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.
* * *
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.
"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."
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.
"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."
* * *