James balanced precariously in a tree, trying to work up the courage to try for the window just a few feet away. You've done this before, he reminded himself. Sure, you had Lord Gloria with you the last time, but… He couldn't think of anything particularly reassuring, so he just let the thought hang. It would all work out. It had to.
The diminutive accountant had no idea what had made him agree to this. He'd sworn years ago never to bet unless it was a sure thing, and even then, not to bet money. But Jonesy had been teasing and mocking and bothering and finally had bet James five pounds that his latest ingenious moneymaking scheme (a new method of alchemy) would fall through. James just knew it would work, but rather than risk his precious money, had agreed to do whatever Jonesy asked of him if he lost. And he had lost, spectacularly. (He still felt sure it would have gone perfectly if only Lord Gloria had allowed him to construct a proper athenor, but no matter…)
Jonesy, the bastard, had grinned an evil grin and sent James off to Germany, on a mission to break into Schloss Eberbach and bring back a "souvenir" as proof of his success. James had hoped that Lord Gloria might offer to come along and protect him from the Major; instead, the earl had only laughed and patted him on the head as the poor little Stingy Bug boarded the cargo plane that would bring him within a day's walking distance of the target (if he remembered to jump at the right time, and if his homemade parachute worked). Even now, remembering that pathetic send-off made James sniffle with self-pity.
Well, he'd show them! Even if they didn’t love and appreciate him as they ought, they would at least be made to respect him. He would steal something truly spectacular, something that would have the whole gang slack-jawed with disbelief. Particularly Lord Gloria—James couldn't wait to see the look on the earl's face when he returned home bearing The Man in Purple! Never underestimate a Stingy Bug, he thought, we are sly and tricksy creatures! He would keep the portrait until he was satisfied he'd gotten his fair share of adulation; then he'd sell it to the highest bidder.
With fresh determination, James inched along the branch and at last reached the window. A pane of glass was broken and had been hastily patched with cardboard, obviously awaiting proper repair. Perfect! It was a simple matter of pushing the cardboard aside, carefully reaching through to find the latch, and avoiding broken glass on the way in. James felt very proud of himself.
Once inside, after he'd cleared up the evidence of his entry, a quick look around told James he was in a bedroom—but the décor was so impersonal, he couldn't tell whose it might be. There were no paintings or photographs on the walls, no personal papers left sitting around…nothing, in fact, to indicate that the room was even inhabited. He had just begun to think he'd stumbled into a guest room, when he opened the wardrobe to reveal a row of dark suits and a tie rack full of godawful, clashing colors.
"Oh, nooooo…" he groaned. Why here, of all places? He'd hoped to look around a bit, find something small he could carry away, and then make his way down to the gallery for his real goal. Now, closing the wardrobe and running for the door, he decided a better plan would be to finish and leave as quickly as possible. He stuck his head out into the hall to make sure the way was clear and was just about to start off when he heard loud, heavy footsteps on the stairs. Panicking, James ducked back into the room and headed for the nearest shelter he could find—the closet.
The Major's bedroom closet appeared to be sort of a catch-all, like a very large junk drawer, James noted as he crouched down in the back corner. There were boxes containing old toys (not many of those) and schoolbooks, undoubtedly set aside by that very odd butler—James couldn't imagine Uncle NATO being nostalgic for his childhood. In fact, he found it hard to believe he'd had a childhood. It was probably better not to think about that, he decided. There were old clothes, too, a small stack of records (chiefly classical and military music)…and right beside James, a large, unmarked box, newer-looking than the rest.
His face brightened. Perhaps he'd find something worth taking, after all. Kneeling beside the box, he licked his lips and carefully removed the lid.
It was only ten in the morning, but Klaus could already tell this was going to be a hell of a day. He'd worked straight through every weekend for three months, and the Chief had finally insisted he at least take a Sunday off—so here he was, bored at home and sick of being nagged by the butler, when he'd much rather be out doing something interesting and productive and involving a lot of explosions. Free time was bad. It allowed him to think too much.
Klaus hadn't planned to go into his bedroom, but as he passed it in the hall, he felt immediately that something was wrong. Scowling, he stepped just inside the door to look around. Everything was as it should be, but the window…the window was different. As he moved closer, he saw that someone had removed the cardboard patching the hole left by the telephone and replaced it just slightly off-center. I knew I should have repaired this myself! If it had been done sooner… Now he would have to track down this intruder in his home, and it was made all the more frustrating by the knowledge that if only the household staff were more efficient, this never would have happened. The trespasser could be a thief, an assassin, an enemy spy…there was no way to tell. At least I know it isn't Eroica, he mused. He may be an idiot, but he's certainly more careful than that!
Drawing his gun, Klaus began a careful search of the room, looking in the wardrobe, under the bed, behind the drapes, and into the adjoining bathroom before finally making his way over to the closet. Much as he wanted to find the intruder, he fervently hoped there would be nothing amiss when he opened the door. Maybe he's already moved on. There's nothing really worthwhile in there; he's probably in the gallery or rummaging through my study by now. But of course he had to look. Steeling his nerves, Klaus flung the door wide open and gaped at the sight before him: not Eroica, but Eroica's Stingy Bug, kneeling beside the box (that box!) and pawing roughly through its contents. For a moment, the Major was too panicked to move.
James blinked as light flooded his hiding place. God, he'd been discovered—and in the Major's bedroom, of all places! He couldn’t make out the Major's expression from down on the floor, but judging by his posture, the German was incredibly tense, even for him! James just knew he was going to be squished, or maybe shot.
But the accountant's fear was overridden by the surprise and anger he'd felt moments before, when he'd seen what was inside that box. So the Major had been stealing from Lord Gloria—why? He hated him; everyone knew that! And didn't he have any idea how expensive it was to replace silk scarves and catsuits?
Ah, maybe that was the reason. If the Major knew what those things cost in the first place and how, er, enthusiastic some people were in their appreciation of the earl, he might be able to sell them at a very nice profit! Under other circumstances, James would have been surprised and gratified to find that Uncle NATO shared his appreciation of lovely, lovely money. But he'd stolen from Lord Gloria, which was almost the same as stealing from James (after all, he was in charge of the finances), and that just was not on.
So it was James who first broke the silence, indignantly glaring at the Major and waving the scarf in the air. "You're nothing but a big hypocrite! You yell at Lord Gloria for being a thief, and then you go and steal these things from him. And you were going to sell them, weren't you?!"
His outburst jolted Klaus back into action, and he glared down at the tiny invader. "You! Out!" he barked, gesturing with his Magnum. "And put that down!" he snapped as James attempted to surreptitiously stuff the scarf into an inside pocket of his jacket.
The accountant stood and walked out of the closet, pouting. "I can't believe you'd sell Lord Gloria's things on the black market! You just wait till he hears about this; you'll be in so much trouble…maybe he'll send Interpol after you for a change!"
Klaus snarled. "I am not selling anything, you deranged little man. And just what the fuck are you doing in my home? Where's Eroica? I know he must be with you; he'd never send you alone on something like this. Unless he wants me to kill you," he added, as if considering it.
"He does not!" James nearly shrieked. "He may not love me, but he'd never let you hurt me—he needs me!" Face flushed, waving his arms, the Stingy Bug looked ready to come after the Major, relative size and strength be damned!
"One more outburst like that and I'll shoot you." Klaus's ears were ringing. "Now answer my question: where is he?"
James scowled. "He's not here. He and the gang are back home, probably throwing a huge, expensive party and ruining the budget I planned out, laughing at what a great big joke I am."
Klaus was about to interject that James didn't look like a great big anything, when the accountant went on.
"How did you ever get a hold of all that, anyway? All I ever manage to steal is his pants…"
There was suddenly a very strange light in the Major's eyes. "Pants. You…you steal his underwear?"
"Sometimes I do. Sometimes he just gives it to me. He never does it anymore, so I guess he thinks that makes up for it…" James paused as he saw the Major reach into the inside pocket of his jacket. Oh no! He really is going to kill me! But instead of another weapon, the Major pulled out a checkbook.
"For the underwear. How much?"
"Oh. Er…" James was puzzled. "What on earth do you want with the earl's pants?"
Slightly red-faced, Klaus looked up from the check he was writing. For a few seconds, he appeared unable to speak; then he snapped, "I don't want them, you moron—but don't you remember when I said the fate of the world hung on his underwear?"
The accountant nodded, eyes widening. "But I thought it was just that one pair!"
"Well, it isn't! This is an important matter of international security; you'd better cooperate! I know you must have some on you and NATO is prepared to pay; now how much do you want?"
Obediently, James pulled two wadded-up pairs of silk briefs, one red, one blue, from his trouser pocket. "500 marks*," he told the Major. "I won't take any less than that." And even that doesn't seem quite enough, he mused, absently stroking the fabric.
Too impatient to engage in a lengthy and most likely futile negotiation, Klaus tore off the check and practically flung it at the thief, then snatched the underwear away. Gesturing again with his Magnum, he indicated that James should head out the door, but appeared to be pondering something. After a moment, he said, "Why don’t we make an arrangement, Stingy Bug: every couple of months or so, you send me another pair and I'll send you payment."
James briefly wondered if he really should, and whether it wouldn't be nicer to keep the earl's pants all for himself, but the thought of all that wonderful money was just too much. Still, it felt a bit strange… "Shouldn’t I mail them directly to NATO?" he asked.
"NO! I mean, no, that would look suspicious. Best to send them here, instead. And don't post them all from London; people will start to wonder. Of course, the earl mustn't know you're doing this."
"And why not?" James was beginning to grow indignant again. "They're his pants!"
"Exactly," the Major replied. "Too dangerous for him if he knew what was going on. And aren't you always complaining about the size of his life insurance policy?"
The accountant paled. "Oh, no! I won't tell him, then; we can't afford to lose Lord Gloria!" He paused, mulling it over. "All right, Major, I'll do it. But it's going to cost extra up front."
Klaus sighed with resignation, reaching for his checkbook again. "How much?"
"No, not that—what I need is a souvenir."
James was bruised, bedraggled, and limping slightly as he made his way up the winding road to Castle Gloria, yet his face bore a broad grin and he was humming cheerfully to himself. It had all been so much more than worth it! Of course the Major had been resistant at first, and he'd put up quite a struggle—James would be sore for a while, he knew—but he had come around eventually when he saw he had no other choice. And the accountant almost thought the German had rather enjoyed himself, secretly.
He laughed with extreme self-satisfaction. The Man in Purple would have been nice, yes, but it would be even better to see Lord Gloria's face when his little Stingy Bug walked in the door and presented him with a pair of the Major's underwear, taken right off the man himself!
Well, taken off by the Major, in the privacy of the bathroom, and handed over with a scowl and the steely-voiced order to, "Get. The fuck. Out. NOW." But Lord Gloria didn't need to know that!
Nearing the castle, knowing he'd soon be spotted, he decided to play up the limp even more. Let everyone draw their own conclusions. For once, James wasn't going to yell and whine and protest everything they said about him. He was just going to sit there and listen and smile.
* Here I'm (rather arbitrarily, I'll admit) using the 1980 rate of 1.713 DEM/USD, meaning that Klaus has just paid James nearly $300 for two pairs of underwear. Ack.