, apparently all ears. "Where?"

"Arlington."

Klaus made as though this were a surprise. "How credible is the source?"

"Very. Do you remember Dr. Schreckengost?" Tomlinson asked cautiously.

"How could I forget?"

"Andy said he thought he saw him last night..."

"Oh?"

"And apparently, he was outside his house just now. Had one of his men call so Andy'd know he was there."

Klaus waited before replying, making it appear as though giving this careful thought. "There's no way he could've learned about the paperwork on the project, is there?" he asked mildly.

Tomlinson gave him a horrified look. If that's what the man was after, it would be disastrous.

"Look, I know it's probably irregular," Klaus was saying, "but shall I have a look at the security system over there?"

Tomlinson scowled but did not reply.

Klaus pulled off his sunglasses and gave the man a steady look. "That is what you trained me for. Who better to see that a thief doesn't break in than another thief?"

Tomlinson couldn't argue with this. "I'll have to make a few calls." The man he thought to be Agent Marshall held out a card.

"That's the number of the cell phone I'm using."

"Disposable?"

"Naturally."

Tomlinson nodded approvingly, pocketing the card before he got to his feet. "Gimme about an hour."

* * *

"That went surprisingly well," Klaus remarked as Bonham drove them from Langley to Arlington. He had even managed to get Tomlinson to arrange for clearance for the Aqua Zep to pass through the Panama Canal. He had said that the advanced clearance would keep him from being slowed down in his mission, as he was certain that, as soon as Iron Klaus realized that his pursuer knew where he was, he would disappear again. James could take care of the wiring of funds to pay the toll.

While waiting for the call from Tomlinson, Klaus checked in with those keeping the house under surveillance. John Paul informed him that he had been unable to tap the phone lines because of the activity of the real telephone company.

"Shit, I knew things were going too well," Klaus grumbled.

John Paul gave him an amused half smile. "Turns out, I didn't need to," he said, reaching for the controls. "He was so rattled, he used a wireless phone to call Tomlinson."

Klaus rolled his eyes. "What an idiot."

The other man nodded before playing back the conversation. After a panicked moment, where Tomlinson told the man to calm down, the story tumbled forth. Iron Klaus, large as life, outside his house.

~

"I want a bodyguard," Dr. Andy demanded. "I'm not having Iron Klaus on my doorstep without protection."

"My God, Andy, how did you ever get into the CIA?" Tomlinson moaned as he hung up the phone.

~

Klaus shook his head. He had been wondering the same thing. The man was an even worse basket case than Eroica's journal made him out to be. Was it a guilty conscience? Or the fact that all the documentation on an illegal Black Ops were housed literally in his backyard? Perhaps both.

"He used the same phone when Tomlinson called back as well," John Paul informed.

Klaus's eyes narrowed. There was something in the other man's tone that set off an alarm in his head. Something in this conversation had rattled him. Then the tape of the call from Tomlinson informing him that "Eroica" would be coming to check the security system in the bunker played out.

~

"I don't want the idiot here!" Schreckengost exclaimed. "Jesus Christ, he's supposed to be dead already."

"If the Major doesn't kill him, and I have no doubts that he will," came Tomlinson's calm voice, "it's not a problem. Neither one of them will ever see the inside of a courtroom."

"Why did I ever let you talk me into going along with this?"

"For God, Country--"

"Dammit, Greg, don't start with that bullshit! We should've ended this in '88 when we were supposed to."

"Just stay calm. Either those two will kill each other, or we'll do it for them. Either way, no one will ever know."

"Jesus," the doctor moaned. "What's the status on that bodyguard?"

There was a chuckle in response before Tomlinson said, "You'll be happy to know I've got someone all lined up for you."

"Who?"

"D'you know Dick Grant?"

A pause. "Not ‘Steamroller' Dick Grant?" came the disbelieving reply.

"That's him."

"He'll never agree to this. He's a senior agent--"

"Who has no love for Iron Klaus. Believe me, he'll jump at the chance to take down that asshole German."

"Oh hell."

~

Klaus had listened to the recording, his eyes focused in the distance. While the others seemed genuinely shocked, for him, it was just concrete proof of what he, and Eroica himself, had suspected all along.

Within the hour, he received the call from Tomlinson giving him the go ahead to check the bunker. Before going to meet with Dr. Andy, Klaus was given a pair of sunglasses that had a tiny camera hidden inside. Wherever he looked, the camera would track and record. In this way, he would be able to record the interior of the bunker, allowing the Eroica gang to analyze how best to plunder its contents.

It took only a few minutes talking before the disguised Major was led to the backyard. Despite everything, Schreckengost could not dispute the fact that Eroica was the best thief in the world and therefore the best one to check things over.

Outside in the van, the Eroica gang was impressed at the Major's ability to get all relevant data on camera. At first, he moved aimlessly around while chatting away. Then he removed the sunglasses and directed the camera separately. In only a few minutes, the thieves had more than enough information to start planning the theft of everything connected with Project: Eroica.

After the taping, everyone regrouped at the hotel where Agent M and the others had been staying. John Paul played back the recording of the phone calls for everyone, much to their mutual shock. If anyone had any doubts as to the Major's sincerity, they were erased by these recordings.

* * *

Agent by Margaret Price

Chapter Sixteen

Agent

The partner of a thief in a cheating scheme.

*

Klaus found himself impressed by the professionalism of the Eroica gang. He had learned from Agent M that the time spent waiting for the arrival of the sub had not been idle. They had located the plans of the doctor's home, and more specifically, of the bomb shelter that had been built in the early 1950s at the very beginning of the Cold War. No home should be without one, he thought ironically as he looked over the plans.

With the addition of the visual scans he made of the interior, as well as those of the security system, the thieves verified that the job would be a piece of cake, just as Eroica observed in his journal. No challenge at all. The biggest hurdle would be the time factor. The boxes within seemed relatively standard. But in order for the theft to go undetected, the gang felt they should either remove the contents of the boxes, or just replace the boxes with dummies.

Bonham advised that this was something best decided once they were inside the vault. If the dummies were too obvious, they would just remove the contents of the ones in the vault and put it into the dummies for transport.

Klaus agreed that this two-fold plan was the best, as it would not cause too long of a delay.

"We'll need a diversion, Major," Bonham said once everything was decided. "Something to keep Dr. Andy out of the house longer than his evening constitutional takes."

Klaus nodded, sitting back in his seat, a hand to his mouth. The diversion would have to be time consuming but not enough to have the local authorities involved. By now, the man's bodyguard would have been--

Bodyguard.

Dick "Steamroller" Grant. The bastard who had nearly screwed up his mission in Austria and beaten the Earl. Beaten the Earl unnecessarily at that. He had hit Eroica five times after he had gotten the information from him that he needed. At the time, Klaus had promised to do the payback for him, since he did not believe the thief capable of doing so himself. Even given the present state of affairs, Klaus was still uncertain the man could take on someone the size of Steamroller. Iron Klaus could without any difficulty at all. As could a disguised Iron Klaus. The moment this thought crossed his mind, an evil smile came to Klaus's face.

Time for a little payback.

When Klaus finally looked up, he saw everyone looking expectantly at him. They had obviously seen that look before, and knew what it meant.

"I know what to do as a diversion..."

* * *

The next evening, everything was in place for the Eroica gang to steal the Project: Eroica archive and then transport it to the sub, which was due to be finished with its repairs the next day. The same day that the clearance through the Panama Canal was due to come through. Klaus prayed that the Devil's own luck that Eroica seemed to have worked by proxy. If all went well, they would be well on their way to Panama within twenty-four hours.

"There he goes," Agent M said into a radio as Dr. Andy, with the hulking Dick "Steamroller" Grant in tow, went for his evening walk.

Jerry had been stationed near a tree at a street corner along the road where the doctor usually walked. This time, however, beneath the dark wig he was made up as a woman, the long coat covering the feminine cut of the clothing. As soon as he heard the cue, he turned sideways with the cell phone still to his ear.

The Major had taken up position out of sight. He was dressed more obviously as Eroica, rather than in the conservative suit he had worn when he met with Tomlinson. For what he had in mind, this outfit was far more fitting.

"Show time," John Paul announced as Dr. Andy spotted Jerry and gave an alarmed cry.

Jerry braced himself when he heard the CIA man earn his nickname as he thundered over to him. He drew a deep breath and started chatting into the phone. "I'm here, just as you said. Why haven't you..." The next thing he knew, a paw of a hand was grabbing the collar of his trench coat. He gave a very convincing female shriek, dropped the phone, and threw up his hands. "Take everything! Just don't hurt me!" He shoved his purse at his "assailant" and then dropped to the ground.

Grant was so stunned by this that he stood mutely staring down at the purse that had been thrust into his hands. Then he looked at the apparently cowering woman. What the hell? Suddenly another woman was on the scene to help the first. A hand pushed the thunderstruck CIA agent back out of the way, and then the woman was squatting down, her mass of blond curls covering her face.

"Oh, you poor thing, are you alright?" the newcomer said in an obvious English accent.

"They told me this was a safe neighborhood," the victim of Grant's assault replied shakily.

The person on the other end of the forgotten cell phone was calling out, "For God's sake, Lisa! Answer me!"

Klaus picked up the phone and put it to his ear. "Lisa is fine, whoever you are. She just had a bit of a fright. She'll ring you later." He ended the call and smiled.

At the other end of the line, Bonham was also smiling. He turned to the others and waved a hand. "Go."

The Eroica gang wasted no time. The security system on the house as well as the shelter were deactivated within seconds. Then the team was inside the vault, checking boxes and moving the contents. Everything on the shelves was marked and dated, but the markings were so faded one had to be on top of them to read them. The dummies appeared to be virtually identical, making removal of the originals no problem.

The group did not stop to read what was what on the faded labels, taking everything and replacing them with empties. Since there was a locked metal gate at the entrance to the vault area, which did not appear to have been opened in years, it was a good bet that no one did anything more than just check to see the boxes were in place rather than actually look at the contents. All the better for the thieves. They would toss a layer of dust on everything for good measure when they were through.

Bonham watched the operation in some pride. If the Major's diversion caused only a five minute delay, it would be all that the team needed. Then he wondered just how the diversion was going.

*

"I'm...ssssorry, ma'am," Grant stammered out when he'd finally found his voice, "I thought you were someone else."

The accosted "woman" had been helped to her feet by this time. She gave him a dirty look, snatched her purse back, thanked her rescuer, and hurried off.

"It was a mistake," Grant said helplessly to the blond whose back was still to him. When the blond turned around, Grant's mouth dropped open. "Hey, you're..." He got no further. The next thing he knew, a fist was connecting with his face, and he was lying sprawled on the sidewalk.

"That wasn't a bloody mistake," Klaus snarled, having to struggle to maintain his impersonation of the Earl. "You hit me five times, you thug!" He held out his hand, fingers spread wide. "Five! You didn't have to hit me once!"

"I didn't know you were CIA!" Grant replied lamely as he struggled to his feet.

"What difference does that make?" the fake Earl retorted sharply.

"You could've told me!" Grant said before he took a swing at the other man. He found himself swinging at thin air. Then a fist was connecting with his stomach, doubling him over.

"Two!" the "Earl" snapped. Then he brought a fist up to the man's jaw, knocking him backward. "Three!" He watched the man stagger back and could not help smiling inwardly. "I couldn't blow my cover, you moron! Anyway, I gave you the microfilm. You didn't have to hit me at all!"

"Marshall! What the hell are you doing?" This was Schreckengost, who had finally found his voice.

"Therapy in the form of payback." He turned to glare at the big man, the contact lenses masking only the color of his eyes not the intensity that was all Iron Klaus. "It's been a long time coming."

Across the street in the enclosed van, the men who had accompanied Klaus were watching the altercation in an awed silence. For all intents and purposes, it appeared as though the Earl was beating the crap out of Steamroller Dick. John Paul was watching with delight from behind a viewfinder. He wanted to tape the Major's diversion so the Earl could see that Steamroller had finally gotten what was coming to him after so many years. Instead, he got something much better. It was pure gold.

Klaus had delivered punch number four by this time, and was now backing up, causing Steamroller to smirk and come charging at him. At the last second, Klaus sidestepped, caught the man by the arm, and spun on his heel, using his other hand to push the man's shoulder and use his own momentum to propel him into the tree that Jerry had been leaning against. Everyone watching the altercation cringed as the big man crashed face first into the solid surface before falling back onto the pavement, looking like a felled tree himself.

Klaus stood over Grant, holding out his hand with fingers spread again. "Five," he announced. "You should be glad it wasn't Iron Klaus you hit," he said to the dazed man on the ground. "He gives back twice what he gets."

The disguised officer looked up at Schreckengost, who was standing in an awed silence. "Sorry you had to witness that undignified display, Doctor," he said calmly in the most aristocratic voice he could manage. He made a show of straightening his clothing. "But the dick here had it coming."

All the doctor could do was nod dumbly at him. Then he looked down at the battered form at his feet and remembered that he was supposed to be a medical professional. He did not even notice when the "Earl" vanished.

*

Klaus swiftly crossed the street, jumping into the back of the waiting van that immediately sped off, heading back to the hotel. "Did the others have enough time?" he asked as he pulled off the blond wig.

Before anyone could reply, Jerry's cell phone rang with the answer. It was Bonham calling to say that the Major's diversion had given them more than enough time to pull off the job.

"We're on our way to the sub to drop everything off," Bonham told him.

"Good," Klaus acknowledged. "Call the hotel and have everyone there ready to check out when we arrive. Once the clearance through Panama comes down, we're out of here." He did not say it, but his meaning was clear. The less time they spent in the U.S. the better.

"As you say, Ma--er, M'lord," Bonham chuckled before ending the call.

Klaus gave a snort as he closed the cell phone. Then he looked up to see everyone looking admiringly at him. "What are you lot looking at?"

To his astonishment, the members of the Eroica gang burst into a round of applause. He rolled his eyes, running his fingers through his hair. "Idiots," he muttered. "You think I enjoyed that?"

"Damn straight," John Paul called over his shoulder. "And I got it all on tape."

Klaus did not reply. He also did not stop the satisfied smile from appearing on his face.

Damn, that felt good.

* * *

Full Boat by Margaret Price

Chapter Seventeen

Full Boat

Another term meaning a full house.

*

Norfolk Naval Shipyards
Portsmouth, Virginia
Mid-August 2002

The boxes containing everything--hopefully--about Project: Eroica were deposited in the same room where James' procured database had been set up. When Klaus looked through the door, he was taken aback by the sheer number of boxes on the conference table. It had not looked like so much in the bomb shelter vault. Then again, that had been a considerably larger space. He would not learn until later that the thieves had taken everything in the vault rather than waste time being selective.

Room was made in the sub's cramped space for the three men who had been sent ahead to lay the groundwork for the theft. Klaus was not going to call it a success until he was well away from Virginia. On the opposite side of the Panama Canal, which would not be for another two days at the least. Or possibly the opposite side of the globe, which would be another three weeks on top of that.

While the Major stood contemplating where to start on the mountain of information, the call came down that the clearance through Panama was in place. Since the repairs had also been completed, all supplies laid in, and everyone was onboard, he gave orders to set course south.

Once they were well on their way, he would contact Bali. He was currently looking at a twelve hour time difference, and would have to wait before seeing what progress was being made on his original project.

* * *

The Eroica gang's high spirits soon gave way to boredom after their successful theft. Several times volunteers came forward to assist in sifting through the stolen documents. While Klaus could not fault their enthusiasm, he was forced to refuse, since the men were not trained agents and would therefore not know what to look for. As if he knew what he was looking for himself, he reflected darkly.

Finally, he allowed some of the men to assist his agents in the cataloging. If nothing else, it would save time.

At some point, a large collection of video tapes was discovered. These, no doubt, were the tapes that Eroica had mentioned in the journal about his initial training with the real Earl of Gloria. When Klaus attempted to watch them, he discovered, to his annoyance, that they were the wrong format for the equipment onboard. The VCR was British, the video tapes American. They would have to stop and pick up a TV and VCR from the States before anything could be viewed. This was something that was done when the sub was passing off the coast of Florida.

Klaus had a message sent to Tomlinson as the sub approached Panama, to make doubly sure the clearances were in place. The last thing he wanted was another delay. Or worse, to get stuck while inside the canal itself.

* * *

Tomlinson sat staring at the message from the Aqua Zep on his computer, his mind going over the last few days. The last few weeks. If James was in Bali, why hadn't he contacted him yet? What was he doing there? Was he even there at all?

Some things did not add up, and a voice in the back of his head was starting to get louder. The illusive Major Eberbach, appearing and disappearing. The bizarre fist fight between Marshall and Steamroller. The man's general manner when they spoke. The voice was saying that he was not just being paranoid.

Tomlinson picked up the phone, checking the extension number before punching it in. After some brief chat, he said, "I need a favor. Who do you have in Bali you can spare?"

* * *

A short conversation with Agent A left Klaus even more pessimistic about his original operation. Weeks had gone by and they were no closer to achieving their goal. Even Eroica's underground connections were wary and asking for a face-to-face rather than deal over the phone.

The only positive note was that James had been able to get a considerable amount of cash put together and at his disposal when things finally did turn around. He wondered if he should alter his opinion of the little bug, but decided to reserve judgment until the operation ended.

Before signing off, Klaus once again gave orders for strict radio silence. He would not contact his men again until he was through the Panama Canal and well out into the Pacific.

* * *

"Shit!"

Every eye in the room turned when James let out his exclamation.

"Shit! Shit! Shit!"

"Did the price of pork bellies go down?" someone asked aridly.

James looked up, his expression a combination of anger and alarm. "No, Director Tomlinson is sending someone to check on the compound," he announced to the horror of all present.

"What? When?" Agent A cried as he jumped to his feet.

"Now!"

This announcement was enough to send a wave of panic through the assembled Alphabet. There would be no time to do a proper evacuation.

"What's the fuss?" Eroica asked as Agent B came scurrying into the kitchen where the Earl was in the process of making some tea. As soon as he heard the reply, he was on his way to locate Agent A.

"Lord Gloria--" A began, only to stop when the Earl held up a hand.

"No need to evacuate," Eroica said calmly. "I suggest a Hindu shuffle."

A blinked. "A what?"

"Don't you play cards?"

"Erm...yes."

"Well, that's when you take a deck of cards in one hand and flip them into the other."

A's gave the Earl baffled look. "You want us to change hands?"

"Yes!" Eroica gave him a wry smile. "There are some things about my estate that even the CIA doesn't know about," he said mildly. He looked across the room. "James, we shall need your cooperation."

"Me?"

Eroica nodded. "The Major said he told the CIA that you were here. They're probably coming to check on that."

James gave a snort. "They don't trust you."

"Good. I don't trust them either." Eroica threw his hair over his shoulder. "Now, we need to get everyone to the vault."

James gave the man across the room a knowing look. "The large one or the small?"

* * *

"Never mind the details. I'm asking when this report was filed!" Tomlinson demanded of the unfortunate person on the other end of the phone. In front of him was a report from Bali stating that someone fitting Agent Marshall's description had been hospitalized with a serious respiratory infection just prior to the appearance of the "Earl of Gloria" in Virginia. If it was Marshall, there was no way in hell that he would have been able to travel. So who the hell did he meet with? Who's the man currently on the sub in the Panama--?

Tomlinson cut off the explanation being given to him over the phone. "Forget all that! I need someone to get aboard a sub passing through the Panama Canal. Now!"

* * *

Agent A looked around the enormous subterranean vault and gave a low whistle. The Alphabet had been on the premises for several weeks, and had even searched the grounds extensively upon arrival. No one even suspected there was an elevator hidden within the shed in the back garden, let alone discovered it.

Eroica grinned as the elevator brought down another group of agents. "I had this installed because...well, I needed somewhere to store all my loot." He waved a hand to indicate several tall crates leaning against one wall. Further on was a smaller room that was packed with smaller crates and boxes. "One of these days I'll have everything unpacked and put up properly."

"When was it added?" Agent Z asked.

An odd look passed over the Earl's face and he gave way to a small shudder. "It wasn't. It went in when construction of the compound started in 1989. It was part of my...therapy."

"Therapy?"

"After my breakdown." Eroica turned to look across the room. "I was put on a leave of absence of sorts. Told to take time off. So...I came here." He waved a hand to take in the vast room. "It was a rather fun project to oversee, actually. We added the vaults to construction just as they were clearing the area." He grinned devilishly. "Didn't bother to tell the CIA. After all, I was supposed to be inactive."

"Inactive as an agent or as a thief?" Agent B asked as he peeked into a smaller vault that was lined with shelves.

"Oh, an agent, naturally," Eroica replied as he crossed to the boxes and gave them a loving pat. "I had to have something to decorate the place with."

* * *

"That's everyone," G announced as he returned to the computer room.

"I'm not really cut out for this stuff," James said in a panicked voice. He waved a hand at a computer screen. "And now they're trying to stop the sub."

G blinked. "Who is?"

"The CIA! Someone is supposed to be stopping the sub in Panama. Apparently, there was a report about the Earl being in hospital here."

"Fuck," G replied.

"You have to warn the Major," Jams stated flatly.

G shook his head. "We can't. He's traveling under radio silence." He looked at the clock. "He must be in the canal by now, anyway." At that moment, they heard sound of a car pulling up the long driveway. He exchanged a nervous look with James and crossed his fingers.

* * *

Two CIA men got out of a black sedan and cautiously looked around before going to the front entrance and ringing the buzzer. James was already at the intercom and waited until the buzzer rang again. Then he drew a deep breath to steady himself and pushed the button to reply.

"Go away! I'm busy."

There was a long pause. "Excuse me, is that Mr. James?"

"What do you want?" James demanded.

"CIA. We were sent to check on you."

By this time, James was getting into his part. He yanked open the door, giving the men a cool look. "Check on me for what?" He did not wait for an answer. He turned on his heel, storming down the hall to the computer room. "I'm busy, can't you see that?"

The CIA men stood at the threshold of the open door, staring after the little man in blank astonishment before entering the house. They followed in James' wake, finding him flitting from one computer screen to another. There seemed to be more than a dozen computers in the room, all scrolling through various search programs.

"Um, sir, if we could have a minute of your time..."

James looked up, waving a hand. "Time is money," he replied automatically. Then his eyes narrowed. "Hey, how do I know you're really CIA?"

The men at the door were wondering if he would think to ask this. They pulled out their ID and waited patiently as James scrutinized it at length. Finally, he thrust it back at them. "Okay, you're CIA. Now clear off, I'm trying to find Iron Klaus."

"Ye~es," the first man said calmly. "If...you don't mind, we'd like to have a look around..."

"Yes, I do mind," James said sharply.

"Hiding something?"

"I don't know what you mean," came the defensive reply.

The CIA men exchanged a knowing look. Before they could go on, there was a sharp gasp from out in the hall. They turned as one, reaching for their weapons at the same time. They stopped when they saw what they thought was a blond woman in a print sundress standing with her hands to her mouth.

"Oh! I knew it," G moaned. "My husband hired you, didn't he?"

The CIA agents exchanged an incredulous look.

James peeked out the doorway. "It's alright," he said calmly. "They're not private detectives. They're just CIA."

G gave a very convincing shriek, covered his face, and ran off, apparently in tears.

It seemed all too clear to the agents what was going on. Obviously this man had stayed behind to carry on an affair, using his search for Iron Klaus as a cover. They gave the first floor of the main house a cursory sweep, glanced out into the garden, and then thanked James for his time.

As soon as the black sedan was out of sight, James promptly fainted.

* * *

Klaus and all aboard the Aqua Zep were blissfully unaware of the fact that their journey through the canal was in peril. Craig advised more mugging for the cameras, since this would be completely in character for the Earl's over-the-top persona.

"It was bad enough you had me out there while you lot were waving like idiots in Virginia," Klaus growled.

"It doesn't have to be the Major, does it?" Bonham injected mildly.

"Well, no, I suppose not..." Craig said mildly. "We were all mugging to the camera before."

Bonham shook his head. "No, I mean, it doesn't have to be the Major dressed as the Earl," he pointed out. "It's not like he's gonna be up close to anyone."

This was a point. "No, but if someone has a telephoto lens," Klaus replied thoughtfully. He heaved a heavy sigh and turned to Craig. "Let's have that wig on again."

* * *

While the CIA men were being stymied by James and G in Bali, Klaus, dressed as the Earl, along with the Eroica gang were out in force on the Aqua Zep, waving to the bystanders alongside the canal. There were cheers from an appreciative crowd above.

"I'm not doing this for more than nine bloody hours," Klaus grumbled through clenched teeth as he stood at the top of the conning tower.

"No need," Craig replied through the open hatch below. "It'll be dark in about an hour."

"Fuck, I'm not doing this for an hour, either."

Craig grinned. "Major, no one would question the Earl being out there. They'd only question him not."

Bloody fucking marvelous. I may kill the idiot just on principle.

*

Somewhere on land up above, a CIA man argued with one official after another before finally getting to the one who could give him the status of the Aqua Zep's passage. He had planned to panic the man by saying that the sub contained terrorists, but this was completely derailed when the first thing out of the man's mouth was, "Would that be the sub your government cleared?"

Shit. Now what?

Hours--and miles--later, the agent was being led to the final lock in the canal and introduced to the operator.

"Never mind the formalities," the CIA man snapped impatiently. "I need to get aboard the submarine Aqua Zep before it clears the canal."

"Oh," the operator gave the man a startled look and turned to the canal. "You're too late." He waved a hand.

The horrified CIA agent turned to see the gates wide open. In the distance, he just caught sight of the sub, the crew on the deck waving good-bye as it vanished into the darkness.

Dammit!

* * *

A few hours later, when it was morning in Bali, Klaus contacted Agent A to say that the sub had cleared the Panama Canal without incident, only to be overwhelmed by the information that came pouring back. The CIA men coming to the compound and the apparent near miss at the canal.

Just what the hell is in those stolen records? Klaus found himself wondering. Hopefully, in the time it took to cross the Pacific, he would find out.

* * *

Split by Margaret Price

Chapter Eighteen

Split

Separating two cards of the same rank into two individual hands.

*

"Mr. A," Eroica sighed, "unless we can convince the CIA that the story the Major told them is accurate, my mission is at risk of being called off. It's obvious someone is getting suspicious. Or paranoid, which is worse. If I'm recalled, there'll be a real assassin after the Major. And you lot, too, I imagine."

A gave him a steady look, his expression pensive. The Earl made sense, and his reasoning was sound, but there was still a niggling bit of doubt in his mind as to his sincerity.

"There's no guaranteeing those agents won't be back," Eroica pointed out.

Again, A had no comeback for this.

"Tell you what," Eroica said happily, "let Mr. Z come along with me. I'm sure he'll be more than happy to shoot me if it looks as if I'm trying to put a fast one."

A turned to Z, who had his eyebrows raised. He gave a shrug in reply to the unspoken question. A turned back and sighed again, accepting defeat. "Alright. But this had better work or the Major will have all our heads."

Eroica grinned. "What can he do? It's not as if he can send you to Alaska anymore, is it?"

* * *

Klaus was surprised when he was told that a message had been received from Eroica. Then he was annoyed when told it was a request for a "chat."

"What the hell is going on in Bali now?" Klaus demanded without preamble as he stormed onto the bridge and over to John Paul.

John Paul cleared his throat, throwing a nervous glance over to the others before saying, "Um, the Earl's not in Bali, Major. He's in South Korea."

"What the hell's he doing in Korea?" Klaus could already feel the old rage building over Eroica's antics. He found himself reconsidering his relief that the man had fully recovered, and decided he would wait until after the call on a secure channel was put through before exploding.

The Earl's honeyed tones came through the speaker, and Klaus cut him off before he could infuriate him further. "What the fuck are you doing in Korea?" he thundered.

"Oh, so lovely to hear you again, Major," Eroica replied sweetly. Then he became deadly serious, explaining exactly what his plan entailed. "Z has set everything up this end," he informed. "What do you think?"

Klaus was silent for several seconds, not quite believing what he had just heard. "I think it's the most audacious stunt I've ever heard, even from you," he replied, not without a small amount of admiration in his voice.

The Earl actually laughed. "Utterly ridiculous," he agreed.

"Completely ludicrous."

"Will it work?"

"Absolutely," Klaus stated flatly. "Your superiors are idiots. Don't forget, I've met them."

Eroica laughed again upon hearing this. He couldn't agree more.

"Give us five minutes to set up the recording equipment." With that, Klaus cut the transmission.

Eroica turned to Z, giving him a thumbs-up. "We're a go, Mr. Z."

The agent was on the far side of the room, standing in the doorway. He had been amazed to learn that the Earl had any contacts in Korea, let alone ones who could set him up with the equipment needed to pull this off.

"We're ready when you are..." Z grinned. "Major."

After the designated five minutes, Eroica put in the call to the sub using an unsecured channel that he felt sure the CIA would be monitoring. Since no one could actually see where they were calling from, his plan was for them to act as though they were in reverse locations; the Major in South Korea, and Eroica aboard the Aqua Zep.

"Hello? Who's there?" Eroica paused and leaned away from the mike. "Bonham, I thought you said someone was calling."

Klaus grinned, taking his cue. "Having fun playing ship's Captain, Agent Marshall? Or would it be Sub Commander?"

"Major! How the hell did you get this frequency?" Eroica demanded.

Klaus gave a derisive snort. "You think just because I'm not NATO anymore I don't know how to get information, Herr CIA?"

"Smug bastard."

"Would you like to know where I am?" Klaus asked tauntingly.

"I already know where you are," Eroica countered. "You're in Korea." He was impressed when the Major gave a surprised noise loud enough to be recorded when he said this.

"Was that a lucky guess? Or did they tell you that in Langley?" Klaus then asked.

Oh, very good, Major, Eroica thought admiringly. "I told them only they didn't--" A pause. "Shit! That really was you outside Dr. Schreckengost's house, wasn't it? You stalking old men now?"

Now it was Klaus's turn to be impressed. "The old man lives up to his name. He scares easy. I'll bet he's even frightened of his own shadow." These words were barely out of his mouth when another thought struck him, his mind flashing back to the entries in the Earl's journal. Entries in German. He looked thoughtfully at the speaker when Eroica replied, storing his sudden brainstorm away until later.

"--but they wouldn't listen," Eroica was saying as Klaus returned to the moment. "Just as I warned them you were going to Korea."

"That's encouraging. For me. Your superiors are bigger idiots than I thought."

Eroica let his voice drop into a taunt. "Doesn't it grate just a bit? Iron Klaus having nowhere to hide but with the Commies?"

The tone was matched by Klaus. "Not as much as I'm sure it does you. You shouldn't've tried to be so clever, Agent Marshall, mucking around in that ancient submarine. You're on the wrong side of the Pacific Ocean. By the time you get here, we'll be long gone."

Eroica paused as if this surprised him. "We? You still have the Alphabet with you?"

"My men are very loyal," Klaus stated flatly. And if this ploy doesn't protect them, nothing will.

"Oh, really?" came the disbelieving reply. "Do they know that you're engaged in a personal vendetta and not a legitimate mission?"

Silence.

The smug tone returned to Eroica's voice. "You didn't tell them, did you? Afraid they wouldn't follow the great Iron Klaus if they knew the truth?"

"Look who's talking about the truth," Klaus shot back smoothly.

"Here it comes. The personal attacks," Eroica said in a bored tone. "You lie like a dog for decades. Don't even bat an eye when you do it. But you whine like an old woman when it's done to you. You can dish it out but you can't take it."

"Ha! You're the one whining about having to chase me. You did this to me for years, pretending to be nothing but a civilian thief. Now it's you who has to follow my civilian ass. You don't like it either, do you, Herr CIA?"

Eroica felt his heart jump, his anger rising. "God, you're such an asshole!"

"But I though that's why you loved me, Eroica?" Klaus sneered.

"This whole thing is because you're pissed that the great Iron Klaus couldn't see a CIA mole who was right under his nose for nearly twenty-five years."

Now Klaus could feel his anger rising. "I hope you run into a Typhoon on your way across the Pacific and it makes you bloody sea sick. And don't give me that bullshit about being descended from pirates. That was the real Lord Gloria."

"I hope the Commies think you're faking in this change of heart and take you captive, Mr. von dem Eberbach. I'd pay real money to watch them torture you."

"Tell you what. Why don't I just wait for you? I'd like to give you a reason to have more plastic surgery!"

It was all too obvious to the listening Z that the fake argument was turning into the real thing. He signaled to the Korean man he had arranged for earlier to burst into the room, yelling in Korean, of course, that they were taking too long on his equipment.

"God dammit, Z!" the Major snarled. I'm not done threatening that idiot!

Agent Z apologized loudly to the Major while making sure the sound of him apparently removing the man would be recorded. Then at a prearranged hand signal, they all fell silent in mid-conversation, as if the transmission at that end had been cut.

Eroica waited a beat before he continued the pretense. "Major? Major! Dammit, you fucking Nazi, answer me!"

Bonham felt his heart in his mouth when he heard this and spoke for the first time. "He's cut the transmission, m'lord."

"God fucking dammit!" Eroica thundered.

"M'lord," Bonham went on nervously, throwing a glance over his shoulder at the fuming Klaus, "the Major was transmitting on an unsecured channel."

"That's because he wanted us to know where he is, smug bastard."

With that, the transmission ended. Klaus made a motion across his throat and the transmission at his end also ended. Everyone on the sub breathed a collective sigh of relief when he did nothing more dangerous than glower.

"Put in a call to that asshole Tomlinson in Langley," Klaus ordered. "Tell him..." His eyes flickered. "Tell him that Iron Klaus has just made contact and send the recording along with it."

"Yes, Major."

"And if he hasn't already, have Mr. James send a message to that asshole asking why the CIA is suddenly checking up on him after all this time."

John Paul saw a odd look pass over the Major's face and exchanged a quick glance with Bonham before asking, "Anything else?"

"Yes. After you've done all that, send a message to Eroica and tell him if I don't kill him when I see him next, I'm gonna put him back in the hospital instead."

* * *

Bottom Dealing by Margaret Price

Chapter Nineteen

Bottom Dealing

A method of illegally influencing the outcome of a game by way of dealing from the bottom, rather than the top, of the card deck.

*

"The Major's gonna have my hide for letting you talk me into this," Z moaned as he settled into his seat aboard the Earl's private jet.

"He's had two agents in the Middle East for weeks now," Eroica replied, looking around for his seat belt at the same time. "And what progress have they made?" He found the belt and looked over at the agent.

"Um..."

"Precisely. All you've got is a questionable source demanding another one million U.S. dollars with nothing to show for the first payment. He's just stringing you along, and you know it. D'you really think the Major is pleased with that lack of progress?"

Z sighed heavily. This was true enough. No one in the terrorist community believed that Iron Klaus had suddenly decided to chuck everything. They were obviously waiting for him to make some grand gesture of defiance first. And now even Eroica's sources were finding the Earl's own inquiries suspect. "You still should've let D and E make contact. They're a lot closer to Beirut than we are."

"And I'm a lot closer to the Bakchials than they are," Eroica said pointedly. "I've been dealing with Mr. Bakchial--junior and senior--for a good many years." He paused, grudgingly adding, "And if you must know, Mr. Bakchial senior has a bit of a crush on me. I can get away with just about anything with him."

Z rolled his eyes but did not reply.

"Anyway," Eroica sighed, twirling one of his long curls around a finger, "if anyone can get the information on these things that the Major is after..."

"Pocket nukes."

"Yes, those. If anyone can get info on them, the Bakchials can. They know everybody. Who has what, or who knows whom, and so on.

"For the right price."

Eroica gave the other man a steady look. "You're very cynical since all this started," he observed.

Z gave a small snort, glancing idly out the window as the plane started to taxi down the runway. "You sound surprised."

"I probably shouldn't be after you threatened to kill me, but I never thought of you as the cynical type."

"And I never thought of you as the CIA type," Z shot back smoothly.

"Touché."

* * *

"You know we're always happy to do anything for the great Eroica," Mr. Bakchial the younger was saying as tea was poured for his guests, his father tittering beside him.

"You're most kind," Eroica replied urbanely, taking the tea as it was handed to him.

"But the world has become so much more dangerous," Bakchial went on in a serious tone. "So many evil men."

"Terrorists are nothing new," Z injected darkly. He received a withering look from the Earl but did not respond, keeping his face neutral.

"Quite so," Eroica agreed blandly, taking a sip of his tea.

Bakchial looked from one to the other. "And your request is, to say the least, unusual. Even for you."

Eroica put on an air of nonchalance and causally leaned back, setting his tea on the table beside him. "Yes," he sighed, playing with one of his curls. "I'm afraid the request really isn't from me. I'm working under a rather vulgar contract," he confessed. "It's my employers who want the information. Apparently you refused to deal with them directly, so they asked me."

Bakchial's face brightened for a moment only to darkened quickly. He leaned over as his father suddenly whispered in his ear. He nodded, looking at Eroica again. "Is it true what they say, then? That the man you used to chase, one called Iron Klaus is...?"

Eroica's eye flickered. "Is what? What have you heard, exactly?" he asked, having to struggle to keep up the pretense of disinterest.

"That he's gone mad. Wants to blow up the world--or at least NATO headquarters."

Z's eyebrows went up, his expression of neutrality slipping momentarily.

"Ah, well, I'm hoping he just got fed up and chucked it for--"

"And," Bakchial interrupted pointedly, "they say that you are really CIA." Beside him, his father nodded vigorously.

I'll bet they do. Eroica gave an amused laugh upon hearing this. He paused a beat, waiting to see if the man would say more. When he did not, he threw up his hands in mock surrender. "Yes, yes, it's all true!" he cried out suddenly. "I'm really a CIA operative who's been working undercover as an international art thief for decades. I confess to my crimes and throw myself on your mercy." He lowered his head crossing his hands across his chest, the picture of repentance.

The elder Bakchial could not contain his delight and burst out laughing at this over-the-top, and apparently tongue-in-cheek confession. He put a hand to his mouth, but was unable to stop laughing.

Z found himself chuckling as well, despite the fact that he knew it all to be true. But the incongruity of it all was just too ridiculous, as was the Earl's characteristically overdramatic confession.

Mr. Bakchial the younger looked at his father, who had tears streaming down his face. Then he too started to laugh. "I never said I believed them, my lord."

Eroica flashed a brief smile. "I wouldn't want you to think ill of me," he said, and held out a hand in Z's direction. "This is the real agent. Only he's from NATO, not the CIA."

Both Bakchial's eyebrows went up upon hearing this and Z took his cue perfectly. "We believe the Major is trying to locate the three pocket nukes that went missing sometime after the fall of the Soviet Union," he said calmly. "We were able to piece together enough to learn he was in contact with a group in Bali that is also trying to get hold of them."

"NATO wants to get them back," Eroica rejoined, "before anyone who might actually want to use them--does." He paused a beat before saying, "Can you help us?"

The obviously overwhelmed Bakchials sat staring a moment. There was another whispered conversation, and the younger man said, "Excuse us, please."

"Certainly."

Z waited until the men were out of the room before turning to the seemingly unperturbed Earl. "They're not going for this," he said in a low voice.

Eroica calmly poured himself another cup of tea and sat back before replying. "Of course they are," he said, glancing idly out a window. "They'll do anything for me, I told you."

"Even when you're CIA?"

"They don't believe that for a second. No more than the terrorist network believes that Iron Klaus and his entire Alphabet went mad." Eroica tossed his hair over one shoulder. "I can't say I blame them. I had a hard time believing it myself."

Z's eyes grew wide. "Do you still believe we went mad?"

Two sparkling blue eyes turned in his direction. "Mr. Z, the first thing you did after the start of all this was threaten to kill me." Eroica actually grinned at the guilty look this received. "Would you've killed me?" he asked innocently.

Z shook his head. "No, sir. We were ordered not to harm you."

"Just scare the shit out of me, is that it?'

Z shifted in his seat but did not reply.

Eroica grinned at him. "To answer your question, no, I don't think you went mad. I think NATO did and the Major was the only sane one in the lot." He paused, adding, "But knowing the Major as we do, that's not very reassuring for the world, is it?"

Before Z could think of a suitable reply, the door on the far side of the room opened as their hosts returned.

* * *

"So Bakchials major and minor came through, huh?" Klaus remarked when Z checked in with a status report.

"Yes, sir," Z replied.

"They say it will take some time before they can get back to me," Eroica injected.

"Goddamn fucking Arabs!" Klaus spat. "Always with the bloody tomorrow."

Eroica grinned at this, throwing an amused look over at Z. "Actually, Major, the person they need to contact is out of touch just now. From their tone, I can only guess this person is part of a terrorist cell, probably working both sides."

"Shit. Now the whole operation hinges on the word of a bottom feeder."

"That's a bit harsh, even for you."

"So sue me," Klaus snorted.

Again, Eroica brightened. "Ah, that brings up another point. Cash. We're gonna need a lot of it."

"How much?"

"Thirty million U.S. dollars," came the startling reply. "Cash, naturally."

A pause. "Each?"

"Yes."

"That's the figure D and E came up with, sir," Z injected. "The Bakchials verified that it's the price being quoted on the Black Market." He looked over at the Earl and asked, "Will Mr. James be able to scrape that together?"

Eroica considered. "I'm sure he can. To be honest, I have no idea how much money I actually have at this point. The operation was supposed to be self supporting. After the first big heist, it was."

"That might not be a problem," Klaus injected knowingly. "Your thieves weren't very selective in what they stole in Virginia. My men just came across a box full of information on some hidden bank accounts. Possibly the ones that James was tracking."

The Earl's eyebrows went up and he exchanged an amazed look with Z. "Oh? Hidden where, Major?"

"So far, at least four in Swiss banks and a couple more in the Cayman Islands."

"Not much James can do with those without their access codes."

"Did I say I didn't have the access codes?" came the amused reply.

Eroica gave a squeal of delight. "Major, you keep this up and I may have to change my opinion of you."

Klaus could not deny being amused by this, although it did not come through in his voice this time. "You keep this up and I many change my opinion of you."

"At this point, I'm not sure if that's good or bad, Major."

Klaus gave a snort. "You idiot."

* * *

Queer Hand by Margaret Price

Chapter Twenty

Queer Hand

One card short of a Straight.

*

Klaus sat back and rubbed his eyes. He felt as if he'd been watching video tapes forever rather than just a couple of days. It would be much easier if he actually learned something more than he knew already. He could not help feeling sorry for the real Earl of Gloria, who had obviously spent innumerable hours before the camera in order for his star pupil, John Marshall, to learn his voice, accent, and mannerisms.

With a heavy sigh, Klaus made a notation of the tape number on the lined pad beside him before putting it into the VCR. He had been making notes steadily as he watched, but had yet to learn anything Earth shattering.

There was a moment of static followed by the image of the Earl sitting on a sofa watching someone off camera. "What's the plan for today?" he asked. Not for the first time did the real Earl's voice cause the watching officer's heart to jump. Agent Marshall had been able to duplicate the Earl's tone and accent perfectly.

"Background. They want me to study your mannerisms in person," came John's voice in reply. It was a mixture of American and English accents that Klaus had heard changing steadily as he watched the tapes. In fact, this blended accent was similar to the one Marshall had in the interview room.

A moment later, John appeared before the camera, sitting down beside the Earl. Obviously, these had been taped prior to Marshall's plastic surgery. He looked like he could be the Earl's brother rather than a total stranger who had been plucked up by the CIA. Not quite a twin... Well, perhaps like the Jones boys. Fraternal twins.

"Really?" Dorian's eyebrows went up and he started to play with one of his curls. "Do I have mannerisms that require study?"

John grinned and then mirrored the Earl's action, playing with one of his own slightly longer curls. It took a few seconds for Dorian to realize what he was doing. Then he laughed self-consciously and put his hands in his lap.

"No, don't do that," John said with a frown.

"Now you've got me all self-conscious."

John sighed heavily and thought a moment. "Background, they said. So...tell me some things about yourself that I don't know."

"Such as?"

"Um... Are you sad that you'll never be able to go back to Castle Gloria again?"

This was obviously an unexpected question. Dorian sat back, a startled look on his face. "So, they really did buy it back?"

"Yes."

Dorian nodded approvingly. "I'm glad. It's been empty ever since my parents divorced. I'd hate to think of it turning into another ruin. It's such a beautiful..." He broke off and turned away a moment, obviously struggling to stay in control of himself.

John leaned over, only to jump when the other man suddenly turned back to face him.

"Promise me something, John," the Earl said in an earnest tone.

"If I can," came the bewildered reply.

"Castle Gloria. Don't let them turn it into one of those ridiculous exotic zoos."

John sat back, the request obviously having taken him aback. "Zoos?" he said firmly. "Like...with zebras and peacocks, things like that?"

"Oh, peacocks are alright, I suppose. Oh! Or worse, don't let them put one of those hideous English mazes in the back garden." Dorian gave way to an involuntary shudder.

"English mazes..." John repeated dully. He had no clue what Dorian was talking about, but was prevented from saying so as the Earl went on.

"Castle Gloria's rose garden has been a jewel in the North Downs for centuries, going back to the time of the War of the Roses."

John gave him a blank look. "War of the Roses." Suddenly he felt very stupid. He knew he should know what this meant, but could only imagine warring gardeners dueling with pitchforks.

Apparently sensing the other man's confusion, Dorian said in way of explanation, "House of York--white rose? House of Lancaster--red rose?"

"I'm from New York and lived near the Village of Lancaster," John joked feebly. "Does that count?"

"I thought you said your mother was an Englishwoman."

"She is!" John said defensively. "But she didn't exactly sit everyone down and give us history lessons."

Dorian heaved an exasperated sigh, rolling his eyes to the ceiling. "You're an actor, for pity's sake! Please tell me you are at least familiar with Richard III?"

Finally, the penny dropped and John's eyes lit up. "Ah! That War of the Roses!"

Dorian made a show of rolling his eyes this time, causing John to laugh. "The Glorias are descended from the Lancastrian side. That's where the Red in Red Gloria comes from."

There was more than a hint of pride in this declaration and John tried to be serious. "With such an illustrious heritage to live up to, I'll see what I can do when I'm...um, you."

A dazzling smile lit up the Earl's face. "It's silly, I know. I never bothered much about it before." He waved an elegant hand in the air. "It was Mother's domain, you see. But I'd like to be able to think of it as it used to be in high summer. Hundreds of roses in full bloom. You could get drunk on the fragrance."

John's eyebrows went up. "I'm supposed to meet some of the team that'll be getting the Castle in order. I'm sure they'll want everything as authentic as possible."

"Splendid! I can see my ancestral home is going to be in good hands."

John shifted uncomfortably at "ancestral home." Sometimes he felt as if he were stealing Dorian's identity from him and decided to change the subject. "Where will you go when all this training is over?"

Dorian sat back and started playing with his hair again. "Australia, I think," he said breezily.

"Why Australia?"

"Oh, I don't know. I hear it's quite nice there." Dorian started to play with the ring on his right hand, adopting a look of cool indifference. "Your government has paid me rather handsomely for my name, title, and whatnot, you know. They're going to give me a new identity and set me up in the place of my choosing."

"It doesn't bother you, losing all that?" John asked cautiously.

"John, you seem to be under the impression that I'm giving up more than my title."

"Aren't you?"

"Not really. When my father died, I got his title and nothing else." Dorian paused, looking at the ring he was twisting on his finger. "Not unless you count this."

"An heirloom?"

"It was my Grandmother's wedding ring. I'm not sure when Father gave it to me. I think it was my sixteenth birthday." A pause. "Anyway, the land and everything else was sold off years ago when my parents divorced. I have three sisters who will be more than happy to produce the next Earl of Gloria."

"Your sisters?" John frowned. "You...don't think you'll be doing that yourself? Just because I'm...well, I mean...I'd never..."

"John, you are amazingly naïve at times, have I told you that?" The look Dorian received in reply made him laugh. "I've read Eroica's bio, you know."

"And you're not upset that I'm turning the Earl of Gloria into the world's most outrageous homosexual?"

"I believe that honor will belong to Elton John when he finally comes out of his see-through closet."

"You know what I mean."

Dorian studied the other man's serious expression and shook his head. "Oh dear, I think there's a small detail that has eluded you up until now." The Earl gave him a steady look, a small smile creeping onto his face. "John, I happen to be as gay as a Maypole, just not as obvious."

"What?"

"It isn't something that I flaunt, but there it is."

John sat back, a hand going to his head. "Bugger."

This made Dorian laugh. "Your expletives are sounding more English by the day." He received a dark look in reply. "Don't worry. All my friends know. It's taken years, but I finally came to terms with it, and the fact that my homosexuality wasn't the reason my parents divorced."

John nodded but did not reply, causing Dorian's eyes to narrow. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but...I hope you're not a hard core straight."

John's eyes snapped up, his mouth dropping open. "Dorian, you do know I was engaged once."

"Yes. That could just mean that you were trying to prove something to yourself. Or that you're bi. Until this operation--or whatever they're calling it--is over, you won't be able to indulge with women anymore. Surely you've realized that?"

"What if I dress in drag and say I'm a lesbian?"

Dorian collapsed into laughter. "No, that's won't work, either," he said once he could speak. Then he grinned at the other man's obvious discomfort. "You haven't told anyone, have you?"

"Why?" came the defensive reply.

"Why?" More laughter burst forth from the Earl. "Because, my darling Doppelgänger, while I'm starting my new, quiet life in Australia, you will be coming out of the closet in the biggest way possible."

*

Klaus stopped the tape at this point. Australia. Finally, a concrete lead. And from the real Earl himself. With his men already in Indonesia, there would be little delay in starting the search.

The Major was on his feet and walking toward the bridge before he even realized.

John Paul looked up, glanced at the clock, and put on the headset before the Major even opened his mouth to order, "Contact Bali."

Every eye in the room turned in his direction when he went on to say, "We have a starting point on the real Earl."

* * *

Within hours of contacting Agent A, Klaus was notified that Agents Q and R were on a plane heading for Australia. Agent P, assisted by James who turned out to be first-rate at hacking government networks, was searching the records. Hopefully they would have something by the time the team arrived.

Klaus was surprised at the level of excitement rippling through the assembled thieves onboard the sub. It was as though they had embraced the missing Earl of Gloria as their own, despite the fact that none of them had ever met him. Klaus wondered if this meant that they were also shifting their loyalty away from the man they had known as the Earl for more than twenty-five years.

With Eroica still in Lebanon with D, E, and Z, he would not learn of this latest development right away. The Major felt it was unlikely the man could get into any trouble with three of his agents with him. Unlikely, but not impossible.

* * *

Marked Cards by Margaret Price

Chapter Twenty-One

Marked Cards

Distinguishing mark or marks on the obverse side of a deck allowing one to determine a card's value before it is turned face up.

*

The trip across the Pacific was long and boring for the majority of the occupants aboard the Aqua Zep. As in the Atlantic, to minimize the crossing time they traveled on the surface, allowing many to go outside for fresh air. The endless expanse of water was still disconcerting to many, but at least it was warmer than the North Atlantic, and the promised stops at a tropical island or two were anticipated with much excitement, even if it was just to pick up supplies.

Klaus tried to ignore the thieves as they amused themselves. Despite the fact that they had technically put themselves under his command, they still were not trained agents, nor were they military. Their idea of discipline ran completely counter to his own. But they were willing, and that was all that mattered at present.

It had been nearly a week since he sent his men to Australia, and there wasn't even a whisper of a trail to follow. Klaus was still wading through the seemingly bottomless stack of video tapes, watching as Agent Marshall became more and more like the man he would replace. Klaus's agents were also slowly plowing through the packed boxes of records from Project: Eroica, sifting and cataloging as they went.

Shortly after breakfast one morning, Agent M was tapping at the door of the Major's cabin. Klaus did a double take when the man entered, the expression on his face grave. Then officer's eyes fell to the thick folder in his agent's hand.

"Well...?" he asked.

M held out the folder, saying nothing.

Klaus's eyes narrowed, then grew wide when he opened the folder, and he readily understood M's uneasiness. It was an autopsy file. He and his men had seen hundreds of such reports over the years, but the fact that this one was within the boxes could mean only one thing.

Klaus looked at the name on the folder and felt his heart turn over. Then he quickly scanned the Medical Examiner's report, struggling in some places to decipher the English scrawl. He was grateful to find a typed copy further within the folder. He paged through the papers, seeing mention of an auto accident in the autopsy report. There were also notations about autopsy photos, which were not included in the file.

After several very long minutes, Klaus looked up, seeing the silent M still standing a few feet away, awaiting orders. "Who else has seen this?"

"No one, sir," M replied. "As soon as I saw what it was, I brought it to you."

Klaus's eyebrows went up. "You didn't read it?"

M shifted on his feet. "No, sir." A pause. "Should I have?"

Klaus closed the folder, shaking his head. "No, you acted quite correctly, M." He held up the folder. "What else was with this?"

"I don't know. That was the first folder in the box."

"Was it?" Klaus got to his feet, going to the room where his other three agents were slowly wading through the documents. One of the thieves was sitting before a computer, entering the information that was being called out to him. There was an open box on the table before an empty chair that was obviously where M had been when he discovered the file. Klaus set the folder in his hand on the table before pulling out the next file in the box. He flipped through it quickly and then replaced it, going on to put the lid on the box. "M, put this in my cabin," he ordered, patting the box. "I'll go through it myself."

M exchanged a puzzled look with the others. "Yes, sir."

"You others," Klaus went on to say, "stop what you're doing and..." He considered a moment. "I may have new orders for you." He picked up the folder M had delivered and vanished through the door, leaving five bewildered men staring after him.

A few minutes later, Klaus was having another call put in to Agent A. His subdued demeanor caught everyone's attention. Normally when the Major learned something, he had an air of suppressed excitement. The group went silent as the officer spoke to his agent in Bali.

"Who did you send to Australia?" Klaus asked.

"Q and R, sir," came A's reply. "They still report nothing."

"Recall them."

There was a momentary silence. "But, sir... I thought you wanted to know where the real Earl was."

Klaus glanced down at the folder in his hand, a pained look passing behind his eyes. "I already know where the real Earl is," he said startlingly. He drew a deep breath, and looked up, seeing a roomful of astonished faces. "Now all I have to do is prove it."

* * *

Less than an hour after Klaus's extraordinary announcement, he had the entire crew assembled in the largest room in the sub, this being the mess hall. He stood in the doorway to address everyone in the packed room.

"You men...you thieves have been complaining about being bored," he said calmly, addressing the Eroica gang directly. "Well, I find I'm in need of your services again, if you're willing to give them."

The thieves started to make affirming noises, and Klaus held up a hand for silence. "You should hear what it is I need stolen before you start volunteering." His grave tone silenced everyone. Then he laid out exactly what he needed done. In order to prove the identity of the man calling himself Eroica, and that of the man who was doubtlessly occupying the coffin that had been buried in 1975, DNA samples were needed. Not just from the individuals in question, but from their immediate family members.

Klaus allowed this monumental request to sink in before he turned to the astonished Bonham. "Is the current location of Lord Gloria's family known?"

Bonham had to struggle to get hold of himself before replying. "Er...yes, Major. And Agent Marshall's family as well."

Klaus nodded approvingly. "Good. We'll need these locations to determine the number of teams this will require."

"Teams?"

"My men will be able to handle security, but your thieves are better suited for procuring the DNA."

Bonham turned a questioning look at the assembled Eroica gang, seeing a lot of stunned faces. "Give us a minute or two, Major."

Klaus nodded. He motioned to his men and they left the room. "I'll be in my cabin," he said to Bonham before leaving himself.

* * *

By the time Agent A reported back that Q and R had been recalled, Klaus once again had the unanimous support of the Eroica gang. The Major reflected on the irony of the situation. Eroica was directing his Alphabet, while he had somehow taken over Eroica's gang. If anyone had told him, even six month earlier, that this would be the case, he would've dismissed them as being a lunatic. Now Klaus wondered if he weren't indeed a lunatic himself. Everyone else seemed to think so.

Klaus gave everyone strict instructs not to let Eroica know what they were doing. He was still recovering from his illness, not to mention coming to grips with his own identity crisis. The last thing he needed to learn was that the Major's suspicions about the body in the casket buried in 1975 might actually be accurate.

It turned out that the locations of the Gloria and Marshall family members were in James' procured database. Both men's mothers were still living, along with their siblings. The Earl's family was ensconced in the south of France, while Marshall's was still in Western New York State. This would make it easier, as the available manpower was starting to wear thin.

* * *

Just as when the Major first asked the Eroica gang for help, excitement buzzed amongst the thieves as they prepared for their newest "mission." Bonham went to tell the Major that everyone was ready to go as soon as they made their next port. He found the officer in his cabin staring at the blank television screen, deep in thought, a thick manila folder on the table beside him. The older man placed the cup of coffee he had brought beside the officer before wordlessly taking a seat at the table. He studied the German as he continued in his silence. His eyes had an almost lost expression. Then he remembered the Earl telling him about the haunted look the man had had when he learned the truth. The pain that even Iron Klaus couldn't hide. What had he read in the file beside him that had brought that pain back in full force?

After a minute, Klaus seemed to return to reality, possibly roused by the aroma of coffee. His eyes moving from the television, to the cup, to the man seated beside him. "Danke," he said automatically as he reached for the cup.

Bonham's eyes flickered, a brief smile flashing across his features. "The lads are ready to go whenever you tell them, Major," he informed.

Klaus nodded. "Good."

"Any thoughts on where you'll be getting your samples analyzed once they've collected them?" Bonham asked.

Klaus shook his head. "I'm still trying to figure a way of exhuming--" He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, putting a hand to his head. He hadn't even thought about the next rather large stumbling block. If he were still with NATO, he could just send the DNA off and order the analysis. Of course, he could go to a private company, but the risk of exposure was very high.

Bonham cleared his throat, breaking into the Major's thoughts. "I don't know anything about grave robbing," he said mildly, "but I have an idea about processing the DNA." There was more than a hint of mischief in the other man's voice.

Klaus's eyebrows went up and he sat back in his chair, more than a little intrigued. In the past few weeks, he had noticed that everyone seemed less and less terrified in his presence. He had been worried that this meant he no longer had anyone's support. As it turned out, he learned, to his amusement, that the thieves had been convinced that it was only the presence of the Earl or his own Alphabet that had kept him from killing anyone when he lost his temper.

"I seem to be surrounded by idea men," Klaus remarked, a smile playing at the edges of his mouth as he drank his coffee.

Bonham gave him a brief smile. "Well, sir, I suggest you send the DNA to the FBI lab."

"Come again?"

"Or should I say, Agent Marshall should send them off."

Klaus's eyes lit up.

"Include a sample of your own DNA," Bonham suggested. "Say you want to run a comparison search, or something like that."

"A comparison..." Klaus finished his coffee as he mulled this over. "Mr. Bonham, it seems I was right to try to recruit you all those years," he said finally.

This was enough to cause the older man to laugh. "I take that as a very high compliment, Major."

"Good." Klaus got to his feet. "Now let's see if any of these other idea men can come up with a way of getting that body exhumed."

* * *

Dead Man's Hand by Margaret Price

Chapter Twenty-Two

Dead Man's Hand

The five-card-draw hand that legend has it was held by Wild Bill Hickok at the time of his murder.

*

Klaus assigned at least one agent to accompany each of Eroica's thieves in the collection of DNA samples from the Gloria and Marshall family members. From the beginning, Klaus was convinced the casket in John Marshall's grave was occupied. How they would go about exhuming the body was a problem that would have to be tackled once the grave site was located.

As luck would have it, John Marshall's family had an annual family reunion each summer. Even better was the fact that the town in Western New York State where this year's reunion was being held had a large German population, thus allowing the agents to act as tourists who had come to visit relatives.

It was easy enough for the agents to act like lost foreigners in search of their own extended family. Apologies were made for their "crashing" the wrong reunion. The Marshall family was only too happy to welcome the lost men to the party. The more the merrier. The English accents of the thieves had all the younger ladies melting and the widowed Mrs. Marshall reminiscing about her childhood in England.

This was more than enough of a distraction for the thieves, allowing them to procure several DNA samples from Marshall's mother and sisters. Within an hour, they had all they needed. After that, they took dozens of photographs with everyone, who had enjoyed the surprise visit from the friendly, if slightly lost Europeans. Then they bid the gathering farewell and were on their way. A very pleasant mission accomplished.

* * *

The Earl of Gloria's family was not nearly so cooperative, in the way of geography or in person. The Earl's mother had gone to Paris and was at some very exclusive spa. One of his sisters was on the Riviera with her soon-to-be ex-husband and spent most of her time fighting with the man or complaining to others about him. The remaining sisters were in Spain, at a resort in Costa del Sol. Whether they were escaping their spouses or their other sister was unclear.

When all the samples from the Glorias were collected, the teams in Europe shipped them express to the lead team in New York before going on to Beirut to join the agents already assisting Eroica. Or more accurately, waiting with Eroica. The thieves were more than happy to return to Castle Gloria.

Bonham had made out the necessary requests forms that would have to be sent to the FBI with the samples. He sent those to the New York team along with the control sample of the Major's DNA. Eroica's DNA had been taken from his belongings still at the Bali compound so as not to alert him. Finally, all that remained was the collection of DNA from the occupant of the casket in John Marshall's grave, if there was one.

Klaus knew it would be weeks before the results came back from Washington, even with a rush order. But by then, he would be in Bali--hopefully. Once he had concrete proof that his suspicions were correct, then he would tell Eroica exactly what he knew, not before.

* * *

It turned out that the most difficult aspect of the DNA collection from the grave site was actually locating it. To everyone's surprise, it happened to be inside a mausoleum. All that was necessary to get at the casket was for a cover plate to be removed. Then it was just a simple operation of pulling it out.

For this particular job, a four man team was necessary, as it would take more than two men to lower the heavy casket when it was extracted, and later to lift it into place when it was replaced.

Agents Q and R, who had originally been sent to Australia to look for the Earl of Gloria ended up with the duty of accompanying the thieves in the midnight break-in at the cemetery. The night was crystal clear and the moon was out, giving them plenty of light. Agent R stood guard at the mausoleum door while a thief quickly removed the cover plate.

R left the door only briefly to assist the others in pulling the heavy casket out and gently placing it on the floor. The Agents exchanged a knowing look before R returned to the door. Q waved a hand to the others and then put a handkerchief to his face. "Step well back," he instructed. "This isn't going to be nice."

He did not have to tell them twice. The thieves retreated almost to the door. Q released the locks and opened the lid, recoiling from the stench that escaped when he did so. He backed away, coughing into this handkerchief. He waited a minute for his eyes to stop watering before stepping close again. Well, the Major was right. It's not empty.

Q turned the beam of his flashlight into the casket. The body within was that of a curly-haired blond man who had obviously died violently, the story of an automobile accident lining up as far as Q could tell. There was no way this could have been an open casket funeral. He pulled out a plastic bag and quickly took the DNA samples. Then he took several photographs, as the Major had instructed. The body, the casket on the floor, and the marker beside it.

"Is he wearing the ring?" one of the thieves ventured hesitantly, taking a cautious step closer.

Q turned to look at him. "Ring?"

"His lordsh--" The words stuck in the man's throat. What do I call him, now that I've see this? "His lordship says...the ring belonged to his Grandmother." He nodded to the body. "Is he wearing the real one?"

Q turned back and moved the light bean to the hands that were folded on the chest. On the right hand was indeed a gold ring. "It's there."

The thief drew nearer and then caught his breath at the sight of the body.

"I'm not to remove anything but the samples," Q said sharply, switching off the light. "Major's orders."

The thief actually looked affronted. "Mr. Q, I'd never steal from him."

Q's eyebrows went up and he glanced over at the equally startled Agent R, who shrugged. Q turned back, closing the casket and locking it.

Within a few minutes, the casket was returned to its place inside the wall and the cover plate replaced. One of the thieves stepped forward, placing a single rose in a cone-shaped vase on the wall. It had a card attached that read, "To Eroica With Love. Rest in Peace."

The four men stood silently a moment, not quite sure how they should feel. The man behind the cover plate had been dead more than twenty-five years, yet there was a collective sense of mourning amongst the group. They stood in a moment of silence before R turned and lead the way out pausing only long enough for the exterior door to be relocked. The only evidence of their visit would be the single rose on the wall. The group then silently stole into the night, making for the car parked a short distance away.

The thief who had locked the door lingering a moment longer. He looked through the grillwork, the rose they had left behind oddly illuminated in the moonlight. "Rest in peace, Lord Gloria," he said quietly before hurrying after the others.

* * *

Go For Broke by Margaret Price

Chapter Twenty-Three

Go For Broke

To commit all one's available resources toward achieving a goal.

*

Gloria Estate, Bali
Mid-September 2002

After more than a month away, Klaus finally found himself back at the Bali compound. The Alphabet were beside themselves with delight to finally have their commanding officer with them, while the thieves were just delighted to be on dry land again.

While Agent A got Klaus up-to-date on the latest developments, the others shuttled everything from the sub to the compound before finally settling in. It was very near the time for Agent Z to check in, which met with Klaus's approval. No one had shirked their duties while he was away, as had often happened in Bonn. Perhaps it was the nature of this rather dangerous mission. Or perhaps it was the fact that, if they were unsuccessful, thousands more innocent lives would be lost in a mindless and violent act.

After the boxes containing the Project: Eroica were deposited in one room, Klaus gave yet another startling order. "Copy everything."

Agent A was taken aback by this and exchanged an astonished look with the others. "Everything, sir? As in...everything?"

Klaus nodded. "K has been cataloging everything. The papers are in good shape, but the video tapes are starting to deteriorate. John Paul tells me it's a very simple process to transfer them to DVD."

"That it is, Major," John Paul said from behind him. "Just time consuming, as I'm sure you can appreciate."

Klaus turned to look at him, their eyes meeting briefly. Yes, he could definitely appreciate it. He'd watched every bloody one, something everyone on the sub was keenly aware of. In fact, it was the occasional haunted look that this viewing caused that had everyone wondering exactly what was on the tapes.

"I want all the documents scanned into a data base," Klaus went on to say. "Or two. Or three. Or however many it takes."

"Yes, sir," A replied.

Someone brought the Major some coffee and he gave them a questioning look. Now that they were no longer in cramped quarters, he had assumed the thieves would vanish. Instead, they seemed to be awaiting his orders, just at his own men did. He looked at the faces he had become familiar with over the past several weeks and then turned to Bonham. "I think your thieves need some time off."

Startled, Bonham turned to the others, a smile playing at the edges of his mouth. "Well, don't just stand there, you lot! You heard the Major."

The majority of the Eroica gang scattered. One of the few exceptions being Cooke, who had kept everyone well fed on the long journey across two oceans.

"If it's all the same to you, Major," Cooke said with a smile, "I think I'll have a look at the kitchen." He glanced over at Agent A. "That is, if your men don't mind?"

The thought of having a proper cooked meal was met with a chorus of ascent from the assembled Alphabet.

Cooke grinned all the more before vanishing down the hall.

* * *

"So you've finally made it back to Bali," Eroica observed when Z checked in, only to be greeted by the Major's voice rather than Agent A's. "Did you take good care of my sub, Major?"

Klaus's eyes narrowed but he did not snap back. He had noticed a pattern in the Earl's behavior since breaking cover. He would revert to the Eroica persona just before becoming deadly serious. This time was no exception.

"There's finally been a development," Eroica was saying. "That contact person surfaced sometime yesterday and is willing to act as a go-between with the person who--supposedly--has all three of your missing pocket nukes."

"What!" Klaus could not quite believe what he was hearing. "All three?"

"That's what he's claiming," Eroica replied. "He was also good enough to verify your suspicions that another group has expressed an interest."

"Al Jamaa al'Islamiya?" Klaus asked. This was the local terrorist group in Bali with alleged ties to al-Qaida and the main reason he had chosen to set up shop in the Earl of Gloria's island hideaway. Al Jamaa al'Islamiya continually denied any connection, not that anyone actually believed them.

"He won't confirm any details other than someone else is interested," Eroica replied.

"So it could just be a lie to drive up the price."

"Or it could be the truth."

Klaus's only reply was a grunt.

"Major, Mr. Bakchial is going to be setting things up this end," Eroica said guardedly. "When do you want that arranged?"

"Why ask me?"

"I'd assumed you'd be the one actually handling the buy."

There was something in the Earl's tone that set an alarm off in the officer's head. "Why?"

This question actually took Eroica off guard. He threw a puzzled look over at the other agents who were with him, seeing they were equally baffled. "Why? You fell off the face of the Earth with your Alphabet in tow to find these things, didn't you? Do you really expect me to believe you'd let anyone other than yourself handle this?"

A ghost of a smile passed over Klaus's face, his eyes flickering. "How soon can you send your jet back to get me?"

"That's what I thought," Eroica laughed. Then he was deadly serious again. "Major, this is a terrorist we're going to be dealing with."

"I am aware of that," Klaus replied coldly.

"Not exactly an honest businessman."

Klaus fell silent for several minutes as he thought this over. "Just get that jet back here. I already know how I'm gonna deal with your less than honest businessman."

* * *

After weeks away, Klaus found himself in the Earl's room in Bali again. He took a long hot shower, something he had not been able to do aboard the sub with its limited supply of fresh water. Then he got some well needed rest before going back for the status on the Earl's plane.

A subdued Agent A gave him the status and then held up a large manila envelope. It was addressed to Agent Marshall, the return address being Washington, D.C.

The DNA comparison had arrived.

Klaus took one look at the envelope and then went to another room where he and A could speak privately. "When did this arrive?" he asked as soon as the door was closed.

"While you were asleep, sir," A replied as he took a seat.

Klaus pulled out the contents of the envelope as he sat down. A saw an odd look pass behind the officer's eyes before he looked up. "Has anyone else seen this?"

Agent A shook his head. "Just myself, sir. I've kept it in my possession since it arrived." He cleared his throat nervously. "They all know what it is."

Klaus nodded. "What do these letters mean?"

At the top of each person's profile was a name. All except the last three, which had only L, D, C. A explained that when Bonham had contacted him about Eroica's DNA, they had discussed how best to separate the samples from Agent Marshall and the man in his grave. They finally decided on L for Living, and D for Deceased.

"And C for Control," the Major concluded, since this was the only sample--his own--that did not match anyone.

"Yes, sir."

Klaus gave an approving grunt. He returned the document to the envelope and handed it back to A. "Continue to keep this in your possession until I return from Beirut."

* * *

Klaus had scarcely returned to Bali before he was stepping onto the Earl's plane in Indonesia and off again in Beirut, Lebanon. Rather than travel as Agent Marshall, he used one of the false identities stolen from NATO. Within an hour of his arrival, he was sitting in a hotel room with the others. Eroica wasn't surprised that the Major brought several of his agents with him, but he was surprised to see one of his own men amongst the group.

"My dear Craig," the Earl said delightedly, giving the man a hug. "I didn't expect to be seeing you so soon."

Craig grinned. "The Major's got quite fond of make-up, m'lord," he said, receiving an angry scowl from Klaus. "But I'm not here to just do make up this time."

Eroica's eyebrows went up. "Oh? And what has the Major got you doing now?"

* * *

"Is this information accurate?" Klaus asked as he and his men studied a satellite map of the desert outside the city.

"Very," Eroica replied. He pointed to a location on the map that was marked with an X. "That's the place the contact said." His voice dropped in pitch. "This Mohammad must be a real gem. Mr. Bakchial must've asked me a dozen times over if I really wanted to meet with him."

Klaus looked up. "He's afraid of him?"

"Very afraid of him."

This was apparently the correct answer, for Klaus only grunted before returning his attention to the map. "And they made sure to say that I was the one doing the buy?"

"Oh yes. Mohammad is very keen to meet you."

"I'll bet he is."

"More like he's keen to meet your thirty million dollars," Craig injected as he entered the room. He had a large box in his hands that he set down on top of the map, completely ignoring the disapproving scowls this produced. "I've got everything we need, Major."

Eroica's eyebrows went up. We? He stood up as Craig opened the box, his eyes widening further when he took in the contents. "Now what are you scheming, Major?" he asked as he pulled out a bulletproof vest.

* * *

Hit And Run by Margaret Price

Chapter Twenty-Four

Hit And Run

When a player leaves the table shortly after scooping a big pot.

*

Somewhere in the desert, Lebanon
Late September 2002

Eroica stood at the entrance of the empty aircraft hangar, his eyes taking in every crate, every box. To his right just inside the entrance was a scaffolding that rose up to the windows. It had tarps draped over it and cleaning equipment stacked at the far end. Apparently, someone had decided at one time that they could fight the losing battle against the dust coating the windows. It was all too clear, or perhaps unclear judging by the grime, that the dirt had won. Eroica glanced upward as he passed the unreliable looking metal structure before turning his full attention to the other end of the building. A group of three men was getting out of a black limousine that was parked at the opposite end. A rotund individual stood back as a metal case was removed from the trunk of the car by the smaller of two men who accompanied him. This could only be Mohammad. Codename or real? he suddenly found himself wondering. The others fell in behind the man as he entered the hangar.

The disguised Eroica adjusted his dark glasses and drew a deep breath to steady himself before tightening his grip on the large suitcase in his own hand. Then he slowly walked to the center of the hangar--alone.

"You're very prompt, Major Eberbach," Mohammad said as he came forward to meet him, stopping several feet away. He laced his fingers together, his eyes going to the large case. "You have the amount agreed upon?"

"Thirty million U.S. dollars," Eroica replied tersely as he set the heavy case on the ground.

"If you would be so good as to show me..."

Eroica slid his dark glasses down the bridge of his nose and looked at Mohammad before pointedly turning his gaze to the case in the possession of the man behind him. So that's why they call it a suitcase nuke. "Let me see what I'm paying for first," he said sternly.

Mohammad continued to grin inanely. He waved a hand and the case was opened, revealing a tangle of wires connected to a canister covered in Russian script and radiation warning labels. Eroica wondered if the terrorist knew that the Major could read Russian. He could not himself, but had been given a crash course so he would be able to recognize the correct markings from forgeries. The case was brought closer, allowing him to examine the contents. It was then that he realized the canister was open--and empty.

He looked up sharply. "We agreed on a fully functional pocket nuke," he said in his best imitation of the Major's disapproving growl.

"And that's what I'm supplying," Mohammad replied amiably.

"How the hell am I supposed to use this without any fissionable material?"

"Ah. That would be another transaction. I promised a functional pocket nuke, not the material that it takes to make it function."

"You bloody bastard!"

"Come, come," Mohammad tut-tutted. "Surely you buy your bullets separate from your gun?"

Eroica ground his teeth and silently counted to ten. The logic was inescapable. "Fine. We'll conclude this business first." He placed the large case flat on the ground and opened it, revealing the cash within. "You wanna count it?"

"No, I trust you to be intelligent enough not to cheat me," Mohammad replied.

Look who's talking about cheating. Eroica did not reply. He was also inwardly grateful the man had declined. Only the top bills were genuine. The rest of the bundles were just blank paper. He held out a hand for the pocket nuke. Instead, he found a gun being pointed at him. He felt his heart in his mouth upon seeing this and found himself grateful that the Major had insisted he wear a bulletproof vest. He took a step back, crossed his arms, and glared at the man. "You won't win a negotiation like that," he said coolly.

The grin on Mohammad's face turned into a sneer. "You think I don't know all about you, Mr. Eberbach? There's a considerable price on your head."

Eroica had to fight to keep his face neutral and gave a disinterested shrug. "So?"

"So, I think I'll take the thirty million and turn you in for the reward. What do you say to that?"

"I say you should take the thirty million and clear off, you al-Qaida son-of-a-bitch," came the real Major's clear voice from the top of the scaffolding.

Mohammad looked up sharply as Klaus rose from behind a tarp that was draped over part of the metal frame and had blocked him from view the whole time. He was holding a Magnum in one hand, which he promptly held straight arm in front of him.

"This bugger's mine," Klaus announced.

Mohammad looked from the man above to his apparent twin in front of him and back. "What the hell is this?"

"Allow me to introduce Agent John Marshall of the CIA," Klaus replied venomously.

"What?" Mohammad took an alarmed step back.

Eroica pulled off his sunglasses, looking up at the man at the top of the scaffold. "God dammit!"

Mohammad blinked. Then he scowled. "You want him, you can have him," he said mildly.

"I'd planned on taking him anyway," Klaus rejoined.

"Will you stop stalking me, you fucking Nazi!" Eroica spat.

Klaus's reply was the Magnum exploding in his hand.

The Earl was lifted off his feet by the impact of the bullet. The dark wig flew from his head as he landed in a sprawled heap on the ground, a pool of blood instantly forming around his head, saturating his blond curls in red.

The man who had been holding a gun on the Earl tried to raise his weapon, but was much too slow. A second shot sounded and he, too, was thrown to the ground, a hole in the center of his chest.

"Well, fat man?" Klaus asked coldly.

Mohammad grabbed the unfortunate man still holding the now closed pocket nuke and pulled him in from of himself to use as a shield. He was so busy trying to protect his own ass that it did not occur to him that the sound of the second shot had been different from the first. Keeping a firm grip on his human shield, he started to back toward the opposite end of the building.

The Major's eyes flashed down to Agent Z, who was lying prone on the scaffold beside him, his eye glued to the scope of a rifle, the barrel of which was peeking out through an opening in the tarp. "Can you take him out?"

"Yes, sir."

Klaus saw Mohammad reaching behind his human shield, and his every instinct told him he was going for a weapon. "Take him."

A shot rang out, and Mohammad was thrown to the ground, a gun dropping beside him. The terrified man who had been in front of him stood rooted to the spot, his eyes riveted on the man with the gun at the top of the scaffold.

"Well...?" Klaus asked in a voice that turned the man's blood to ice.

The unfortunate individual did not take his eyes from the enormous gun pointed unwaveringly at him. He very carefully put the case on the ground, took a single step back, and held up his hands. Then he promptly fainted.

* * *

Agents had come out of nowhere the instant the confrontation ended. Craig went to the downed Eroica and quickly checked him over.

"How is he?" Klaus asked as he crossed from the scaffolding.

"Out cold," Craig replied without looking up. He was in the process of removing the packet of fake blood that had caused the pool of red liquid beneath Eroica's head. Then he snatched up the dark wig that had been blown off by a small explosive pack that had caused the blood pack to open. It had also triggered a small spray of Eroica's signature knockout gas, which was the reason the Earl was unconscious.

Klaus looked at the prone form and grunted before turning his attention to the bodies of the terrorists. His men were in the process of dragging the man who had fainted to the linoleum that was parked at the far end of the building.

"What should we do with these two, Major?" Z asked, indicated the dead men.

Klaus's first thoughts were to leave them to the jackals. It would be appropriate. Then he reconsidered. "We'll take them with us. Tie up all the loose ends at once."

"Sir?"

Klaus looked up, nodding toward the man being dragged away. "I think he'll be more than willing to cooperate if he thinks he'll get out of this with his skin, don't you?"

As it turned out, the man was more than willing to cooperate. He even gave his real name, Haytham, which amused Klaus. He went on to give the exact location of Mohammad's base of operation, the number of people who would be there, any weapons they might have, and most importantly, he verified that the other two pocket nukes were there.

* * *

Eroica opened his eyes to find himself in the back of a moving vehicle, Jones at the wheel and Craig beside him, a concerned look creasing the latter's face. He caught his breath, a hand going to his chest.

"You're quite unscathed, m'lord," Craig said mildly.

Eroica sat up slowly, a hand going to his spinning head. It came away with sticky red goo on it. He wrinkled his nose in disgust before asking, "What hit me?" He rubbed his chest adding, "Other than a bullet."

Craig somewhat guiltily explained that the bulletproof vest the Earl had thought to be protecting him from the terrorists was actually to protect him from the Major. Rather then firing a blank, as the Major had said he would do, he had fired a live round in order to believably knock the Earl to the ground. The Major had also arranged for Craig to conceal the knock out gas in the wig with the explosive charges. This way, when the officer triggered the device himself, he would not have to rely on Eroica's reflexes to convince the terrorists that he had been shot.

Eroica stared at the other man in a stunned silence. Then he felt himself getting very angry. God damn that German! It's his way of getting back at me. I'm gonna kill him when I see him again! I swear to God, I'll kill him.

Craig saw a dark cloud pass over the Earl's face and drew a deep breath. This was really going to get ugly. At the rate they were going the men actually would kill one another.

* * *

While Eroica's car sped back to the hotel, Klaus and his Alphabet sped toward the terrorists' base. They were counting on the fact that it would be dark by the time they arrived, as well as the fact that the men in the camp would be expecting their leader to be returning.

Haytham, the unfortunate from the buy, led the group in, calling out to the sentry that all had gone well. He never quite learned what took place after this. As soon as he heard the first shot fired, he fainted dead away.

The Major's men found themselves wishing that they did not know exactly what took place in the camp. After the first shot, it seemed as though all hell broke loose. The men in the camp firing wildly, and foolishly leaving the lights burning. Within a few minutes, all was quiet.

The Major ordered the bodies of Mohammad and all his men placed within one tent while the camp was searched. The other two suitcase nukes were located in short order, being exactly where Haytham had said. All the weapons present were also collected and removed.

Klaus watched as the cases were being loaded into the terrorists' own vehicles. Three working nuclear devices, he reflected. All it would take was the smallest amount of radioactive material and one would have a very nasty, dirty bomb. If these had gotten into the wrong hands...

"Sir, what do we do with him?" someone asked, indicating the still unconscious Haythem, and returning the Major to reality.

Klaus looked at the man whose name meant Lion and grunted. They should've called you mouse. "Leave him," he said at last, turning to watch as the camp was set ablaze. "Someone needs to tell the others what I think of terrorists."

The next day, one message flew through the terrorist network. "If you try to buy or sell it, I'll kill you." They had been waiting for Iron Klaus to make his move, prove he had truly gone rogue. Now it was all too clear that he had not just gone rogue, he had gone completely insane.

* * *

Bust by Margaret Price

Chapter Twenty-Five

Bust

A losing hand (totaling more than 21) in Blackjack.

*

The Major ignored the Earl's obvious ill temper when he returned to the hotel from the desert. How could the idiot not see he was trying to save his life? He left his men in Lebanon with the devices with orders to wait for further instructions.

After hearing what had happened at the terrorist base, Eroica did not even want to know what the next step might be. He also found himself reassessing his opinion of the Major's sanity as he joined the man aboard his jet and headed back to Bali.

The long flight was remarkably quiet.

* * *

Gloria Estate, Bali
October 12, 2002

Eroica tried to ignore the pandemonium in his own home as the Major gave all sorts of orders. For some reason, the officer had been incredibly agitated since their return from Lebanon, but would say nothing as to why. Suddenly the Earl felt like the outsider again, and found himself irritated. After too many days of this, Eroica could take no more. Here it is, close to midnight, and the man is still hard at it, keeping everyone in the house awake. He stormed to the computer room, determined to have it out with the man.

"Major, will you please tell me what you're looking for?" he demanded. "I've already proved myself, haven't I? You never would've found those devices without my contacts."

Klaus's growling reply was interrupted when Bonham came dashing to the doorway. "Major, you need to see this! They've bombed Kuta!"

There was a stunned silence. Kuta was only a scant thirty kilometres away. Klaus gave Eroica a steady look. "That is what I'm looking for," he said coldly before going into the room where Bonham had the television tuned to the news station.

Everyone crowded around, watching in a horrified silence for several minutes. Then Eroica seemed to come to his senses. "Dear God, Harlun's clinic. It'll be overrun," he breathed.

Klaus turned sharply to him, seeing the faraway look in his eyes. Then he suddenly was barking orders, having anything and everything on hand that could be used at the clinic collected for transport. He turned to the thunderstruck Earl. "I couldn't stop it," he said coldly, "but I can do what I can to help."

Eroica nodded, calling to his men and asking for any volunteers to help with the casualties. Many did not have any medical training, but they could...procure the much needed supplies if need be.

Cooke called several others together and started preparing sandwiches and the like to pass out to the victims who would very likely be waiting at the clinic. He told the Earl and the Major that he would catch up as soon as the food was prepared.

Again, Klaus found himself impressed at the way the thieves pulled together for their leader. Just as Bonham had said all those weeks ago, they would do anything for the Earl.

* * *

Dr. Harlun Al Rabeeah's heart sank when he saw the small convoy of cars approaching his small clinic. Many of the people who were there already had been waiting much too long for any kind of attention. Then he saw the familiar curly blond head getting out of one of the cars, and he felt like dancing. Instead, he simply offered up a prayer of thanks and waited for his friend to enter the building.

"My dearest Lord Gloria!" the doctor said happily. "I have never been more pleased to see you."

Eroica returned the greeting and then took in the injured. He threw a glance in Klaus's direction, their eyes meeting briefly before he returned his attention to the physician. "We came as soon as we saw the news," he explained. As he spoke, the Major's men entered carrying boxes of supplies. They were led by Agent B, who seemed to have been put in charge of supply duty.

"The Major's men all have medical training," Eroica continued. "It's military field training, but I don't think you'll be choosy, will you?"

"No! By all means, I can use all the help I can get," Al Rabeeah replied.

"As I thought. We've brought what we could in the way of bandages and things," Eroica continued. "Now, not everyone in my group is medically trained, but we can hold someone's hand as well as the next person."

By this time, the doctor seemed on the point of tears. Eroica was afraid he would completely lose it if he told him that food would be coming shortly, so he left that as a surprise for later.

Then everyone was lost in the pandemonium as victims continued to arrive. The Major implemented a plan of revolving shifts, thus allowing the clinic to continue in its work without everyone dropping of exhaustion all at once.

People came and went, supplies were "mysteriously" replenished. Food continued non-stop.

Finally, after what seemed like a week, but was probably only two days, things began returning to normal. The local hospital, which had been overwhelmed by the number of burn victims, had been able to have those patients airlifted to the relatively close proximity of Darwin and Perth, Australia for treatment.

When the group finally returned to the compound, everyone was bone tired. The whole time, the Major had been blaming himself. He should have been able to stop it. Should have been able to get enough information together to know it was going to happen right there under his nose.

"For pity's sake, Major," Eroica snapped as he got out of the car in the large garage at the compound. He was finally at the end of his patience. "You're not omniscient! You're just a man. Iron Klaus is just a man!"

Klaus's eyes narrowed dangerously and his men instinctively shrank away. The Eroica gang shrank back along with them.

"How the hell could you possibly know that would happen, huh?" Eroica went on. "You're lucky you got as much as you did. You got three pocket nukes out of the hands of terrorists. You got all that...stuff out of Virginia, right under the CIA's noses. Aren't you even the least bit proud of all that?"

Klaus folded his arms and continued to glare.

Eroica folded his own arms and glared back. "I'm not afraid of you, Major," he said coldly. "I'm mad as hell."

Klaus rolled his eyes. "You're still pissed about the knock out gas?"

"Damn right! And I'm pissed that you went off looking for the real Earl and didn't tell me."

Klaus cocked his head to one side. "You know about that?" It sounded more like a statement than a question.

"Yes. Just what else haven't you told me? That you're working for someone else?" Eroica demanded. He heard the Alphabet collectively catch their breath and turned to look at them. "Well?" The only reply was the Alphabet shaking their heads. "Don't just stand there, tell me! It's not like he can send you to Alaska now, is it?"

After a long silence, Klaus said, "Yes, it is." He waited until Eroica turned back to look at him before saying, "I've been working under orders from NATO since day one."

* * *

All Bets Are Off by Margaret Price

Chapter Twenty-Six

All Bets Are Off

A situation causing the odds to change, nullifying all wagers.

*

Brussels, Belgium
Late June 2002

Klaus wasn't sure what to expect when he was called to NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Then he decided he should expect the worst when told that it was the Supreme Allied Commander: Europe, General Joseph Ralston, who wished to speak to him--personally.

Fuck.

All Klaus could think as he was escorted through the building was that his long, illustrious, if ofttimes shaky, career was over. He had fucked up royally this time. Letting a CIA mole operate right under his nose for twenty-five fucking years. NATO had to be wondering what else had gotten past him. Or worse, they might even believe that he was involved somehow. He prepared himself for a thorough, and deserved, reprimand after which he would very likely be asked to resign his commission. If he were lucky, they would ask him to retire quietly.

Either way, it was all over for Iron Klaus.

Klaus decided that he would remain professional throughout what promised to be the worst dressing down of his career. He was therefore unprepared for what happened after he was left alone with the General and completely thrown when the man did not immediately start in on him. In fact, his superior was asking for a debriefing on the conversation with Agent Marshall.

The Major gave a concise accounting of the events, after which he was shocked into silence when the General informed him that the operation that had given birth to the art thief Eroica was actually a joint CIA-NATO project going back to the early 1970s.

General Ralston spent the next several minutes filling the dumbfounded Major in on the background of the Black Ops codenamed Project: Eroica. Then he dropped the bombshell. "According to the records," he said, holding out a folder, "Project: Eroica was supposed to have been halted in 1988."

Klaus sat back in his chair, his eyes wide. Christ, it gets worse instead of better. He took the folder and looked through it, shaking his head the whole time. Fuck, now he's gonna tell me that Eroica's a double agent.

"Major," the General said seriously, "I won't pretend I don't know exactly what transpired in that interview room."

Klaus looked up sharply, meeting the superior officer's steady gaze. He did not reply, however.

"I have an assignment. An ultra secret operation that I believe you would be the best suited for," Ralston went on.

"Would I be correct in assuming that this mission is extremely dangerous?" As in a suicide mission.

"Major, this mission will be the crowning achievement of your career or the ruin of it," Ralston said bluntly. He then went on to lay out exactly what the mission entailed.

Klaus read folder after folder with "EYES ONLY" stamped across the top. When he finished, he was absolutely certain that the world he had known had ended without his knowledge and had been replaced with this cruel parody. After several minutes, he looked up, seeing the General patiently awaiting his decision. "What will happen if I refuse?" he asked cautiously.

Ralston raised his eyebrows and sat back in his chair. "Are you refusing, Major?"

Klaus closed all the files that were in his lap, giving the man a steady look. "I had assumed after that cock-up with Eroica that I would be asked to resign my commission."

"No, Major..."

"Or that you would threaten to use what was said in that room against me," Klaus said bluntly. Because I have the worst fucking timing in the world.

The General chuckled and shook his head. "No one is going to ‘out' you, Major, if that's what you're thinking," he assured. He received a skeptical sideways glance in reply. "It's because of that cock-up that I'm offering this to you--specifically. It's strictly voluntary." He paused, adding, "But if anything happens before it's completed, NATO will deny any involvement."

Klaus nodded, looked down at the folders in his lap, and then up again when the General said, "In addition, I'd also like you to find out why Project: Eroica was never called off."

Klaus considered a moment. "Is it your belief that Marshall is working on his own?"

"No, Major," came the deadly serious reply. "The consensus of those who analyzed everything is that...Agent Marshall will be terminated before the link to whoever is pulling the strings can be made."

Klaus felt his heart turn over when he heard this. It made perfect sense, of course. Marshall had been in deep cover for decades. There was no way he could be used again. Normally an agent in this situation was good for one use, after which they were dismissed. If Eroica's activities post-1988 were unauthorized, then his dismissal could well be in the form of a bullet.

He put a hand to his chin and thought everything through very carefully. He looked through the file again, double checking the facts as NATO knew them, lining up this information with what he already knew about Eroica.

"Well, Major?" Ralston said, breaking into Klaus's thoughts. "Do you accept?"

Klaus met the General's gaze steadily "I'll need my men," he said calmly. Ralston opened his mouth, but was prevented from speaking as the Major went on to say, "And I have an idea how to shield them..."

*

Gloria Estate, Bali
October, 2002

"After that meeting," Klaus was saying to the flabbergasted Earl, "I returned to Bonn, told my men we had a secret mission that no one outside our group was to be told of, and..."

"And vanished off the face of the Earth," the dazed Eroica concluded. He put a hand to his spinning head.

"Yes." Klaus gave him a steady look. "They only learned of your inclusion in the mission after we...vanished. Your being assigned to hunt me down was all a part of it."

Eroica looked up, his eyes wide. "What?"

"All the false leads, the bread crumbs you were following. That was to keep you looking until we were ready to bring you in."

"Why! Dammit, why not just--?" Eroica found himself at a loss for words. "You threatened to kill me!" He waved a hand in the direction of the Alphabet. "You told them not to harm me, but what about yourself? Were you reserving that for later?"

"How was I supposed to know you weren't a party to this? Huh?" Klaus fired back. "For all anyone knew, you were operating on your own. Or in league with a foreign government."

"You mean, how were you to know I wasn't a terrorist?"

"Well? You have contacts who can put you in touch with bloody al-Qaida!" Klaus countered fiercely. "What was I supposed to think?"

"Would you've killed me like Mohammad and the others if it turned out to be true?"

"If I had to."

"You goddamn hypocrite, I thought you loved me!" Eroica snarled.

"That doesn't mean I fucking trust you!" Klaus shot back.

Eroica's mouth dropped open. He stood staring at the man, his eyes blazing. "God, I hate you!" To the amazement of all, he hauled off and punched the Major as hard as he could, sending him sprawling to the ground.

Hit Me by Margaret Price

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Hit Me

When a player asks for another card in Blackjack.

*

"Ow! Dammit!" Eroica grabbed his wrist, shaking his aching hand. "I should've known you'd have a hard head, Major."

Klaus was lying on the ground staring up at the other man in blank astonishment. "You hit me," he said in disbelief.

"Damn right!"

"When did you learn how to fight like a man?" Klaus asked, putting a hand to his jaw.

Eroica responded with a growl and kicked the downed man's legs. "Bastard! I am not your bloody punching bag!"

Klaus got to his feet and started circling the Earl. "When did I ever use you as a punching bag? I never hit you more than once! And you bloody well deserved it when I did!"

To the surprise of the watching subordinates, Eroica landed another good punch to the Major's jaw, but this time he did not knock him off his feet.

Eroica was felled by a blow to the face and Agent A said, "The Major's gonna beat him to a pulp." Before the Major could move in, however, the thief had swept his legs out from under him and was getting up again.

Suddenly the Alphabet and the Earl's men were exchanging bets on how long the fight would last. Everyone seemed assured that the Major would be the victor. All save Agent G, that is, who said it would end in a draw, much to the amused snickers of the others.

The fight went on seemingly in slow motion, the pair hurling insults more often than they hurled punches. After nearly half an hour, the incensed Eroica managed to get the Major down again. Then he jumped on top of him and proceeded to pummel his chest with his fists. "You shot me!"

Klaus caught hold of the other man's wrists. "I had to, you idiot. They would've killed you."

"You didn't even warn me!"

"I was trying to protect you!"

"God, I hate you!" Eroica snarled, struggling unsuccessfully to pull free. "Hate you! Do you hear me? Ich! Hasse! Dich!"

"Und ich liebe dich."

Eroica froze. "What?"

"I said I love you," Klaus repeated. "There, happy now?"

Eroica stared down at him, not quite believing what he had just heard. "Still?"

"Yes."

Before he realized what he was doing, Eroica had leaned down and was kissing Klaus on the mouth, much to the amazement of the officer and the watching subordinates.

With a satisfied smile on his face, G turned to the others and held out his hand. "Pay up."

There was a stunned silence as the others stared at him with their mouths open. "How did you know?" A finally asked.

G rolled his eyes. "You're joking?" he said as he motioned to the others. They all made a discreet exit, most grumbling about how G knew this would happen.

*

Eroica and the Major did not even notice when they were left on their own. They were still too stunned by their own actions, the Earl's in particular.

"I say," the Earl said finally, "this is rather...awkward."

Now you think that? Klaus thought. "How so?"

"I've been telling you it was all a lie. That I don't care. And now I've just kissed you."

"I noticed that," Klaus said aridly. "You're also still sitting on me. And you're not exactly a light weight."

"Sorry." Eroica climbed off the officer and sat on the ground beside him. "I didn't know Iron Klaus was a whiner."

Klaus sat up. He looked at his bruised knuckles and then shook his hand. "Don't piss me off again, Eroica, or I'll really beat the crap out of you."

"Not Eroica anymore, Major. Call me Dorian."

This took Klaus by surprise and he looked up sharply, giving the man a searching look. "Not John?"

Dorian shook his head. "I've got used to it over the years. And, as you so bluntly put it, John Marshall ceased to exist when that casket was buried." He stretched out on the ground, propping himself up on an elbow. "So, until you find the real Earl, who has also very probably got used to being called whatever name he was given, I'm Dorian."

Klaus's face darkened considerably. "Until I find the real Earl," he repeated quietly, a dark cloud passing briefly behind his eyes.

"Yes..." The smile faded from Dorian's face, his expression darkening. His voice dropped in pitch when he said, "You've found him, haven't you?"

Klaus gave him a steady look. He opened his mouth, only to have a finger pressed to it.

"No, don't tell me," Dorian said quickly. "Please, not now. Don't...spoil the moment with reality." The dark green eyes continued to stare unblinkingly at him. "I might lose it and end up hitting you again."

Klaus sighed heavily. Before he could think of anything to say, Bonham appeared. He cleared his throat and knocked on the nearest solid surface at the same time. "M'lord, Major, I've started running the bath in the guest house," he informed. "And dinner is being laid out for you."

Eroica rolled onto his back to look at him. "The guest house?"

"Yes, sir. We all thought you'd like a bit of privacy," Bonham said with a smile before turning on his heel and vanishing.

* * *

"Cooke's been busy," Dorian remarked as he took in the meal laid out on the long dining table in the guest house.

"He's had a lot of mouths to feed these past few days. Past few weeks," Klaus replied as he also took in the feast that had been prepared for them. He shook his head. "Looks like he expects us to be ravenous."

Dorian looked down at his soiled and torn clothing. "God, I really am a mess," he moaned.

Klaus nodded. Fist fights on greasy concrete had a tendency to do that. He looked up as Bonham exited the master bedroom.

"It'll be a few more minutes. I'll see about getting some icepacks sent over," Bonham said as he headed for the door.

"Does Cooke really expect us to eat all this?" Dorian called after him.

Bonham turned as he opened the front door, a grin on his face. "We figured you'd both worked up an appetite," he said as he left.

Dorian turned to Klaus and cocked his head to one side. "Well? Bath first? Or dinner?"

"Dinner. I'm starving," Klaus replied. And if we bathe together, I'm afraid this food will be very cold by the time we get back to it. He did not say this, however, knowing that the Earl's jaw would very likely hit the floor if he did.

"I think we should at least wash our hands," Dorian suggested, holding up his grimy hands and wiggling his fingers.

A few minutes later, they were back at the table looking at the food laid out buffet-style for them. Klaus went to the wine bottle that was chilling at one end and opened it. "I'll let that breathe," he said, putting down the bottle and picking up a plate. The pair filled their plates in silence and sat. Just as Klaus was pouring the wine, Bonham returned with a large bucket of ice, some empty icepacks, and a large first aid kit. He vanished into the master bathroom where he turned off the water filling a large hot tub. He made a few adjustments on the controls to maintain the water's temperature and turned on the whirlpool. Then he returned to the dining area and asked, "Will you gentlemen be needing anything else?"

"No, thank you, Bonham." Dorian grinned and shook his head. "You still make an excellent man servant."

Bonham smiled broadly. "Thank you, m'lord," he said, giving his best butler's bow before he turned on his heel and left.

Klaus waited until the front door closed before he growled, "If a fucking strolling violinist turns up, I may have to kill someone."

Dorian chuckled. He looked expectantly towards the door for ten seconds. "No violinist." He turned back to Klaus and sighed. "Not enough time to get one, I expect. Oh well, alone at last..."

Klaus's eyes narrowed. "Do you mean that, or are you just being...?"

Dorian put a hand to his mouth, having completely overlooked how this remark could be taken. Dammit, why can't I stop doing that? "I didn't... I meant... Oh, shit. I'm sorry. I wasn't making fun of you." He closed his eyes and cursed. "You're trying to be civil, and I keep putting my foot in it."

"Force of habit," Klaus replied knowingly.

Dorian threw a pointed look in the direction of the master bedroom. "Perhaps I should take my bath now and let you eat in peace."

Klaus shook his head. "That won't solve anything." He waved a hand. "Eat."

"Yes, Major," Dorian said demurely as he picked up his knife and fork.

Klaus sat back in his chair. "Not Major. Klaus."

Dorian looked up sharply, dropping his silverware at the same time. "Pardon?"

"I said, ‘Not Major, Klaus.' You want me to call you Dorian. Well...?"

Now it was Dorian's turn to sit back in his chair. He studied the officer's set expression. "That's going to be difficult, you realize?"

"No more difficult than my calling you Dorian."

Dorian gave a snort in reply. "At least you know it's a name that won't be taken away from you."

Klaus closed his eyes and put a hand to his head. He could feel another fight, or headache, coming on. "Dorian..."

"It's true, isn't it?"

Klaus opened his eyes, giving him a steady look. "Make up your mind," he said sharply. "Do you want me to tell you or don't you?"

Dorian opened his mouth, only to close it again, shaking his head. "No, I don't want to know. Not right now. What you've told me already is bad enough."

"Okay, fine. Then here are the ground rules. No talk of what may or may not happen tomorrow. What I may or may not have learned. No dwelling on the past. It's just you, me, and nothing else. Agreed?"

Dorian sat thoughtfully a moment. That was a tall order under the circumstances. "Agreed," he said finally, and picked up his wine glass. "Drink on it?"

* * *

On The Come by Margaret Price

Chapter Twenty-Eight

On The Come

A situation where the player does not have a complete hand but hopes to make one if the right cards come up.

*

"That is a very large tub," Klaus said as he took in the deep whirlpool in the enormous master bathroom, the water swirling and bubbling away. He put his hand in to see how cold the water had gotten while they were eating, only to discover it was still hot. Then he noticed the temperature controls off to one side.

"I always pamper my guests," Dorian said from beside him. He watched the officer examine the controls and gauges a minute before asking, "Are you gonna look at it all night or are we getting in?"

Klaus turned to Dorian and suddenly felt very self-conscious at the thought of undressing in front of him. This was what he wanted, wasn't it? The whole reason he had thrown caution to the wind all those months ago and broken into Castle Gloria in the first place. But that was a phantom reality that had been driven home when his world ended the next day. A manufactured personality fine-tuned over--

Klaus blinked. Is he blushing?

Dorian had started to remove his own clothing and noticed the officer's steady gaze upon him, his expression one that he'd never seen before. Suddenly, he found he couldn't look at Klaus anymore.

"Dorian, are you blushing?" the incredulous Klaus asked.

"I'm embarrassed, okay?" Dorian snapped more harshly than he intended, his eyes flashing from the floor, to Klaus's face, and back down again.

"Embarrassed? You're the one who pulled me into a bath in Rome and then tried to take my clothes off!"

"I was playing a part!"

"You were also stark naked!"

"You weren't supposed to end up being gay!" Dorian countered defensively. The injured look that came to Klaus's face made him feel like a heel. If he'd punched him in the face again, he probably would've hurt him less. "Dammit, I can't say anything right! That came out completely wrong. Again!" His voice softened. "I'm sorry if I've burst your bubble, Maj--Klaus. This can't be what you were expecting when you broke into my room this past June."

Klaus drew a deep breath, admitting, "I don't know what I was expecting."

"Well, it can't've been finding out that Eroica isn't the seasoned lover everyone believes him to be."

"I think I prefer not being one of a long line of Eroica's lovers."

Dorian felt his breath catch. Lovers? We're barely even friends. "One step at a time," he said as he finished undressing. "Let's work on getting each other's first names right first."

* * *

"This isn't too hot for you, is it?" Dorian asked as Klaus eased himself into the tub. "I rather like my baths scalding."

Klaus shook his head. "It'll help keep our muscles from stiffening up after our...workout," he said as he sat opposite the Earl.

Dorian's eyes lit up. "I don't think I'm ever going to get used to you having a sense of humor."

"I've always had a sense of humor, you just never noticed."

"And you're a romantic, too."

Klaus gave a snort, waving the hand that was in the process of reaching for the soap. "I'm not a romantic. That's your jurisdiction."

"Rubbish. Only a romantic would break into someone's bedroom in the middle of the night to make a declaration of love."

Klaus had no reply to this, since he knew Dorian was right. He grabbed a washcloth and started to work on removing the grime that had dried onto his skin during dinner.

Dorian grinned and did the same. After a few minutes, he felt his heart in his mouth when Klaus said, "Turn around, I'll get the dirt off your back."

Klaus saw a nervous look pass over the Earl's face and rolled his eyes, sighing heavily. "What do you think I'm gonna do? Rape you? Jesus, and you called me homophobic!"

"I'm being ridiculous, aren't I?"

"Fuck, yeah, you're being ridiculous. This isn't some bloody porn film!"

Dorian could not help but laugh at this. He turned around, allowing Klaus to scrub his back, which, on reflection, felt wonderful. "If this were a porn film, we would've been going at it like weasels the moment we stepped into the house."

Klaus's reply was a snort of disgust.

"Everything would've been perfect," Dorian went on. "Two people knowing exactly what to do, exactly what to say, not stumbling over their own feet..."

"Like us."

Dorian turned to look at him. "Yeah, like us."

Klaus stopped what he was doing. "I don't want..." He drew a deep breath, unable to come up with the right words.

"Never mind what you don't want," Dorian said gently. "Tell me what you do want and I'll let you know if I can...um, accommodate you."

Fair enough. "I want...to hold you, if I may?"

Dorian's blue eyes grew wide. "Me or Eroica?" he asked pointedly.

"Whichever. Just once, please."

"Alright."

Klaus closed his eyes as Dorian leaned back against him. He shifted position so his legs were on either side of him and then wrapped an arm around his chest. Dorian laid his head against his shoulder as he gently stroked his hair.

"How's this?" Dorian asked.

"It's...nice."

Dorian drew a deep breath, and closed his eyes. It really was nice, now that he thought about it. To be held, feel protected. He put his hand on the arm across his chest while his hair was stroked. He didn't even realize he was absently stroking Klaus's leg with his other hand until he felt an unmistakable hardness beginning at his back. He sat up and turned, uncertain what to say.

Klaus silently studied the enormous blue eyes staring back at him. The pair sat this way for several seconds. Then Klaus put a hand beneath Dorian's chin and kissed him. When the other man responded, he was suddenly kissing him for all he was worth. He leaned forward, pushing Dorian back against the tub. A moment later, he was moving a hand downward over his slick body.

This took Dorian completely off guard. Before he knew what he was doing, he was struggling against the powerful grip. "No!" he gasped out the instant he broke free.

Klaus could not have looked more hurt if he had been physically struck. He practically recoiled to the other side of the tub, his eyes wide. He sat panting for breath a few seconds, the bewildered look on his face changing to one of shame. Then he abruptly climbed out of the tub, vanishing into the shower.

Dorian sat in a shocked silence as the officer disappeared into the shower. How could I be so stupid, sending the man such totally wrong signals? Some fantasy this turned out to-- Dorian blinked. No, not a fantasy. That's where I got it wrong. I'm not that Eroica.

All In by Margaret Price

Chapter Twenty-Nine

All In

Putting all one's money on the table into the pot.

*

Klaus did not even hear the soft click as the door to the large shower opened. He had his head under the spray and looked like he was trying to scrub all the hair from his head rather then just rinse out the lather. The instant a hand touched his shoulder, the reflexes honed over more then thirty years in intelligence kicked in automatically. He spun around, one hand grabbing the wrist of the other man, the other hand taking him by the throat and slamming him into the corner. He had Dorian pinned against the wall before he even realized what he was doing.

"Major, it's me!"

"Fuck, Eroica!" Klaus snapped, releasing his grip at the same time. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

Dorian took a moment to catch his breath, a hand going to his throat. Great, now I have another bruise to contend with. "I'm sorry! How many times am I going to have to apologize to you?" he demanded.

Klaus reached over to turn off the water and was stopped by a very gentle hand.

"No, I still have to wash my hair."

Klaus nodded and reached for the door. Again he was stopped. He gave Dorian a baffled look.

"I think we--I--have been going at this the wrong way," Dorian said calmly. He took the other man by the shoulders, guiding him around so their positions were reversed. He leaned back to wet his hair and then grabbed the shampoo.

Dark green eyes narrowed. Klaus crossed his arms, being keenly aware of the fact that he was still stark naked. He wasn't sure how intimidating he could be this way, but after what he had just done, he figured it was worth a shot. When Dorian did not elaborate further, he prompted, "The wrong way how?"

"Let me finish this. Then we can dry off and talk," Dorian said as he lathered his hair. He saw the look on Klaus's face darken further and sighed, leaning under the spray to rinse his hair.

"Is it really necessary that I wait?"

"Do you know where the towels are?" Dorian asked as he applied a generous amount of detangler to his abundant curls.

"No," Klaus grudgingly admitted.

Within a few minutes, Dorian was turning off the water and leading the way out of the shower. He felt a little embarrassed when he realized that he didn't know exactly which cabinet contained the towels, either. He opened up a couple before locating them and then pulled out several, placing them on the counter. He wrapped one around his hair while he dried himself off, watching as Klaus did the same. "There're robes in there when you're finished," he said, pointing to a closet door.

Klaus nodded. Before he even realized what he was doing, he had retrieved a robe and was covering himself with it. Old habits died hard. He turned to see Dorian watching him and realized that he was just as uncomfortable. He wordlessly held out a robe, and was somewhat surprised when it was accepted and put on. Was this to ease his self-consciousness or the Earl's?

"I think..." Dorian said as he pulled the towel from his hair, "the problem is that we're still looking at this as a minor fantasy." He reached for a brush, thought better of it, and turned to face the other man. "Eroica was a fantasy. An illusion. A part I was playing. That's what's screwing everything up."

"I see."

Dorian could not help smiling at the way Klaus seemed to be pouting. He looked absolutely adorable when he was petulant. The instant this observation crossed his mind, he groaned inwardly. I'm doing it again! He forced himself to be serious and moved to stand in front of Klaus, reaching up to touch his wet hair. "Not a fantasy, not a porn film." He slowly ran the back of his hand down the other man's face, stroking his rough cheek with his fingers. "A romance," he said quietly.

Klaus continued to scowl. "Romance?"

"Yes. A silly, sappy romance. Lots of kisses and caresses, not--"

"I'm not reading fucking poetry," Klaus growled.

Dorian had to stifle a laugh. "I would never expect you to." He took hold of one of Klaus's hands, looking at his bruised knuckles. "The only way you know how to touch is with force. It's...what makes Iron Klaus so dangerous. Formidable. Frightening."

"I don't want to frighten you, Dorian." And I don't want to force you into doing something you'll regret. Christ, what am I doing?

"I'm not helping, am I? Putting my foot in it all the time. Sending all the wrong signals. Going from Eroica to Dorian to..." He sighed heavily. "I don't know who I am anymore."

Klaus pulled his hand free and took Dorian by the chin, raising his head up so he could look into his eyes. "Then let me tell you what I want and you can tell me if you can...accommodate it."

Dorian could not help smiling as his own words were repeated back to him.

"May I kiss you?" Klaus asked.

Dorian felt the breath catch in his throat. It was the gentlest voice he had ever heard the man use. He stared into the green eyes looking almost pleadingly at him. Dear God, he's so vulnerable right now. And like it or not, it's all my fault. He drew a deep breath and nodded. "Yes, you may."

This kiss was completely opposite to the one he had received while they were in the tub. It was tender, hesitant, sensual. A powerful hand slid behind his neck, fingers tangling in his wet hair. For a brief instant, Dorian feared he would be overpowered again, that Klaus would lose control and push him back, pinning him against the wall so close behind him. But this did not happen. The hand did not grip him hard, nor was he forced backward. He found himself relaxing, returning the kiss just as hesitantly as it was being given.

The first kiss was followed by a second as Klaus's confidence increased. Then he stepped back, afraid that he had gone too far by taking a second kiss.

Dorian gave a small smile. "Shall we take this somewhere..."

"More comfortable?"

"See? You are a romantic."

"You idiot."

* * *

After drying their hair, the pair exited the bathroom to find a pair of pajamas for each of them neatly laid out on the bed. Klaus crossed to the closet, seeing that day clothes had been placed there. He went to the bedroom doorway and looked out, seeing the dining table had been cleared. The box that he had requested in a note that he'd left with the dishes had been placed at one end.

"We've been visited by elves," Dorian observed.

Klaus gave a grunt.

"Somewhere more comfortable...?" Dorian ventured.

Klaus turned back. What the hell am I doing? "I think the bed would be inappropriate after..."

"How about we get dressed and sit on the sofa for a bit, then?" Dorian suggested.

A quarter of an hour later, they were sitting silently on the sofa, the lights dimmed. Klaus sat at one end, leaning into the corner, his feet up on a large ottoman. Dorian was beside him, leaning back against his chest just as he had done in the tub. He had his feet on the sofa, his knees bent. They had also filled the icepacks Bonham had brought. Klaus held one to his jaw, while Dorian held one to a fast blackening eye.

At some point while they were bathing, it had started to rain. The steady sound of it on the roof was very soothing to their frayed nerves; the intermittent flashes of lightning and rolling thunder strangely calming.

Klaus idly ran his fingers through the other man's hair and tried not to think. He had fought Eroica's advances for decades, only to give in at precisely the wrong time. Now his body was screaming at him to give in to his long repressed desires. But there was no way he could do that while Dorian was still in the dark about what his search for the Earl of Gloria had produced. Until the man knew the whole story, he could not--would not--act on his emotions. You are still Iron Klaus, dammit!

Dorian's own brain was screaming at him. He felt safe and protected, while at the same time was scared to death that Klaus would ask for more. Ask for the things he, as Eroica, had claimed he wanted for twenty-five years while undercover. When Klaus put his arm across his chest, Dorian put a hand on it, making a conscious effort not to send any wrong signals again. Just caresses, and a few kisses. I can handle that.

Suddenly Klaus hugged him very tightly and kissed the top of his head. "Dorian..."

Dorian felt his heart jump. No! Don't ask for more. I'm not ready. Please, don't ask me to--

"I can't do this."

There was a train wreck in Dorian's mind, completely derailing his thoughts. "What?"

Klaus drew a deep breath, moved the man aside, and got to his feet. "I can't do this. Not until you have all the facts." A clap of thunder seemed to punctuate this ominous statement.

"All what facts?"

Klaus gave him a steady look. "About what I found--"

Dorian practically jumped to his feet, the ice pack falling forgotten to the floor. "I don't want to know." He waved his hands, turning away. "I can't handle it."

"Yes, you can. You have to." Before the other man could object further, Klaus crossed to the table and opened the box, pulling out the autopsy file. He drew a deep breath and held it out. "You need to read this."

Dorian turned back to face him, his eyes falling on the folder. "This is about the real Earl, isn't it?" he said apprehensively. "You know where he is."

Klaus looked him in the eye, his expression unreadable. "Yes."

Tell by Margaret Price

Chapter Thirty

Tell

Any habit or behavior that gives other players more information about your hand than they would have simply from your play.

*

Dorian stared at the folder for what seemed like forever before he finally took it from Klaus's hand. He sat down before opening it, which turned out to be a good thing. He paged through the papers, growing paler and paler. "It's a fake," he said as he came to the photos of the mangled body with a bloodied head of long blond curls. "It... It has to be a fake."

"That's what I thought, too," Klaus agreed and held out a large envelope.

"What's that?" Dorian asked suspiciously.

"The DNA comparison."

"DNA?" Dorian swallowed hard. "You tested my DNA?"

Klaus nodded. "I tested everyone's DNA--Marshall and Gloria." He continued to hold out the envelope. "The results are conclusive."

* * *

"Noooooo!"

Everyone in the main house jumped at the banshee-like scream that came from the direction of the guest house. Guns came out of nowhere and the Alphabet took the lead, charging to the door, only to stop when they saw Dorian standing in the middle of the garden in the pouring rain wearing only his pajamas. He was also screaming at the top of his voice.

"He's told him," came Bonham's quiet voice.

Everyone exchanged glances, nodded, and withdrew. There was nothing any of them could do but wait until the Earl had calmed down. Best to leave things to the Major.

Bonham threw a glance to the bewildered members of Eroica's gang before going out to the guest house. The Major had put a robe over his pajamas and was standing at the open doorway calmly watching Dorian scream into the night.

"You've told him." A statement.

Klaus nodded but did not take his eyes off Dorian as Bonham stepped out of the rain to join him under the overhang. Dorian was storming the grounds, apparently uncertain what to do with himself. Finally, he seemed to come to a decision and crossed to what Klaus thought was a tool shed.

"He's going to the vault," Bonham observed.

Klaus finally turned his eyes in the older man's direction. "Vault? Through there?"

"Come on."

Klaus found himself just as amazed as his men had been when the elevator to the vault suddenly rose out of the floor of the shed. He looked over at Bonham in silent inquiry. The man shook his head. "I'll leave him to you, Major."

Klaus stepped onto the platform. Before the controls were activated, he held up a hand. "He'll need some more dry clothes."

"I'll see to it."

Klaus nodded and saw Bonham disappear through the door a moment before the lift carried him into the floor. He gave the large subterranean vault only a cursory glance before he focused his attention on the man across the room. Dorian had a crowbar in his hand and was in the process of breaking open wooden packing crates. He had already opened one and tossed the masterpiece from within carelessly onto the concrete floor. The puddle of water that was forming around him was threatening to spill over to it any second.

"Dorian..."

"Don't call me that!" the Earl spat, spinning on his heel. "Don't call me anything! I'm nobody! I don't exist!"

"Don't be an idiot," Klaus snapped. "Of course you exist." It's a name no one can take from you now.

Dorian gave a snarl, turning back to his work. He tossed his dripping hair over his shoulder before jamming the crowbar into the wooden crate. "How long have you known?"

"I told you I suspected..."

Dorian spun around again. "I know what you told me. I want to know when you knew!"

"M found the folder just after your stunt in Korea."

"Christ! Why didn't you tell me?"

Klaus crossed his arms. "Because I wanted to make sure it wasn't a fake." Dorian opened his mouth but was cut off. "They could've put any name on that file, couldn't they? Used it for a cover. There were no computer networks like there are now. No DNA. No fingerprint database. They were already planning on doing plastic surgery. So what if it came a little earlier because of an auto accident?"

Dorian put a hand to his spinning head. "God! What did I let them do to me? Indoctrination. Programming by video tape. Why stop after something as insignificant as a death when everything's already on tape?"

He turned back to continue venting his rage on the wood, cursing in every language he knew. He cursed the CIA, NATO, everyone involved with Project: Eroica, from the recruiters to Director Tomlinson. When he finally ran out of crates, having yanked out the long missing masterpieces within, he just smashed at the wood.

Klaus was afraid he would hurt himself, or worse, his beloved artwork, and crossed the room, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Dorian, stop."

The Earl spun around, and raised the hand holding the crowbar, only to have his wrist caught in a powerful grip, the bar stripped from his hand.

"You're gonna ruin the paintings."

"I don't care!" Dorian bellowed, pulling his arm free.

"Since when? Was that a part of the act, too?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Klaus regretted having said them. He did not even attempt to stop the blow as Dorian slapped him across the face with the back of his hand. He staggered back slightly, but did not retaliate. I deserved that.

"Don't talk to me about acts, Major! Just leave me alone."

"Fine." I'm only making things worse anyway. Klaus tossed the crowbar to the floor, turned on his heel, and stormed from the vault, returning to the guest house where he hoped there was a good supply of liquor in stock. He planned on getting very drunk.

* * *

An hour later, an exhausted and semi-dry Dorian came out of the vault and searched the darkened guest house, finally finding Klaus sitting out on the screened porch watching the rain. He only realized the officer was there when he saw the glowing end of a lit cigarette in his mouth. Then he noticed a candle burning low on a table beside him. There was also a bottle of something that was very probably alcoholic. The ashtray near this evidenced the fact that the cigarette in the man's hand was by no means his first.

"Klaus...?" Dorian said mildly as he came out the door.

Klaus did not reply. He knocked back the contents of the glass in his hand, going on to pour another. Then he took a drag off his cigarette.

"I'm sorry I hit you."

"Sit down and shut up," Klaus snapped, taking a gulp of his drink. "You didn't want to talk. Now I don't."

Dorian did not reply. He turned and vanished inside the house. When he returned, he had changed into the dry clothes that had been left for him. He also had a bottle of gin and a glass in his hands. He sat down and then poured himself a drink. "This is one hell of a mess," he muttered as he took a sip.

Klaus replied with a grunt and continued to watch the rain.

"I feel like...I'm in free fall," Dorian said as he leaned back in his chair. "It was all so clear. And now it's all...so not." He turned to look at the man beside him, the glow of his cigarette illuminating his face as he took a drag on it. Is that...? His mouth dropped open. "My God, Klaus, are you crying?" he gasped.

Klaus turned to look at him. "No." But I wish I knew how right about now. "You're not the only one in free fall."

Dorian sighed, putting a hand to his head, uncertain how to reply.

"When you said you were CIA," Klaus said quietly, "that it was all a charade, I felt like...the world had ended. Then NATO tells me it's more than that. It's bigger. That you could be..." He drew a deep breath. "Even they don't know how fucked up it is."

"No."

Dorian silently watched the officer for several minutes. It could not have been easy keeping everything from him, knowing what his reaction would be. "When did you start smoking again?" he asked quietly.

"About an hour ago." Klaus slid the pack across the table.

Dorian felt on the verge of apologizing again and stopped himself. He'd apologized enough. He sighed heavily, taking a gulp of his drink before picking up the pack and pulling out a cigarette. Then he used the candle on the table to light it.

"What were you unpacking down there?" Klaus asked conversationally.

Dorian heard the chair creak as Klaus sat back. In the dim light, he wasn't sure if he had closed his eyes or not. "Oh, that..." He gave a small chuckle. "Some paintings I've been meaning to have hung for...a very long time."

"Stolen, naturally." A statement not an accusation.

"My men needed something to keep them busy while I was recovering from my nervous breakdown. I'm probably gonna have another one, when I finally put my mind to it." Dorian sat back taking a drag on the cigarette. He couldn't remember the last time he'd smoked one. "Funny thing is," he went on, "I never bothered to do anything with the paintings once I had them. There's an excellent Vermeer down there that I'm sure the Boston Museum would like to know is in...good hands."

Klaus gave a small grunt but did not reply.

Again, a silence fell between them.

"What...?" Dorian ventured finally. He drew a deep breath. "What are you gonna do with all that in there?"

Klaus finished what was in his glass before he turned to him. "You haven't seen everything yet."

"Shit, I really am gonna have another breakdown."

"Not if I can help it," Klaus said seriously.

Dorian gave him a searching look, but could not read his features in the dark. I believe you'll really try your damnedest, Major.

"There's more than just that one box," Klaus was saying. "I'm having everything scanned into a database, and the videos copied to DVDs." He drew another drag off his cigarette. "John Paul is assisting A in getting a sampling together for me. The audio recordings that were made in Virginia, scans of the autopsy, your files..."

"Files? Plural?"

Klaus nodded and got to his feet, crushing out what was left of his cigarette at the same time. "I'll show you."

"I don't think..."

"The sooner you know everything, the sooner we can move forward." Klaus paused, his voice dropping in pitch. "Agent Marshall has one last duty to perform before he..."

"Is eliminated?"

"Retires."

* * *

Pair by Margaret Price

Chapter Thirty-One

Pair

Two of a kind

*

Dorian took one look at the number of folders in the box and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Klaus, I just can't...deal with this tonight."

Klaus wanted to insist, but realized he had already overwhelmed the Earl with what he had told him so far. The last thing he needed was to push him into another breakdown. "Fine. In the morning, then." He turned and walked to the master bedroom.

Dorian nervously followed. He looked through the door and then pointedly at the officer. "I think...perhaps I should use the other room."

"Do you really think you should be alone?" Klaus asked.

"It's not that. It's...I don't want to send the wrong signals again."

Klaus rolled his eyes. "Dorian, I'm too tired to get the wrong ideas, and too drunk to act on them if I did."

Dorian actually chuckled upon hearing this. "I'm probably too drunk myself."

Klaus gave him a steady look. "I've slept in a number of your beds over the past few weeks. It would be nice to have you in one of them at the same time."

"And you say you're not a romantic."

"I'm not," Klaus snorted. "I'm drunk." He tossed his robe onto a chair before practically collapsing onto the bed.

Dorian chuckled again. He turned off the lights before flopping down beside him. He really was exhausted. "This has got to be the ultimate in role reversal, you know that?" he said as he fought to relax.

Klaus responded with a loud snort.

After a short silence, Dorian said, "I'm not sure I'll be able to sleep after--" He put a hand to his head. "There's so much..."

Klaus sighed heavily. And there's still more. A minute later, he heard an odd sound and turned. "Dorian, are you crying?"

"No," Dorian squeaked out, the sound making it clear he was lying. He covered his face, unable to stop the tears as everything finally overwhelmed him. Dammit, why did I drink so much? He turned on his side to try and hide what was patently obvious.

Damn the bloody CIA for doing this to you. Double damn them for making me have to be the one to tell you. Klaus shifted position, pulling the other man towards him.

"Don't--"

"Shut up and let me hold you," Klaus snapped as he slipped an arm around him. "It's the least I can do." Probably the only thing I can do.

Dorian found himself obeying automatically. Shifting position to allow strong arms to wrap around him, to hold him close and protected as the tears continued unabated. He had no idea how long he wept until he finally fell into an exhausted sleep.

* * *

After a night filled with dreams of walking lost and alone in a wasteland, Dorian woke to a feeling of warmth and security. Then he realized the cause. Klaus was still snuggled up against him. A moment later, he felt a finger playing through his hair and jumped. "What're you doing?" he asked accusingly.

"Nothing." What do you think I'm doing?

"Keep it that way."

Klaus gave a groan. "What were you saying about role reversal?"

Dorian felt embarrassed and turned onto his back. "Seriously. What are you doing?"

"I'm looking at your scars."

Dorian's eyes grew wide. "What scars?" Even he was surprised at how affronted he sounded.

Klaus actually chuckled. "The ones from the plastic surgery." He traced a finger along Dorian's hairline. "Whoever did it was very careful to hide them."

Dorian closed his eyes and sighed heavily. "That's such a muddle. I only vaguely remember being in hospital. I thought it was from the surgery, not because of an auto accident."

Klaus nodded and continued to run his finger along the Earl's hairline, moving it down to his throat. When the blue eyes looked up at him, he felt his heart jump again. How do you do that to me? "I would very much like to kiss you," he said longingly.

Dorian thought this over. "I think I would very much like you to," he replied. "We never did finish our sappy romance last night, did we?"

"No. But we weren't in bed together then, either." Klaus leaned down, kissing Dorian very tenderly. A hand slid into his hair, and he closed his eyes. Then the hand made contact with a lump caused by his head connecting with the concrete during the fight and he jumped. "Ow!"

Dorian's enormous eyes grew even wider. "Ow?"

Klaus had a hand to his head, rubbing the lump. "I'm all bruises this morning."

Dorian shifted and then winced. "I seem to be too, actually."

"So much for romance," Klaus said as he got out of bed and then disappeared into the bathroom.

* * *

Dorian had vanished into the bathroom not long after Klaus had exited, supposedly to answer nature's call. After several minutes, Klaus went to check on him, discovering the door locked. He tapped several times, getting no reply. Finally, he sighed heavily.

"Dorian?"

There was no answer and Klaus called again.

Nothing.

"Dorian, you're acting like a bride hiding in the bathroom on her wedding night," he said, trying very hard to not sound annoyed.

"I'm...scared," Dorian replied in a small voice

Klaus was silently counting to one hundred and telling himself that breaking down the door would probably not make the situation better. "Of what?" No reply. "Me?" Fuck, what did I do now?

"No, not...really."

Klaus continued his count to one hundred. Then he heard the lock turn and took a step back so he wasn't looming in the doorway. The door opened very slowly. Then a rather embarrassed Dorian stood on the threshold. "I told you I'd have a breakdown as soon as I put my mind to it," he said meekly.

"Dorian--"

Whatever Klaus was going to say was forgotten when Dorian suddenly latched onto him, hugging him for all he was worth.

You said you'd protect me. Please, don't let me go through that again. Dorian put his head on the officer's shoulder. "I'm a mess."

Klaus could think of nothing to say, so he just stood there, holding the other man. Giving the only comfort he knew how. After a few minutes, he felt Dorian loosen his grip and he leaned back to look into his face. "Get dressed," he ordered suddenly. "You still have that box to go through."

"Klaus, I..."

"You can do this, Dorian. You're a lot stronger than you think."

Dorian's eyes grew wide. He couldn't remember the Major ever saying something like this to him. He drew a deep breath and nodded. Then he crossed to the clothes closet, vanishing inside. A moment later, he popped his head out. "How about I order us some breakfast?"

* * *

Dorian put off looking at the contents of the box on the dining table as long as possible. He was impressed at the way Klaus allowed him to do this, avoiding pressuring him in any way. Dear God, Major, when did you become so patient? Finally, breakfast was over, the dishes removed, and the pair was alone again.

Klaus took the box into the living room, placing it on the floor beside the ottoman he had propped his feet on the night before. Now he sat on it, holding out a hand, indicating where the Earl should sit. Dorian drew a deep breath and took a seat opposite the officer. Then, as calmly as he could, he looked at one folder after another as they were handed to him.

"This is just the edited highlights?" he remarked as he closed the file and rubbed his eyes. He scowled when Klaus reached towards the box and hesitated for the first time. The reason became clear when he extracted a notebook. "That's one of my journals!" Dorian practically snatched it from the officer's hand. "You read my journals?"

"Yes," came the unrepentant reply.

Dorian clasped the notebook to his chest. "These are my private thoughts!"

"While you were having a mental breakdown," Klaus replied calmly. He took hold of the journal, having to give it a tug before the Earl finally released his grip. He had marked the pages where the entries were writing in German, and opened to the first. "I have a theory on why that happened," he said as he placed the journal on the sofa beside Dorian.

Dorian looked down as Klaus pointed to an entry. "Look here. Look what you wrote. You did it in German. Why?"

Dorian looked him in the eye. Isn't it bloody obvious? "I was having a nervous breakdown."

Klaus shook his head. "No. You were trying to tell yourself something. Something important. Something they didn't want you to remember." He paused as Dorian leaned forward to read the entry. "And I think I made it worse by taunting you," he added guiltily.

Dorian looked up sharply. "How?"

"Because I did it in German," Klaus replied unhelpfully. He returned his attention to the journal. "I think it only reinforced whatever was in your subconscious. Look what you say here. ‘Ich erschreckte mich.'"

Dorian scowled. "That's not right. That should be ‘Ich hatte Angst.'"

Klaus gave him an admiring look. You're not having a breakdown now, are you? He returned his attention to the book. "But you didn't say that. You said ‘erschreckte.' You said scared. Frightened." His voice hardened as he said the next word. "Schrecken."

Dorian's eyes widened. "Schreckengost," he said in a small voice. He snatched up the journal, placing it in his lap. "Scared. Frightened. Ghosts." He flipped page after page. "Jesus, look at this. I'm jamming German and English together, jumped languages in mid-entry."

Klaus reached over, flipped to the entry of August 1st, 1988 and pointed to the line:

Dr. Schrekk Scrheckin (I can't spell the bugger's name.) Dr. Andy.

"You couldn't spell his name there, but the rest of your German is letter perfect. The grammar is off, but not your spelling." He paused. "You were trying to tell yourself something. Warn yourself of something buried in your subconscious. Buried in the past."

Dorian stared into space for several seconds. Then he closed his eyes and sat back, a hand going to his head. "Christ, and then I went back and let them bury it all over again."

Klaus gave Dorian a searching look and waited until he looked up at him before saying finally, "Now we bury them."

* * *

Dorian looked at Klaus for what seemed the hundredth time. The man appeared to be dozing in his seat beside him, obviously unconcerned about what they were about to do. Why aren't you worried, damn you! James and Bonham were further back in the plane, keeping themselves entertained on the long flight to Virginia. The only one who could really keep his mind occupied the whole time was John Paul, who was piloting the Earl's jet for the journey.

The Alphabets who had been in Bali were on their way to Brussels where they would be meeting up with those who had been left behind in Lebanon. The Major had planned everything out so that each group's appearance would coincide with the next. Most of Eroica's gang returned to England, a few others ferrying the Project: Eroica archive in the Aqua Zep on its long journey back to England. They would then safeguard it until the Major called for it.

Again, Dorian glanced over at Klaus, only this time he saw the dark green eyes studying him. Then the officer wordlessly held out an arm and Dorian leaned up against him, closing his eyes as the arm wrapped around his shoulder. You'll protect me, won't you, Major?

* * *

Showdown by Margaret Price

Chapter Thirty-Two

Showdown

After the final round of betting when all the active players turn over their cards to see who won.

*

The only one at NATO's Brussels headquarters who was not surprised at the sudden appearance of twenty-six rogue agents was the Supreme Allied Commander: Europe. When General Ralston was informed that the agents from Bonn had appeared out of nowhere with three pocket nukes, he went to meet them. He was impressed at the way they adhered to the story the Major had laid out all those months ago, not varying in the slightest detail.

Agent A had taken the lead, presenting the devices and asking when they could expect to be debriefed. Every member of the Alphabet played the part of agent returning from a mission letter perfect, as it were. When asked why the Major had not accompanied them, A replied that it was his understanding that the Major had been ordered to deliver other, more sensitive information to NATO's Commander: Atlantic in Norfolk, Virginia. He went on to hand the General a large envelope, stating that the Major had giving orders that it be given only to General Ralston himself. A went on to say that the Major would be checking in when he arrived in Virginia.

This was all Ralston needed to hear. He allowed the agents to go on with their debriefing, returning to his office where he immediately had a secured call put in to Admiral Edmund Giambastiani, the Supreme Allied Commander: Atlantic in Norfolk, Virginia.

A brief conversation followed, in which Ralston informed his counterpart of the ultra secret Black Ops begun in June and that he should expect a call from Iron Klaus at any moment. He passed on the code phrase that the Major would use in order to identify himself. Then he rang off, sat back in his chair, finally looking at the contents of the envelope, his eye widening as he read the Major's report. Suddenly he found himself wishing he were a fly on the wall when the Major delivered this information in person.

* * *

Several hours after receiving the call from the wayward Iron Klaus, Admiral Giambastiani was in the office of CIA Director George Tenet with a gentleman who had been introduced to him as Agent John Marshall. When everyone was settled, Director Tomlinson was called to the meeting.

Tomlinson was taken aback when he took in the occupants of the room. He collected himself quickly as he realized what must be going on. "Does this mean that the uncatchable Iron Klaus is actually in custody? Good work, Marshall."

"Sit down and shut up, Greg," the CIA Director snapped.

Tomlinson gave him a bewildered look and did as ordered.

The Director pushed a button on his intercom. "Have the Major come in, please."

All eyes turned as the Major, in full dress uniform, came through the door. He marched up to the desk, snapped to attention, and saluted Admiral Giambastiani. Dorian wasn't sure if this was protocol or strictly a show of respect. Either way, he found himself admiring the man all the more. Klaus could be damned impressive when he wanted to be.

"Please, Major," the Admiral said after returning the salute. He took a seat beside Director Tenet's desk. "General Ralston tells me that I'll find what you have to say of particular interest."

"I think we all will," Director Tenet rejoined.

Klaus shot Dorian a sideways glance, seeing him sitting bolt upright in his chair. He was paler than normal, and was doing his utmost to appear professional instead of his usual, outrageous self. Klaus drew a deep breath and moved to the equipment already prepared for him.

"Sirs, because the roots of all this begin long before either of you held your current positions, I will begin with some history," he said calmly. He threw a cold look in Tomlinson's direction and was pleased when the man flinched. He dropped into his impersonation of the Earl's voice, saying, "Feel free to jump in if I make any mistakes, Greg."

Tomlinson's response was a dark look.

Klaus turned back to the others, giving a brief history of Project: Eroica. Its inception in the early 1970s, the delays during Watergate, the threat of cancellation, and finally the go-ahead. Then came the search for a suitable member of the British aristocracy, an American actor to replace him, the months of training afterward.

The image of a newspaper headline flashed up on a large screen across the room that was part of the PowerPoint presentation John Paul and A had prepared. "In late 1976, Eroica made his first grand appearance." Klaus's voice dropped into a disapproving growl. "He appeared at my house the following year and not long after that was interfering in the mission I was on."

Dorian cracked a small smile upon hearing this.

"The original purpose of the project was to have Eroica insinuate himself into NATO as an art thief and finally allow himself to be recruited."

This took the Admiral by surprise. "What?"

Klaus turned to him. "Project: Eroica was a joint CIA-NATO operation." He paused. "At least, it was originally." He turned back to the screen. "Then in 1979, Eroica...assisted in the removal of a bomb from the house where an East-West summit was taking place." He paused again when his audience gave a sharp gasp. Yes, that was him, the bloody show off. "A few months later, he passed along information that stopped an attempt on the life of NATO Europe's Commander General Alexander Haig by the Baader-Meinhof Group." And he had to bring it to me because they were West German, bloody idiot. "It was at that time the plan was altered, leaving Eroica freelance. By the end of that year, he was hired outright by NATO having been ordered--"

When Klaus broke off, his audience exchanged glances.

"Having been ordered..." Dorian prompted, although he already knew the answer.

"To get close to me," Klaus growled out. He took a sip of water before pressing on, telling of Eroica's numerous appearances during his missions and then of his eventual breakdown that caused NATO to order the project terminated.

Again, this got the Admiral's attention. "Terminated?" he said sharply, throwing a look at the now sweating Tomlinson. "When was this, Major?"

"Late 1988, sir."

The Admiral threw an accusing look in Dorian's direction. "Why did you continue?"

Klaus interceded immediately, pointing at Tomlinson. "Because his superior never informed him of the order." He drew a deep breath. "That's where history takes an odd turn."

Odd is right, Dorian thought, giving way to an involuntary shudder.

Klaus went on to tell of Eroica's journey to the U.S. to be seen by Dr. Schreckengost. How he was told to take of a leave of absence that ended up stretching into several years. Despite its not being in the records, Klaus speculated that the reason for this lengthy absence was to wait until those in command at the CIA and NATO--and who knew of the project--were replaced. With the project on hold, there would be no reason to inform their replacements about it. They would therefore not question its continuance.

"In fact, there were two changes in command of the CIA and NATO before Eroica returned to the world of counter-espionage," Klaus went on. "Now suddenly, seven years later, the project actually is being called to a halt. Eroica was ordered to steal what he was told would be the final piece to a puzzle that had taken more than twenty-five years to put together. He broke cover..." His voice dropped. "And all hell broke loose."

Klaus paused as the Director and the Admiral put their heads together for a few minutes. He threw a quick glance in Dorian's directions, seeing he still had not relaxed.

"Thank you, Major..." the Admiral began, returning Klaus to reality.

Klaus was not about to be dismissed and held up a hand. "With all due respect, sir. That's not everything."

The Admiral's eyebrows went up. "Oh?"

"No, sir. That was just a brief history." Klaus turned back to the screen. "This is the part where it gets totally fucked up." Before his audience could object to his use of the expletive, one of the autopsy photos flashed up on the screen.

"On the 26th of November, 1975, John Marshall and the Earl of Gloria were involved in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver. One man was killed, the other seriously injured." Klaus turned to Tomlinson, his voice accusing. "Project: Eroica should've ended then. But after putting so much time and effort into it, you couldn't let it go, could you?"

"Where the hell did you get that?" Tomlinson demanded, finding his voice at last.

Klaus exchanged a knowing look with Dorian. "From Dr. Schreckengost's bomb shelter. Everything you thought was safely hidden away is now in my possession."

"That's impossible!" The horrified Tomlinson looked over at Dorian. "You were there, Marshall! You saw everything was there. You checked the system."

"The last time I checked that system was in 1988, and it was a joke." Dorian held out a hand. "The Major is the one who checked it last." He looked up admiringly. "He does a rather good impersonation of me, don't you think?"

"What? How the hell--"

"Eroica's men are first rate."

"Thank you, Major," Dorian said with a smile.

"Gentlemen, we seem to be straying from the point," Director Tenet injected. "So you're saying the Earl was killed and Agent Marshall seriously injured in the car wreck?"

"That's what the autopsy says," Klaus replied evasively.

Tomlinson gave a derisive snort. "Now what? Are you gonna accuse me of falsifying an official autopsy next?"

You say that like you've never falsified anything, you CIA bastard, Klaus thought.

Tomlinson was waving a hand in Dorian's direction. "Run his prints. They'll come back as--"

"Dorian Red Gloria, a.k.a. Eroica," Klaus interrupted. "His prints were taken by the Italian police after that fiasco with the Pope." He shot a disapproving scowl in Dorian's direction when he heard him snicker. Then he turned back to Tomlinson. "You would've had to change the prints for Marshall, wouldn't you? Make sure everything matched if someone checked on the Earl?"

"Wait..." the stunned Director gasped. "What are you saying?"

"Yes, what are you saying, Major?" Tomlinson challenged. "What fairytale are you gonna tell us next?"

You're so sure of yourself, aren't you? Klaus's eyes flickered. On the screen, the autopsy photographs flashed up one at a time. "Your star pupil and his mentor were involved in a serious automobile accident. Result? One man dead, the other with amnesia. What to do? End the project after how many years of work?"

Tomlinson did not reply.

"Then you had a brainstorm. Drug induced hypnosis. Experimental, but with promising results. So...you had Dr. Schreckengost take the man with amnesia and tell him he is John Marshall, giving him all the facts and figures to go along with it. Then you layered the Earl of Gloria on top of that, using all the films the two had made to reinforce the information." Klaus paused, his face growing darker. "Then you created a third persona. Eroica. Your own personal thief with your own set of specific guidelines. With all this in place, you shipped your re-created man off to England to do your bidding."

"An interesting story," Tomlinson said blandly. "But if you'll look at Agent Marshall's file, you'll see that he agreed to all that."

"Yes. But Lord Gloria didn't."

"So what? Lord Gloria is dead. You've just shown us his autopsy."

Smug bastard. Klaus drew a deep breath. "According to the official records, this man is Agent John Marshall." He held out a hand in Dorian's direction. "His fingerprints and medical information match exactly--dental records, plastic surgery..."

"As they should."

"The official records also state that this man is the Earl of Gloria, everything also matching. As it should, yes?"

Tomlinson's eyes narrowed and he glanced over at the others, seeing they were equally bewildered.

"You changed the fingerprint records, medical information, dental records, everything." Klaus paused and smiled. It was a smile that sent a chill through every man in the room. Then a final document flashed up on the screen. "But you couldn't change his DNA."

There was a collective gasp as the DNA comparison flashed up. Tomlinson made a small surprised noise and leaned back, his eyes wide.

"John Marshall and the Earl of Gloria both have a mother and three sisters, all still living," Klaus informed as he moved closer to the screen. "Some of those siblings have offspring. I'm sure I don't have to tell any of you that Mitochondrial DNA is passed on through the females in the line. Mothers pass on a consistent marker to their offspring, and their daughters pass that on to theirs."

Klaus pointed at the screen. "This top row is the DNA profile from the Glorias. The second row is the profile of the Marshalls. The last three individuals in each line are the man you say is John Marshall, the man buried in John Marshall's grave, and a control subject not related to either--Myself."

Every eye in the room was glued to the screen. The shared markers between family members were circled in red. On each line, two profiles did not contain a circle. The one unmarked in both groups obviously belonging to Klaus. As for the others...

Finally, Dorian could stay silent no longer. He jumped to his feet, crossed to the screen, and stabbed a finger on the Gloria DNA profile. The profile marked as L had a red circle in that row. "That's mine, you bloody son-of-a-bitch! L for Living!" he snarled. "I'm not John Marshall. I have never been John Marshall! He died in 1975. I am Dorian Red Gloria, the Earl of Gloria and I always have been." He stormed over to Tomlinson. "And you are a Goddamn bloody manipulative Yank bastard!" So saying, he punched the man as hard as he could, knocking him out of his chair.

Holding All The Cards by Margaret Price

Chapter Thirty-Three

Holding All The Cards

Having a strong bargaining position because one has all the advantages.

*

"Dorian!"

The thunderstruck Klaus had to physically pull Dorian away. Here the Earl had been asking to be protected, and now he was the one doing the threatening, not that the bugger on the floor didn't deserve a good thrashing. Just not inside the office of the Director of the CIA.

Klaus gave Dorian a steady look before turning to the man on the floor. "Don't even attempt to justify this," he said as the still shaking Earl returned to his seat.

"The Earl signed a document agreeing to secrecy and allowing us to give him a new identity," Tomlinson said lamely as he got up from the floor.

Dorian was back on his feet. "You fucking hypocrite, you didn't give me a new identity! You gave me your version of my own." He put a hand to his head. "I don't remember making any of those tapes. I don't... I don't even know what's real and what's not anymore. Are my childhood memories real or manufactured?" He dropped back into his chair.

"Overlooking the fact that the operation should never have been put into action," Klaus said smugly, "that fact alone puts you in breach of contract. All promises null and void."

Tomlinson swore under his breath.

"What happened, huh? What made you suddenly call it off?" Klaus wanted to know. "After all this time, why did you suddenly decide to end Project: Eroica? And so sloppy..."

Tomlinson did not reply. He simply crossed his arms and squirmed in his seat.

"I have my own theories, of course," Klaus said, glancing over at the amazingly silent Director and Admiral. "You made three mistakes that guaranteed this would fail." He held up a hand, counting them off on his fingers. "The first was going on after your star pupil was killed. Your second was selecting me as a target for Eroica's...attentions."

"And the third was ending it so fast, I suppose?" Tomlinson sneered.

"No. The third was ordering the Earl and myself eliminated."

"Now you're grasping as straws, Major!"

The chilling smile returned to Klaus's face. He went to the laptop computer that had been using for his PowerPoint presentation. With a few taps, he brought up the recording that John Paul had made outside Dr. Andy's home. He let it play through before looking up. "Dr. Schreckengost should know better than to talk on a portable phone."

"Damned idiot."

"I think we've heard enough," the Director said and then spoke into the intercom, "You can send them in now."

The door opened and two very large Marines entered. Tenet held out a hand in Tomlinson's direction. "Please take Mr. Tomlinson into custody."

This was done without much fuss. Once the door closed, the CIA Director gave the Earl a steady look. "I'm assuming you have some...requests?"

A smile curled the edges of Klaus's mouth; the word "requests" sounding more like "demands." He glanced over at Dorian and then finally took a seat. "This is what is going to happen..."

* * *

When Dorian finally followed the Major out of CIA headquarters, he felt as if the weight of the Earth had been pulled from his shoulders. He had listened quietly as Klaus laid out their demands, all of which were agreed to.

John Marshall would retire from the CIA after successfully completing his mission, as would Mr. Bonham. The Treasury Department would be contacted so that Mr. James could also be allowed to retire. Despite the fact that it was not really their jurisdiction, no one saw it as being a problem for the SIS to be contacted in order for John Paul to be given the same courtesy as his American counterparts.

At the expense of the CIA and/or NATO, Dorian would be seen by a mental health specialist for a complete evaluation. He had claimed he would have another nervous breakdown after this, and Klaus was going to make damned sure he did not.

Klaus also made sure that the men in charge of the CIA and NATO knew that he had no qualms about releasing the information surrounding this royal cock-up. The last thing the U.S. needed at this point in time was a scandal. The President was trying to bolster support, and this throwback to the Cold War would most assuredly throw an enormous spanner in the works.

Naturally, getting all of this taken care of would take time. Before leaving, Klaus left the number of the hotel where he and the others were staying.

* * *

"I never thought I'd make it through all that," Dorian admitted as he entered the hotel suite he and the Major were sharing.

"You did...amazingly well," Klaus replied admiringly as he closed and locked the door. They had already informed the others as to their success, after which James announced he was buying dinner. Dorian and Klaus declined, while the others jumped at the chance.

Dorian shook his head. "You can be bloody impressive when you put your mind to it, Major."

Klaus cocked his head to one side. "Look who's talking. You shocked the shit out of me when you decked that asshole."

"You were impressed?"

"Very."

The next thing Klaus knew, Dorian was kissing him very gently.

"Dorian..."

"Don't talk, please..."

"I just wanna make sure you're not gonna bolt again."

Dorian smiled self-consciously. "I won't lock myself in the bathroom, I promise."

This time Klaus initiated a gentle kiss. He was surprised when it was very enthusiastically returned. When they broke apart, he stepped back, giving Dorian a steady look. A moment later, hands were unbuttoning, unfastening, unzipping. Clothes were pulled off and dropped in a heap. Then the pair stood looking at one another, uncertain but wanting. Neither one could say for certain how they ended up on the bed. They just were, tangled together. It didn't seem to matter that they were unsure what to do beyond kisses and caresses.

Klaus was still surprised with himself; that he could finally let go after fighting for so long. That Dorian truly was in the bed beside him, kissing him back, moaning as he moved his hand down to tentatively touch the man's growing erection. Then a hand was moving down his own body, and his felt sure that his brain would explode when it grasped his own hardening cock.

Dorian was equally lost in the moment, hands rubbing, caressing, stroking. When Klaus took hold of his erection, he gave a gasp. It felt so good. Definitely better than doing it himself. After what happened in the tub, he had been afraid that Klaus would overpower him once they were in bed together. That he would force him down and do whatever he pleased. Now that they actually were in bed together, the man of Iron turned out to be incredibly gentle. In fact, a voice in the back of Dorian's mind told him that if he chose, he could probably do whatever he pleased and Klaus would let him.

For several minutes, the only sounds in the room were heavy breathing and the occasional moan. Then neither could hold back any longer, Klaus coming first with an almost frustrated groan. After waiting so long, it had been too short an encounter. Dorian followed suit a few seconds later.

They did not untangle themselves and just lay panting on the bed, each wondering what would come next. They exchanged a few kisses before sleep overtook them, neither man even noticing when it happened.

* * *

The phone ringing was what finally roused the sleeping pair. Being the closest, Klaus fumbled for the receiver, totally baffling the person at the other end when he answered in German. Then his brain started functioning again and he switched to English. He listened as the person on the other end informed him that everything he had requested was "in the works."

"In the works?" Dorian repeated when Klaus told him what had been said. "What does that mean?"

Klaus flopped back onto the bed and looked up at the ceiling. "It means we'll probably have to wait a week, so they can cover their asses."

"So...we all have to stay here while that's being worked out?"

Klaus turned when he heard the suggestive tone that he had grown accustomed to hearing from Eroica. "Yes."

Dorian flopped down on top of his chest. "I hope we don't get bored."

"Dorian..."

The words were cut off by a kiss. "No words, Klaus. Please. I...don't know what's gonna happen when all the dust settles."

"No promises, then?"

Dorian shook his head.

Klaus nodded. "I don't..." He broke off, and sighed heavily, wrapping an arm around him.

"I know." Dorian smiled briefly. "I'm...rather clueless about all this myself."

Klaus closed his eyes, only to open them to give the Earl a steady look when he said, "At least we won't get bored while we figure it out."

* * *

Once the government agencies had sufficiently covered their bureaucratic backsides, the Major was notified. Everyone involved in Project: Eroica had "retired" after a job well done. At some point, Dr. Schreckengost had been arrested. He had agreed to turn State's evidence in exchange for immunity. Klaus had insisted that they tack on that he also agree to assist those who would be doing Dorian's metal health assessment, since he was the one who had screwed up his head in the first place.

Bonham, James, and John Paul all decided that they would like to "retire" in England, and returned to Castle Gloria. The Alphabet had returned to the Bonn office and spent several days getting everything put back into place, after which they impatiently awaited the return of their commanding officer.

An investigation into the plane that went down in the English Channel--taking the recalled agents with it--could find no connection to Director Tomlinson. If one existed. The final finding was as originally thought. Engine trouble. A tragic, if coincidental, accident.

Dorian made a request before Klaus returned to Germany; leaving him on his own and at the mercy of mental health officials. A request that the Major found he could not deny. The Earl wanted to visit the grave of the real John Marshall to pay his respects and say a very belated good-bye.

* * *

Dorian had been standing silently before the engraved brass marker displaying the name of John Robert Marshall for several minutes. Klaus was beside him, standing in silent vigil. He had no idea what was going through the Earl's mind, although he could probably guess. The date bore witness to the fact that, in a few short weeks, it would be twenty-seven years since the life of the individual behind the cover plate had been violently cut short.

Klaus found himself wondering just how differently things would have turned out if it had really been the Earl who was killed. Or if there had never been an accident and Dorian had gone on to a new life somewhere in the Australian outback. He couldn't imagine the man beside him as anyone other than the fop who had driven him mad for decades. The man he had eventually stopped fighting and admitted to being in love with. The man who had shared his bed for the past week. The man whose future was now an enormous question mark.

Dorian had a single long-stem rose in his hands and looked down at it before drawing a deep breath. He placed it in the cone-shaped vase. Just as before, it had a card attached, only this one read, "From Dorian With Love. Rest in peace." Then he put a hand on the plate. I hope I did you proud, John.

* * *

The return to Bonn was just as Klaus expected. His Alphabet greeted him with delight, his Chief with grudging acceptance. Because of the overwhelming success of his dual missions, he was finally promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel. He knew he should be delighted, but the events of the past few months had completely disillusioned him. He could no longer lie to himself that it didn't make a difference.

He argued with himself for a long time, whether it would be best to leave on a high note. Retire and plant vegetable marrows or whatever the hell it was you were supposed to grow when you retired. It was all too obvious that another war was looming in the Middle East. The U.S. was just looking for an excuse. The CIA Director had been delighted when he learned about the pocket nukes, seeing them as proof of the Weapons of Mass Destruction they were seeking. Klaus tried to dissuade him from using this as definitive proof, but the man would not listen.

On the first of December, there was a jewel theft of considerable note in the Netherlands. Six million Euros worth of jewels vanished, leaving the authorities scratching their heads. No one could even figure out how the thieves had pulled it off. Klaus had only noticed the story because it was alongside one that was political in nature. His first thoughts were of Eroica, but he was still in the States. He was also supposed to be retired.

* * *

Fold by Margaret Price

Chapter Thirty-Four

Fold

To drop out of the game or abandon a hand.

*

Castle Gloria
Late January 2003

It was an email from Bonham that alerted the new Lt. Colonel that Dorian had returned to England, having successfully finished his rehab. Despite the fact that the Earl had been given a clean bill of health, Klaus wanted to make sure the doctors hadn't screwed things up again. Especially since Dr. Schreckengost had been involved. He flew to England, arriving at the North Downs unannounced.

This was the first time he had been to the Castle since the events in Bali, and the Eroica gang greeted him as they had when they thought him to be the Earl, much to Klaus's amazement. When he was shown to the Earl, he found the man standing in front of a large mirror modeling what could only be a part of the gems stolen from The Hague in December.

"Klaus!" Dorian cried in delight when he saw the man's reflection in the mirror. The look of thunder on the officer's face brought a frown to his own features and he turned. "What's wrong?"

"What's wrong?" Klaus exploded. "You're supposed to be rehabilitated. And retired!" He stormed across the room, snatched up a fistful of the jewels and shook them. "So what the hell is this?"

Dorian found himself automatically clicking into defensive mode. "What do you think it is?"

"Stolen property!"

"I'm a thief, that's what I--"

"No!" Klaus thundered. "You were a thief! A thief programmed by the bloody CIA!" He shook the fistful of jewels again. "Is this your idea of rehabilitation?"

Dorian tossed his hair over a shoulder. "My men must have something to keep them occupied," he said breezily, not even realizing he had dropped back into his Eroica persona with conspicuous ease.

"Nothing's changed. You're bloody Eroica again!" Klaus threw the jewels on the floor and stormed to the center of the room. "I've spent the better part of my life running away from you. Running away from...who I am." He ran his fingers through his hair. "When I finally faced it, I had the rug pulled out from under me."

"Klaus, you can't keep blaming me for--!"

Klaus spun around. "How much of it was real?"

"How the hell should I know?" Dorian fired back. "Who am I? The over-the-top gay art thief, the shallow, self-centered Earl of Gloria, or the not-so-straight CIA agent? The records say that the Earl--that I--was the victim of statutory rape at thirteen. Traded my virginity for a painting. A romantic story. But I couldn't tell you if it's a real memory or a false one at this point."

Klaus's anger seemed to deflate all at once. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

Dorian blinked, seeing a pained look flash behind the dark green eyes looking at him. "Yes, I believe you are. They fucked up both our lives good and proper, didn't they?"

"Yes," Klaus agreed. "That's why...I'm retiring."

"Retiring? You?"

Klaus nodded. Dorian stared opened-mouthed at him. "This isn't another trick," the officer assured. "It's the real thing this time. I've had enough of...all of it."

* * *

Bonn, Germany
The Retirement Party of Iron Klaus
April 2003

Mechanical problems on his jet caused Dorian to arrive at the hotel ballroom more than was even considered fashionably late. He had missed the dinner and speeches. The jokes and good-byes. What he found was a room packed with NATO top brass and officials from several other intelligence organizations with whom Klaus had worked over his long career. Dorian recognized General Ralston, who nodded when their eyes met. The entire Alphabet was there, with their spouses, if they had any. A band was playing, and several people were out on the dance floor.

Dorian searched the room for the guest of honor. He noticed Charles Lawrence of the SIS attempting to impress an obviously disinterested female with his James Bond act. Klaus's Chief was there with his shrew of a wife, who had been harassing him the whole evening about his own retirement. That it was long overdue. One did not have to be in intelligence to realize that the reason the man had not retired was because it meant having to spend all his time with the shrew.

After scanning the room several times, Dorian found himself wondering if Klaus had snuck out of his own party. He wouldn't put it past the man. Finally, after a few more minutes searching, and a few enquiries, someone pointed out Klaus. He was in full dress uniform and looked more impressive than ever. He was also in conversation with a very familiar face, whom Dorian was surprised to see present at all. Mischa the Bear Cub, formerly of the KGB.

"Now I never would've expected to see you at Iron Klaus's retirement party," Dorian observed as he came up to the pair of old enemies.

Klaus turned, a surprised look on his face. Obviously, he had not expected the Earl to be there. Or perhaps he had given up hope of his arrival this late in the evening. "We were sharing a toast," he explained.

Dorian's eyebrows went up. He looked from one to the other. "You can't be drinking to each other's health, surely?"

Mischa shook his head. "I was telling the--" He smirked. "--Lt. Colonel that my dear comrade Polar Bear died this past November. We were having a drink to his memory."

Dorian gave way to an involuntary shudder upon hearing this.

Klaus gave him a steady look. "Lord Gloria?"

Dorian met the officer's steady gaze. "Someone just walked over my grave," he replied quietly, seeing Klaus give a nod of understanding. November was also the month in which John Marshall died. Bloody ironic. Dorian shook off these dark thoughts and snatched up a glass from a passing waiter, holding it up. "May I join you?"

"Of course," Klaus said, holding up his own glass. "To Polar Bear, the cunning bastard, may he rest in peace."

Mischa gave a laugh and then downed his drink in a gulp. The others were not quite so forthright, taking a sip from their glasses. "It was always my hope to kill you with my bare hands, Major," Mischa said, holding out a paw of a hand.

"And mine was always to put a bullet through your Commie heart," Klaus replied, shaking the man's hand. "Now, we can only dream."

Again, Mischa laughed. Then he vanished into the crowd.

Klaus turned to Dorian, who was still sipping his champagne. "Dorian, what are you doing here?" he asked quietly.

"Your Chief asked me. Personally," Dorian explained. "I'm not exactly sure why. You're not upset, are you?"

"At you, no." Klaus looked across the room, seeing the Chief ignoring his wife completely, his attention totally fixed on them. "Bastard," the officer snorted. "He wants to watch us together."

Dorian's eyes widened. "Good God, he's not threatening to out you, is he?"

This question actually took Klaus off guard. "No. There's nothing to threaten me with at this point. And if the brass so much as thinks of trying anything on anyone involved in that operation, all the skeletons will come crashing out of the closet."

"Really?"

"Yes. The DVDs of the video tapes, and data bases with all the documentation..." Klaus threw a glance across the room to where a group of NATO top brass were in conversation, no doubt discussing the recent fall of Baghdad. "I have the originals in a bank in Switzerland, and back up copies in several locations along with distribution instructions."

"Thorough as ever."

"It's my insurance against disaster."

"I hope you don't think of me as a disaster any longer," Dorian said in a slightly injured tone. "I did enough damage and have no intention of doing any more at the bidding of the CIA, NATO, or even the Boy Scouts!"

This caused a bittersweet smile to play at the edges of Klaus's mouth. "That's just it," he said quietly. "The damage is done. That was only too clear when I was at the Downs in January. I fell in love with a man who doesn't exist." He looked the Earl in the eye. "I'm not spending the rest of my life chasing a phantom reality."

Dorian felt his heart turn over when he heard this. They had worked out being friends, very briefly been lovers, and now it was over. "So...this is good-bye, then?"

Klaus drew himself to his full height. "Yes."

Dorian threw a quick glance across the room. "With all this brass here, I'm guessing we should shake hands instead of kiss, right?"

"Yes." Because if I kiss you, I'll change my mind, and I can't live through the end of the world again. Klaus held out a hand. "Good-bye, Lord Gloria."

* * *

Alone by Margaret Price

Chapter Thirty-Five

Alone

Euchre: A bid to play without the help of a partner.

*

Schloss Eberbach
Late July 2003

Klaus entered the study of Schloss Eberbach, slipping one of a dozen DVDs into a player and sitting down to watch. It was not the same recording he had given to the men behind Project: Eroica. It was from the original videos that were now safely in a bank vault in Switzerland, several attorneys in possession of the distribution instructions should anything unexpected happen to himself, the Earl, or any of their men.

On the screen, a very young Earl of Gloria was attempting to instruct Agent John Marshall on the proper way of serving tea.

*

"Careful!" Dorian said with a laugh as John barely managed to keep from dumping the tray as he set it down. "You'll upset the lot. And don't slosh it about so much."

"Okay, what's the trick, then?" John replied in an accent that was a mixture of American and English. He took a seat beside the Earl, an expectant look on his face.

"Oh! Well, your accent's coming along nicely," Dorian grinned. He looked down at the tray. "First of all, you don't carry your own tray. It is brought to you." He motioned with his hands, looking at the invisible servant and nodding. "Thank you, Jeeves, that will be all."

John responded with a grin. "And Jeeves replies, ‘Very good, m'lord.'"

"Spot on." Dorian looked up. "Shall I pour out?"

"Huh?"

Dorian rolled his eyes. "Not huh! You say, ‘Pardon?' you uncouth Colonial!" He went on to mimic the other man's American accent. "I know, whadaya say we just forget this sissy tea stuff and go hava brewski?"

John nearly fell out of his seat laughing. He had to struggle to put on a serious expression again. This took a few minutes to accomplish, much to Dorian's further amusement. "I beg your pardon, your lordship. I didn't understand your question," he said in a perfect imitation of the Earl's voice and accent while wiping tears from his eyes. "Tea would be lovely."

"Top marks! You'll be sounding like you were born on the proper side of the Atlantic before week's end," Dorian joked. Then he broke into a dazzling smile.

*

Klaus paused the recording. He sat staring at the image of the Earl, his smile lighting up his whole face. It was a smile he had seen more times than he could count. Then he realized he had not seen it once since the day he sneaked into the man's bedroom more than a year ago. At that moment, it occurred to him how desperately he missed Eroica's maddenly carefree air and brilliant smile. A smile that was now gone forever except in these few precious recordings.

They didn't just steal your life, did they, Dorian? They stole your smile, killed your spirit. Destroyed your soul. Klaus closed his eyes, putting his head in his hands. And I helped them do it.

Once again, he found himself mourning the loss of a man who never existed.

Would the pain never go away?

* * *

Castle Gloria
Late July 2003

Dorian sat in the garden surrounded by the beauty he thought he would never enjoy again. A beauty dulled by the events of the past year and the knowledge of how much of his life he had lost--or more accurately, had been taken from him. He had toned down his wardrobe from what he had worn over the past twenty-five years. Somehow, it just didn't suit him anymore. He couldn't quite get up the energy to carry off the over-the-top Earl of Gloria. Too much of it felt fake, manufactured...not him

The art thief Eroica would go on, of course, without interference from the intelligence community. Even now, his family of thieves were happily planning another job. Elsewhere, the United States had escalated things in the Middle East, invading Iraq in March, escalating its "War on Terror," and probably still covering up its blunders along with all the other countries involved. No one would bother them. Not if they wanted to keep a lid on things. The world was an unstable enough place as it was without adding more fuel to a fire that was already burning out of control.

Dorian turned to look at the setting sun, the sky afire with its glow. How many times had he sat in this very spot looking west and wondered about Klaus? Where he was and what he was doing? He had thought it to be just a part of the job. The assignment. Keeping track of NATO. Just how much of it was himself? The real Dorian. The lost Dorian.

"Oh, hell," Dorian moaned, closing his eyes, a trembling hand brushing away a stray tear. He had promised himself a dozen times over that he was going to stop dwelling on this. Several minutes later, his watch beeped the hour. A few seconds after that, a hand gently touched his shoulder. He gave a small smile. "Right on time, Bonham."

"Not Bonham."

Dorian nearly jumped out of his skin at the unexpected and familiar voice of Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. He looked up, his eyes wide. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

"You win," Klaus said calmly.

Dorian found words still would not come, the scene from more that a year ago returning vividly to mind. The man sneaking into his bedroom in the middle of the night to say those very words to him.

Klaus cocked his head to one side. "I've been watching the recordings you made for the CIA."

"Oh," Dorian managed to squeak out. "And...?"

"And I suddenly realized why you always irritated the shit out of me."

Dorian checked himself before making a ridiculously "foppish" remark on this. No, that was the programmed Dorian. That's not me. "I though we'd established that already. It was part of the act."

Klaus shook his head. "No. It's because none of it added up. There was Eroica; an incredibly competent thief. The best in the world. And then there was the public persona; the Earl of Gloria; a selfish, self-centered, narcissist who would do stupid, thoughtless, childish things just to piss me off. But somewhere in all that there was this incredibly brilliant, courageous individual who would put himself in danger for no other reason than to help me."

Dorian opened his mouth only to close it again.

"It wasn't a shallow, selfish bugger who faced down Mischa the Cub with a gun he thought was empty. Or got onto a hijacked airplane to drug everyone onboard. Someone as vain as you claimed to be would never put themselves in a position to die over a painting, however exquisite it was supposed to be. It didn't make sense until you told me you were CIA. A trained CIA agent wouldn't think twice about putting themselves in danger. But it couldn't've been that, either, could it? You were never CIA."

Dorian got to his feet to face the other man, but still found himself at a loss for words.

"It was you, the real you, fighting through all the layers. The real Dorian." Klaus drew a deep breath. "The Dorian...I fell in love with."

There was a long silence as Dorian thought this over. "God...how do I respond to all that?" he said at last. "I don't know..." how I feel. If I can--if I do--love you. Apparently, Klaus sensed this, the pained look returning to his dark green eyes. It was like a knife through Dorian's heart. No, I never want to see that haunted look again. He took Klaus's face in his hands and kissed him. Then he hugged the German for all he was worth. "Damn you for making me-- Oh damn, I don't know what I feel. I just know, when you said good-bye, I died inside."

"Serves you right, you bloody nuisance."

This was spoken in such a gentle tone that Dorian could not help but laugh. He stepped back and broke into so brilliant a smile that Klaus was sure he felt his heart stop. Or was that just the world starting up again?

"I still don't know who the real Dorian is."

Who the fuck cares, you're smiling again! "Dorian..."

"No, now you listen to me," Dorian said firmly. "It's just as you said. The man who professed his undying love and devotion to you was a lie. A fake. An illusion. I said the words, but didn't...feel it."

"Didn't you?" came the challenging reply. "Bonham very astutely pointed out to me that you are still the same person physically. There are things you did that couldn't possibly have been part of your mission."

"Klaus..."

"The real Dorian was always there, buried beneath the layers. I saw it in those recordings." Klaus paused a beat before saying hesitantly, "I'd...like to help you find him."

Dorian blinked. "I thought you said--"

"Forget what I said, I was being an idiot."

This brought a second dazzling smile to Dorian's face. "I could almost say it was all worth it just to hear you admit that."

"Almost?"

"I think that would be the other Dorian taunting you."

This actually brought a smile to Klaus's face.

"You really want to do this?"

"If you'll let me."

This time it was Dorian who felt his heart stop. "We might have to travel all over the world in this search..."

"I'm not doing anything at the moment."

Dorian's eyes lit up. "What if it takes years?"

Klaus put a hand under the Earl's chin and leaned in close. "I don't care if it takes a lifetime," he said before kissing him very tenderly on the mouth.

Dorian put his arms around the man, giving a contented sigh when he was hugged back. He turned to look at the glowing sky, slipping one arm around Klaus's waist and leaning his head against his shoulder. "Let's start...hmmm?" He pointed at random. "That way."

"Why that way?"

"Why not?" Dorian gave Klaus a playful look. "You have a better suggestion?"

Klaus turned back to the house and pointed at the Earl's bedroom. "How about that way?"

*

There are certain Laws of Nature that remain immutable.

The sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Gravity is a one-way proposition. Death and Taxes are inevitable.

Dorian Red Gloria, the Earl of Gloria, whose smile can rival the sun, will continue to be the most fashionable and carefree homosexual the jet-setting world has ever known until the day that he dies.

And Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach, formerly of NATO, will remain steadfastly at his side until the day that he dies.

These are the Laws of Nature.

These laws cannot be broken.

- The End -

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