"REAGAN AND GORBACHEV TO MEET IN REYKJAVIK. Superpowers to negotiate arms reduction."
For at least a week, the front pages of the daily papers had been dominated by speculation about the arms-control talks to take place later in the year between the American and Soviet leaders. For most of that time, an ongoing argument had raged between Agents A and Z about the likelihood of the talks bringing any positive change. The other Alphabets were heartily sick of hearing them.
"No, Z - I stand by what I said." A's voice was firm. "It's too great a change of direction. I can't believe it will succeed."
"Why can't it?"
"Look, the SALT I and SALT II talks about strategic arms limitation went on for years- "
"But with a new Soviet leader in place- "
"Why would you think that would make any difference?"
Z shrugged. "A new leader takes control, takes a fresh approach, and the course of international relations can be altered. It's just a matter of seeing things differently."
"Z, be realistic- "
"All it takes is a moment of insight where a man sees what he has never seen before, and everything he has supposed up until that moment can be changed."
"You're talking like an idealist," A said, exasperated. "You know as well as I do that ideals don't play much part in international relations."
The door burst open, and Major Klaus von dem Eberbach strode through the outer office carrying a bulging manila folder in one hand.
"Z! A! My office! Now!"
The two scrambled to their feet and followed their superior officer, still arguing as they went.
"But A, I think we have to believe great change is possible-"
"I can't agree - history hasn't shown many examples of bids for great change being successful."
The Major nodded at them to take their seats in front of his desk. "What are you two bickering about?"
"These arms limitations talks proposed for later in the year," said Z. "What do you think, Major? Can the talks succeed?"
"For the talks to succeed, they have to take place. There's plenty that can go wrong between now and then."
Klaus dropped the folder onto his desk with a loud slap. He took his seat and paused to light a cigarette.
"So, gentlemen: instructions from the Chief. The three of us are to secure evidence that will lead to the arrest of an arms dealer operating here in Germany. As it happens, whether or not these high level talks you've been arguing about are able to proceed may be affected by the outcome of this mission."
Opening the folder, Klaus lifted out a black and white photograph and placed it on the desk for the others to see.
Agent A frowned. "He looks familiar."
Recognition dawned in Z's eyes. "That's Conrad Fleischer! He's one of a group of business leaders who've been recruited to advise the Government on manufacturing and trade policy. It's in the papers this morning."
"Correct," Klaus said. "Conrad Fleischer. Head of Duisburg Steel International. Well connected, widely respected, wealthy, and a generous donor to good causes. He's also an illegal arms dealer."
Z stared, open mouthed. "But he's going to be advising the Government!" Realising how naïve that sounded, Z closed his mouth and shrank back into his chair.
"Fleischer has been a person of interest to NATO for some time. He's part of an international ring of arms dealers who've been shipping weapons to the highest bidders across the globe for the last five years. They don't seem to favour any particular ideology: if the buyers have the money, they'll sell them the weapons, no matter what their politics."
Agent A frowned. "So why have we waited till now to move against him?"
"Tracking his activities has given us some useful information about dissident networks and where the money's coming from. But the danger posed by letting him continue is now outweighing any value we were getting from watching him, so it's time to shut him down."
Klaus turned to a map hanging on the wall.
"Right now, he's involved in arming an Abkhazian separatist group plotting an uprising in Georgia. The group he's selling to isn't powerful - but when placed in context, his activities have the potential to cause wide-reaching damage. Unrest anywhere in the Soviet Union in the coming months could endanger these nuclear arms limitation talks between Reagan and Gorbachev. If the West is seen to be fuelling discontent in Soviet territories, there'll be accusations of double-dealing. There's enough uncertainty over the talks amongst the old hardliners in the Kremlin as it is. Any perceived loss of control within their own borders will give them the excuse they need to derail the process."
"So an arms deal with an isolated separatist movement could end up posing a threat to international stability," Z remarked.
"Bastards like Fleischer are only interested in their own gain," Klaus said vehemently. "The wider implications of their dirty dealings have no significance to them." He leafed through the file in front of him. "Fleischer's appointment to this Government think-tank is very timely. He's going to be in Bonn for the next two days for meetings with the Minister. While he's busy with that, the three of us are going to pay a visit to his home in Duisburg to see if we can find any hard evidence related to his arms dealing."
A photograph of an elegant mansion was now laid on the desk. "While he's absent from home, the house is going to be empty."
"Wife?" asked A.
Klaus shook his head. "His wife died some years ago. He's never remarried. He's very conscious of projecting an image that's in keeping with his position in industry and society, so in public he plays the part of the respectable widower. In private, he conducts discreet affairs with both men and women - all short term, no connections of any significance. Nobody, for example, that we could rely on for any detailed information about his activities."
"He must keep that well hidden," A commented. "Attitudes are getting more liberal, but captains of industry aren't expected to have same-sex relationships. He'd never have been selected for a government advisory committee if his private life was thought to be unorthodox. Are there any servants living at the house?"
"No, no live-in staff. By day, there are domestic staff who come and go, but by night all's quiet. We can expect a state of the art security system, but once we've dealt with that, getting in should be straightforward. Any questions?"
"Right - back to your desks. Leave the arguments about the peace talks to the academics and journalists and other time-wasters. Our job is to make sure the talks can take place."
* * * * *
Conrad Fleischer's house stood in generous grounds at the top of a low hill. Klaus, Z and A left their vehicle in a side road and approached on foot. The property was isolated; there was little passing traffic; it was a dark night. Conditions were in their favour.
Crouching in the shelter of a grove of trees above the house, they made a last scan of the grounds before moving in.
"Sir!" Agent A hissed urgently. "There's someone over there by the garden wall."
"What! Where?" Klaus trained his night-vision scope on the area A was pointing to.
Who the fuck could that be? Two men - no, three - gathered in the deep shadows under a sprawling oak tree. As he watched, one of the three men stepped to the side where the foliage was sparser. Klaus had a clear view of him as he twisted up his long curly hair and pulled a black knitted cap over it.
"Fucking Eroica! What the hell is he doing here?" Klaus drew his magnum. "We'll have to deal with Eroica before we tackle the house. Come on."
Weapons in hand, the three agents made their way silently toward the other group of intruders, keeping to the dark shadows under the trees. About twenty feet away, they paused, still unseen, and watched as the men conferred together under the oak tree. Eroica was doing all the talking, pointing with sweeping gestures at the house. Klaus recognised one of the thief's companions - Jones, his electronics expert. The other man was unfamiliar. He was younger - small and slight, with sharp, delicate features and ginger hair.
Nodding to his two agents, Klaus stepped out of the shrubbery, his gun raised. "Don't move, Eroica."
The three men under the oak tree froze.
"Why, Major - I didn't expect to meet you here." Slowly, Eroica turned around to face the three NATO agents. He looked extremely displeased.
"It's all right, Rudi," he said quietly to the young man beside him. "The Major likes to intimidate people. The gun is for appearances - he won't use it."
"This had better be a coincidence, thief," Klaus growled.
"I have no idea why you're here. I'm simply going about my business."
Klaus snorted. "Thieving, you mean. I should hand you over to Interpol. Luckily for you, I don't have the time to be bothered with that."
"Major, I'm grateful," Eroica simpered. "You must allow me to show my appreciation."
"Shut it, Eroica. I don't want to listen to your perverted claptrap." Klaus lowered his weapon, and nodded at Z and A, who did the same.
As the Major holstered his gun, Eroica strode across to him, every movement eloquent of barely-contained rage. "Your arrival is most inconvenient, Major-"
"Inconvenient? Convenience is for law-abiding citizens-"
"That's rich! You're about to break into a man's house-"
"Eroica, I will not tolerate your interference in my work-"
"What about your interference in mine? I don't suppose there's any use in asking you to come back tomorrow? No, I thought not."
"That's enough, thief." The man was preposterous - how dare he argue about convenience and interference?
This was a complication Klaus could have done without. He thought rapidly. The best way to keep Eroica under control might be to enlist his help. "All right, since you're here, you can make yourself useful. My men and I need to get into that house. Crack the safe for us, and I might overlook the fact that I found you and your degenerate hangers-on lurking with intent."
Eroica regarded Klaus with mock-puzzlement. "I must be mistaken, Major," he drawled. "I could have sworn you just said you wanted me to crack a safe for you."
"You heard me correctly, Eroica. Since you're here, and since you're likely to fuck up this mission for us if you're left to your own devices, that is exactly what I want you to do."
"But, Major - the last time we worked together you told me you never wanted to see me within fifty miles of you again." Eroica's voice was honey laced with acid. "You said you would rather see me dead in a ditch than have me involved in another mission." He swayed closer to Klaus, muscle shifting fluidly under black lycra, eyelashes fluttering. "Have you changed your mind? That's encouraging. I wonder what else I might get you to change your mind about."
Outraged by the exaggerated parody of flirtation, Klaus scowled. "Don't push it, Eroica. Just crack the safe, and then stay the fuck out of my way."
Eroica smirked. "Can't live with me, can't live without me."
"You'll have to forget about what ever shiny bauble you were planning on stealing, too. I don't want the residents to have any reason to start looking through their possessions to see what else might have disappeared."
Determined not to be seen to give in too easily, Eroica folded his arms belligerently. "All right then, Major. You leave me very little choice in the matter, but since you've successfully wrecked months of careful planning, blundering in with your guns and threats, I'll cooperate. Under protest."
"You have no grounds for protest, thief," Klaus growled.
"Fine, Major. I have no grounds for protest. Whatever you say. But if I'm to help you, I need to know what this is about. Why are you breaking in to Conrad Fleischer's house?"
Realising he would have to put Eroica in the picture if he was going to get him to cooperate, Klaus reluctantly sketched out the facts.
"Fleischer is an arms dealer. He's selling armaments to a dissident group within the Soviet Union. If his interference leads to open rebellion breaking out, the nuclear arms limitation talks between Russia and America may be endangered. We need to shut down Fleischer's operation before that happens."
At the back of the group, Rudi and Jones glanced at each other. Rudi swallowed hard and suppressed a shudder; Jones placed a hand on his shoulder.
"M'lord? Did you know about that?" Jones asked.
Eroica, poker-faced, quelled further inquiry with a look, and turned his attention back to Klaus.
"So what exactly are you searching for, Major? Not weapons, surely?"
"No. Evidence of transactions. Names of his connections - on the supply side as well as the purchasers. Any information that will help us to break the supply chain. We believe any relevant papers will be kept in the safe located in the main bedroom. Our surveillance suggests that the bedroom is in that wing-" He pointed to the eastern end of the house.
"Dear god, Major! ‘Our surveillance suggests'? Can't NATO do any better than that?" Eroica pushed forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with Klaus. "The rooms in that wing are largely unused, except when he entertains. His bedroom - the one with the safe in it - is in the rear section of the house overlooking the sunken garden. Right next to his private sitting room, where he keeps his favourite art treasures."
Eroica smirked again. "What's wrong, Major? Is our intelligence better than yours?"
"We're wasting time. Eroica, Z - come with me. A - stay here and keep a close watch on these other two reprobates. Make sure they don't move-"
"I beg to differ, Major," Eroica cut in sharply. "Rudi's coming in with me. And when we leave the house, Jones will need to go around the other side to re-arm the security system." He checked his tool belt and pulled his cap down lower on his forehead. "Come on, then, Major. The security system is already disconnected. Let's get moving."
Klaus and Z followed the thieves through the shrubbery to the side of the house. Eroica slid the window open and climbed gracefully through, silent and fluid. The boy Rudi followed, as supple and athletic as Eroica. Klaus and Z climbed in after them.
It was immediately obvious that the thieves were very well informed about the layout of the building. Klaus watched the communication between them with interest. They said little to each other, communicating through gesture and touch so effectively that they seemed to be reading each other's minds. Eroica was clearly in command, but he let Rudi guide them through the house to the concealed safe in the bedroom, where Eroica took over and had the safe open within minutes.
Out under the oak tree, Agent A and Jones watched the house, and waited.
"What was that between you and the other one when the Major mentioned arms dealing?" asked A.
Jones looked at A for a long moment. "What do you mean?"
"When the Major mentioned arms dealing. You didn't know that, did you? Eroica didn't know that."
"Why would we? We just dropped in to pinch a picture."
"But why did it matter?" A persisted. "The other one - Rudi, is it? He looked alarmed. What was that about?"
Jones didn't look at A; he kept his eyes trained on the house. "Alarmed? Don't think so. Rudi's new; he's never run into you NATO blokes before. All this spy stuff probably comes as a bit of a surprise. Like I said, we're just here to pinch a picture."
Inside Fleischer's bedroom, Eroica closed the safe.
"Right, Major - now it's my turn. Rudi?"
Klaus seized the front of Eroica's skin-tight lycra catsuit, dragging him close. "What do you mean, ‘My turn'?"
"You've got what you want - now I get what I want. Let me go, Major - Rudi and I have work to do."
Klaus tightened his hold. "You'll do no such thing. Forget it, Eroica. Nothing else disappears from this house. Do you understand me?"
The two glared at each other, their faces inches apart. Klaus could feel Eroica's breath hot on his skin. Eroica smiled, sharkish.
Klaus let go of the handful of fabric. Eroica, still smiling dangerously, didn't move. Unsettled, Klaus stepped back, restoring the distance between them.
They made their way back through the house, Rudi leading, Eroica behind him, Klaus and Z bringing up the rear. Through an open doorway, Klaus glimpsed what must have been Fleischer's private sitting room - spacious, comfortably furnished, the walls hung thickly with paintings. Two paces ahead, Eroica slowed down and glanced into the room.
"Don't even think about it, thief," Klaus hissed.
Eroica gave him an impudent half-smile and kept walking.
They left the house as swiftly and silently as they had entered it. Jones re-armed the security system with Agent A watching over his shoulder. The operation had taken less than half an hour.
Eroica regrouped his men. "Now that you've got what you wanted, Major, and made sure that I haven't, we'll be leaving."
Klaus drew himself up to his full height and glared at Eroica. "No, you won't - you're coming with us, thief. I want the three of you where I can see you, and a long way from this house."
"Where, may I ask?" Eroica bristled indignantly.
"A NATO safe house, about half an hour away. Get into the cars."
"Major, normally I'd be delighted to have an invitation to spend the night with you, but in the circumstances-"
"Get into the cars! Now!"
Eroica glowered at Klaus.
"Then I'll expect you to provide breakfast, Major," he said acerbically.
The safe house was in a nondescript suburban street, unremarkable on the outside, drab and uncomfortable inside. Klaus sat down at the kitchen table with a strong cup of coffee and began reading through the papers they had taken from Fleischer's safe. Eroica brewed a pot of tea, and then prowled around the adjoining sitting room looking for something to read. The others found beds or sofas and tried to sleep.
After a while, Eroica abandoned the three month old magazine he'd been flicking through, drifted into the kitchen and sat down at the table, opposite Klaus.
"I suppose you derive extra satisfaction from having foiled my attempt to rob Conrad Fleischer's house, Major."
Looking up from the sheaf of papers, Klaus frowned at him. "Your thieving is immoral. I disapprove of it."
"That doesn't stop you from using my skills for your own ends, does it?"
"My work is a matter of international security. Assisting me is probably as near to honest work as you ever get."
"Leave aside the insults, Major," Eroica said disdainfully. "I did what you wanted. I cracked the safe. You got your papers. It was a clean hit. I'll wager that nobody will realise there was a break-in until someone opens that safe and finds the papers are missing. You can go home feeling pleased with yourself. For me, tonight represents five months' work wasted."
The thief's usually animated features were set in a hard expression. Klaus had spent eight years getting used to dealing with Eroica; he thought he'd seen all his moods by now. The flirtatious fop he could handle, but this brooding, angry creature of fire and ice was much more difficult to contend with.
"Work? Is that what you call it? You do realise that what you did tonight will lead to hundreds of lives being saved - not to mention stabilising a potentially dangerous international situation? Hardly a waste of time."
"Major, don't tell me you're trying to express your gratitude."
Klaus glared at the thief. If Eroica was in a mood to talk, he wouldn't get any more reading done. He shuffled the papers into a neat heap and stowed them in the backpack leaning against the leg of his chair.
When he'd first met Eroica, Klaus had formed the impression that the man was a frivolous air-head, and his men a chaotic bunch of sycophants - but after a few contacts with them, he'd realised that was all a smoke screen. The thief ran his operations with military precision, and his sources of information were surprisingly good. Driven by professional curiosity, he decided to do some digging.
"How did you know such detailed information about the house?"
"First-hand investigation, Major," Eroica replied. "It's the best, and the most thorough."
Klaus curled his lip. "I suppose you insinuated yourself into the man's home under the guise of friendship. Or as a lover." He spat out the last words with distaste.
Eroica raised an eyebrow. "Save your jealousy, Major. Fleischer prefers redheads." He turned his gaze for a moment to Rudi, who could be seen in the adjoining room sprawled on the sofa, asleep.
"You sent one of your men to seduce Conrad Fleischer? Whored him out so you could steal a picture? You disgust me."
"And NATO never asks its agents to perform such work? Never mind the moral indignation, Major. You and I both use whatever means will bring about the best outcome."
"Fleischer is a ruthless criminal. If he'd realised what that boy was up to-"
Eroica shrugged. "But he didn't. Rudi says Fleischer treated him very well, as it happens, and he didn't suspect a thing. Apparently, Fleischer got quite fond of him. A high-risk strategy, I grant you, but the end justified the means. Fleischer's shady dealings might be distasteful but his art collection is excellent."
Not for the first time, Klaus was struck by Eroica's utter ruthlessness and the loyalty of his men.
"What were you planning to steal, anyway?"
"A painting. St Sebastian, by Guido Reni."
"I might have known. An indecent painting. A naked man."
"Not naked, Major, not entirely. Reni shows Sebastian wearing a loincloth."
"Decency can't be measured solely by the amount of skin on show, Major," Eroica said tartly.
Klaus rolled his eyes. "So what's special about this painting? Surely you have enough naked saints to satisfy you."
"St Sebastian is very beautiful in this painting - dark hair, pale skin, the epitome of male beauty. Reni painted St Sebastian at least eight times during his life, for different patrons. In this one, his body is unblemished - his executioners haven't loosed their arrows yet. He's facing his killers, waiting for death. Every line of Sebastian's body suggests a young man very sure of his destiny - but his eyes give away his inner turmoil. Not so much terror of death as regret that he has suppressed his true self so he could face the sacrifice required of him - a realisation that there was so much more he could have achieved, but he'd relinquished it all when he chose the path of martyrdom."
"Foppish nonsense!" Klaus snorted. "How can you see all that in a piece of canvas with some paint daubed on it?"
Eroica stood up, and cast a disdainful look down his elegant nose at Klaus. "That's all a work of art is to you, isn't it, Major? A piece of canvas with paint daubed on it. I feel sorry for you."
Klaus watched him stalk off into the next room. Eroica was still very angry about having his burglary foiled. Well, serve him right, Klaus thought - I've had to put up with him fucking up my missions, turning up when he's not needed. He didn't dwell on that thought, because it wasn't entirely true. Eroica had become entangled in missions before now, but the fact was that he didn't cause the harm Klaus claimed - in many cases, it was Eroica's skill that secured a successful outcome.
Eroica made Klaus uncomfortable. He'd become used to fending off the man's coquettish passes. Loud abuse and threats usually did the trick. Not that it intimidated the bloody deviant - he often seemed amused by it - but at least it left no doubt in anyone else's mind that Klaus was not interested.
In the adjoining room, Eroica knelt down beside the sofa where Rudi was asleep, arms and legs a-jumble.
"Rudi? Rudi love?" Eroica crooned softly. "Wake up, darling."
Rudi stirred and mumbled, and tried to turn over, but the sofa was too narrow.
"Rudi love, you must be uncomfortable there. Come and find somewhere you can stretch out and get a decent night's rest."
Pulling Rudi to his feet, Eroica wrapped an arm around the younger man's waist and helped him through the doorway that led deeper into the house. The boy was still half-asleep, stumbling over his own feet in contrast to the agility he'd displayed earlier that night.
As they disappeared into the gloom, something ugly knotted itself in Klaus's throat: a sick feeling that was part anger, part pain.
Eroica is taking that boy to bed. He's Eroica's lover.
He didn't want to think about it. He wouldn't think about it.
They were a pair of perverts - they deserved each other. Besides, if Eroica was busy debauching his red-headed lover, then he wouldn't be bothering Klaus.
I'm not going to think about it.
He got up from the table and made another cup of coffee. Could he face reading any more of those papers? He sure as hell wasn't going to be able to sleep. He pulled out the bundle of documents and started leafing through them.
Twenty minutes later, his coffee was gone and he realised he wasn't taking in what he was reading.
It was no good: he couldn't concentrate.
The only way to stop the speculations swirling round his brain would be to see for himself.
Cursing himself every step of the way, Klaus prowled soundlessly down the dim passage to the bedrooms at the front of the house. Glancing into the darkness through the first open doorway, he could barely make out the sleeping forms of Z and A.
He swallowed hard, and approached the second room, dreading what he might see, needing to know. Light from the street leaked dimly through the venetian blind on the high narrow window. There were two beds in the room. On one, he saw a solitary graceful form with abundant blond curls spilling over the pillow: Eroica. On the other bed, lying sound asleep with their arms around each other, were Rudi and Jones.
Klaus retreated to the sitting room. Eroica wasn't sleeping with Rudi after all. The knot in his throat loosened - but he refused to recognise the feeling as relief. Why should he care what those degenerates got up to?
Desperate to shut his mind down, Klaus pulled a cushion off one of the armchairs and stretched out on the floor. He'd slept in more uncomfortable places before now. Disgusted with Eroica and his men, disgusted with himself, Klaus slept fitfully until dawn, when he gave up trying. He woke the others, and the six headed back to Bonn.
Klaus made sure Eroica, Jones and Rudi got on a plane to England before he and his men reported in at Headquarters. He made it very clear to Eroica that he was not to even think about returning to Fleischer's house to steal that painting.
Smiling sunnily, all trace of the previous night's anger gone, Eroica turned wide innocent eyes on Klaus. "Major, we're on our way home. You can be certain that I'll be sleeping in my own bed tonight, dreaming of you. Don't give it another thought."
* * * * *
The papers taken from Fleischer's safe proved to be a goldmine of information, yielding the names of contacts and collaborators, documentary proof of transactions, and information about the movement of arms shipments. Within twenty-four hours, Conrad Fleischer had been arrested, and his operations were being shut down. His house was put under surveillance, in case any of his arms-trading colleagues decided to pay a visit.
After days of interrogation, the uncooperative Fleischer had admitted to very little. Used to getting his own way and using the law to his own advantage, he was making it as difficult as he could for the authorities to build a case against him. However, there was plenty of evidence to show that Fleischer was behind the illegal arms sales. That thought cheered Klaus as he strode down the bare corridor to the interrogation room where the prisoner was waiting for him.
Looking as cool and correct as if he had just stepped out of his air-conditioned limousine, Conrad Fleischer looked up as Klaus entered the room.
"Herr Fleischer," Klaus greeted him with stiff formality. "You are to be transferred tomorrow morning to a high security prison, pending charges being laid."
Fleischer inclined his head in acknowledgement. "I trust that I will be able to consult my lawyers."
"Due procedure will be followed," Klaus snapped. "In the meantime, you might like to know that we have traced your contacts in Georgia, and they're being dealt with. Those shipments won't make it into Abkhazian hands."
"Major, you may have stopped this transaction, but you can't stop the arms trade. Where there is a will, there is a way. Where there are rebels and dissidents, they will find a way to secure armaments."
"You and your kind are parasites, Fleischer, preying on the politically gullible. A few semi-organised, misguided idealists with simplistic ideas - and you'll fleece them for all the money you can get out of them."
"People want freedom, Major," Fleischer said in reasonable tones. "Often they think they can obtain it through force of arms. I am merely answering a demand in the market place."
Klaus glared at him with distaste. "Make no mistake, Fleischer. The German government takes a very dim view of illegal activities detrimental to international security being conducted on German soil. You will be going to prison - for a very long time."
Fleischer regarded Klaus with an expression that looked like pity. "Well, we shall see."
* * * * *
Klaus now made arrangements to travel to London. Fleischer was going to prove a difficult adversary in court; they would need the weight of evidence on their side. If that red-headed boy in Eroica's entourage had spent time in Fleischer's company and had the run of the man's house, he might be able to contribute valuable evidence to NATO's case against the arms dealer. A meeting was arranged at Eroica's London house.
The door was opened by Lord Gloria's butler, whose formal dress and correct manner contrasted with his rakish hairstyle and the jewelled ring winking in his ear.
"Lord Gloria will receive you in his study, sir," the man murmured, and led Klaus down a hallway lined with paintings and tapestries to a room some distance from the street. He knocked quietly and opened the door. "Major von dem Eberbach, my lord," he announced, and melted away silently, closing the door behind him.
The Earl looked up from his desk, smiling warmly. "Good evening, Major. I trust you had a comfortable journey."
But the Major was not looking at him. He was looking at the painting hanging on the wall on the other side of the room.
"What the fucking hell is that?"
The Earl's mouth twitched with amusement as he tried to suppress a grin. "You know perfectly well what it is, Major."
Pure fury surged through Klaus as he stared at the large canvas in the elegant gilt frame. He knew without being told that it was Fleischer's St Sebastian.
"You stole it after all."
"You told me you wouldn't steal it."
"No I didn't. You told me not to steal it - a different thing entirely."
"That house was part of a NATO investigation - under NATO surveillance-"
"Then if I were you, I'd worry about NATO's capabilities in that regard, Major." Rising from behind his desk, the Earl went over to his drinks cabinet and poured a whisky for Klaus and a cognac for himself. "We'd spent months preparing for that job - I wasn't about to walk away from all that effort. Jones had to put in a bit more work to deal with all the surveillance devices your boys had installed after you arrested Fleischer, but it didn't take him long."
Klaus was too livid to speak. He took a large swallow from the whisky the Earl handed him.
In spite of himself, Klaus found that the picture caught his attention and held it. Such a compelling image: a slim youth bound to a post with his arms stretched above his head, his smooth skin creamy-pale, his form lean and lightly-muscled. Klaus could feel the cruelty of the boy's unseen tormentors spelled out in the painful stretch of muscles and the vulnerability of flawless skin.
Sebastian held his chin high, resolutely facing his fate - but his eyes were as Eroica had said: full of regret at the choices he himself had made. Things he had given up before he had even experienced them. Joys and comforts he had pushed away before they could distract him from his chosen purpose.
And for what? So he could die at the hands of pitiless brutes incapable of appreciating the worth of a young life full of potential.
The Earl's voice brought him back to reality. He gulped down another mouthful of whisky.
"The painting is indecent," he snapped irritably, "as I thought it would be."
"If the painting disturbs you, Major, perhaps we'd better have our meeting with Rudi in another room. Follow me - we'll go down to the library."
Klaus drained the last of his drink, and followed the Earl out of the study.
The meeting in the library yielded even more information than Klaus had hoped. Rudi was observant, and had a good memory; he'd used the time spent in Fleischer's company, and in his house, very well.
Together, the Earl and Rudi outlined their early investigations. None of this information about Fleischer was new to Klaus, and it all pertained to his legitimate activities. They'd been thorough and methodical, he noted, but he felt a small glow of smug satisfaction that Eroica had completely missed any information about the man's illegal arms trading. A fellow criminal, too. Eroica didn't know everything.
"The decision to put a spy into Fleischer's house," Klaus said, choosing the most neutral terms to introduce the topic. "How did you arrive at that?"
"We were able to gather plenty of information about his personal life," the Earl replied, "even though he was a fairly private man. His sexuality was an open secret amongst those who knew him well. That seemed our best opportunity to get close to him and gain entry to his house. Someone on the inside could then relay information back to us about the layout of the place and about Fleischer's habits. A business associate of mine who'd done some work in Germany was able to tell me that Fleischer had a particular liking for men much younger than himself, with red hair."
"So I was the obvious candidate," said Rudi.
Keeping his expression neutral, Klaus asked, "How did you put that into action?"
"I can speak German, and I've done a bit of restaurant and bar work in the past, so I got a job as a waiter with a catering company. I got myself sent along to work at a cocktail party Conrad was attending. I flirted with him a bit while I handed round the drinks. He asked for my phone number before he left. As far as Conrad knew, I was an English student who'd taken a year off from my studies to go back-packing round Europe, doing odd jobs to earn some money."
"How long were you involved with him?"
"About six weeks, I suppose, from the time I first met him."
"Did he keep his association with you hidden?"
"No, not really. Conrad didn't advertise the fact that he was bi, but his closest friends knew, and so did the servants. None of them seemed surprised seeing me there when I started spending the night."
"You talked to him about his art collection?"
"I didn't ask about it very much, actually - I didn't want to draw attention to being interested in it - but I didn't have to. He liked to explain all the paintings to me. He was proud of the security set-up, too: he said nobody could get past his alarm system, so his paintings were as safe as they'd be in a museum."
"You knew about the concealed safe in his bedroom."
Rudi nodded. "The safe wasn't really of any interest to us, of course, but I knew about it. At first he didn't ever open it while I was around. Then after a few weeks, he started to relax a bit about keeping things hidden from me, so I got to see where it was."
"You got him to trust you."
"Well - yeah. That was the whole idea. He became quite open about things. One day, he showed me how the security system had been installed in his house! I couldn't believe my luck! You see, I'd told him I was studying architecture, so he used to talk to me about building design and stuff. What he was trying to show me was how they'd restored the plasterwork in the ceilings after they'd installed it - but he explained the lot. It was incredible! Saved Jonesy a lot of guesswork."
At the mention of Jones, Klaus's memory flashed back to the night of the break-in: Rudi's consternation when he heard that Fleischer was an arms dealer; Jones's apparent concern at the danger the younger man had been exposed to.
"You didn't know Fleischer was in the illegal arms trade, did you?"
"No. We didn't know that." Rudi's confident expression wavered for a moment. "If I'd known, I might have thought twice about getting involved with him." He flicked an apologetic glance at Lord Gloria. "I thought he was just a rich businessman - not likely to be dangerous at all."
"You were lucky," Klaus said gravely. "If he'd realised you were spying on him, he most likely would have assumed you were interested in his illegal activities, not his art collection. It might have gone badly for you."
"Yeah, well... Knowing about that makes some of the things I heard make more sense. Conrad took a lot of phone calls late at night; he always went into his study to talk, with the door closed. I didn't think too much about that at the time - I just thought he didn't want to disturb me. He was considerate that way."
"Very well, let's talk about the things you did overhear. Who did he speak to?"
Beginning with the late night phone calls, Rudi began an account of what he had seen and heard of Fleischer's connections. Names, descriptions, addresses of places they'd visited, snatches of overheard conversations - Rudi might have been placed in the house to spy for Eroica, but his observations were going to be invaluable to NATO.
Which is precisely why I stay away from personal entanglements, thought Klaus. Fleischer's weakness for pretty young men had proven to be a chink in his armour - to Klaus's good fortune and Fleischer's own detriment.
By the time Klaus came to the end of his questions, it was nearly midnight.
Lord Gloria stood up. "I'll go and get Bonham to organise some tea and coffee." He smiled at Rudi. "You did well, love. I'm proud of you."
The door closed behind the Earl, leaving Rudi and Klaus to regard each other across the table.
"Didn't you object to being used like that?" Klaus asked.
"Used like what?"
"Ordered into the man's bed so you could spy on him."
Rudi shrugged. "It was the best way to find out what we needed to know. It got me inside the house. The key to a successful robbery is to make it fast and accurate, and to do that, you need information."
"Did Eroica order you to do it? Did he force you?"
"His lordship never forces any of us to do anything we object to."
"You did this willingly?"
Rudi looked at Klaus with a sly, assessing gaze. "You're taking a strong interest in this, Major. Does the idea excite you?" His tongue flicked across the corner of his mouth, insolent and lascivious.
Klaus stiffened. "Don't disgust me."
Rudi smirked knowingly. "Look, Major - whatever you might think, I wasn't unwilling. Sleeping with him didn't bother me. If anything went wrong, I had an escape plan in place - but I didn't need it. He was good to me. He liked me."
The Earl came back into the room, followed by Bonham, who placed a tray bearing tea and coffee on the table and left again without a word.
As they drank, the Earl chatted about inconsequential matters to do with art exhibitions and antique furniture. Klaus hardly listened. Rudi appeared to be taking it in, but as soon as he had finished his tea, he excused himself.
Now it was Klaus and Lord Gloria who contemplated each other across the table.
Sometimes Klaus could almost believe that there was more than one Eroica. The urbane, cordial man he'd been dealing with that evening bore little resemblance to the other Eroicas he knew: the ruthless thief, the flirtatious queer, the flamboyant extrovert, the focused professional. Oddly, Klaus found this one as unsettling to deal with as the others, and he was not sure why.
"Did you get what you needed, Major?"
"Yes. Thank you. Fleischer is going to be a difficult opponent in court. He's well connected and can buy good legal representation. He's as guilty as hell, but that won't count if we can't make our case against him water-tight. The information your man has given will help us a good deal. I appreciate your cooperation."
"Rudi's a good man. He hasn't been with me all that long, but I really don't know how I did without him. He's an excellent burglar - well, you've seen that for yourself. Nerves of steel. There's not much he won't do"
Distaste flashed across Klaus's face. "Such as letting you order him to prostitute himself for the sake of stealing a painting?"
"This bothers you, doesn't it, Major? It's not as if you haven't come across it in your own work - it's a common enough ploy."
"How much choice did he have in the matter?"
"Complete choice," the Earl replied, his expression serious. "He could have refused. He could have pulled out at any time. He chose what he was willing to do. We all choose what we're willing to do, Major."
"If things had gone differently, he might have come to regret that choice."
The Earl inclined his head briefly in agreement. "Choices sometimes do bring regrets, that's true. We have to pay for everything we choose." He looked Klaus directly in the eye. "Whatever we choose to do, whatever we choose to do without - there's a price. Sometimes the price is worth it. The regrets come when we pay too much."
He glanced up at the clock. Half past midnight. "Major, you look tired, and it's late. You should stay here tonight."
"I have a hotel room," Klaus protested.
"Halfway across London! Stay here, Major. We have plenty of room."
Klaus hesitated, as if he half-expected the mask to slip and a different Eroica to emerge - but all he saw was a relaxed and friendly expression, and a genuine offer of hospitality.
"Major, nobody's going to bother you."
"Thank you, Lord Gloria. I accept your invitation."
The Earl smiled at his old-fashioned formality. "Good. I trust you'll be comfortable."
He led Klaus up the stairs and through the spacious upper floor of the house, providing a commentary as they went to help his guest to orient himself.
"My rooms are here." The Earl gestured at the ornately carved double doors to his left as they passed. "The boys have their rooms in the east wing." Another gesture to the right. "There's a drawing room down this way if you want to sit up listening to music or reading." They turned a corner. "Here you are, Major. Your room."
He opened the door, and Klaus stepped through. The room was decorated elegantly but with restraint. He had to admit it looked comfortable.
"If there's anything you need, at any time, just lift the phone and dial 9. There's always someone up to answer it." Lord Gloria smiled: the perfect host. "Good night, Major. I'll see you in the morning."
The door closed. Klaus walked over to the window and pulled back the curtain. Below him, he could see the dark shapes of an enclosed garden and the high wall behind it. The sound of London traffic was muted by the double glazing. He let the curtain drop back into place and stood for a moment with his back to the window.
Crossing the room, he shed his jacket and tie, and sat down on the edge of the bed to kick off his boots. The bedside table had two objects on it: a small black alarm clock, and a book entitled Baroque Art in Italy. The image on the cover was the Guido Reni St Sebastian now hanging in Eroica's study.
Bloody pervert, thought Klaus, I suppose this must be his idea of a joke.
Idly, Klaus picked up the book, and thumbed through the pages to find a clearer illustration of the painting.
Works of art had never interested Klaus. He supposed they could be decorative, if you liked that sort of thing, but he'd always dismissed out of hand Eroica's assertions that painters could communicate abstract ideas through their work. And yet - standing in Eroica's study that evening, he'd seen more in that painting than colour and form. He'd seen, for the first time, what the painter had wanted him to see.
And it disturbed him.
As a child, he'd been brought up on stories of saints and martyrs, and he'd been taught to believe that martyrs all went willingly to their deaths, buoyed up by their faith. Reni's painting told a different story - it showed a martyr whose last moments were full of regret of a very human kind.
What had that young man given up on his path to martyrdom? What would that feel like, to face death knowing you had denied yourself so much?
It shocked Klaus that he could see all this in a picture - in a piece of canvas daubed with paint.
More shocking still was that it showed him a reflection of his own choices. He'd chosen a solitary life. He'd pushed aside friendship and love because, he told himself, they got in the way of doing his duty. He'd suppressed his own desires because he believed they made him vulnerable.
Klaus closed the book and put it back on the bedside table.
Whatever we choose to do. Whatever we choose to do without.
He sat for a few minutes, considering.
Then, he got up and made his way back down the wide hallway, and paused outside the carved double doors.
He raised his hand hesitantly, and knocked.