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The Greater Prize

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"This is all your fault, you imbecile!" The Major glared at him with eyes that really would be such a pretty shade of green if they were just a tad less stormy right now. Dorian lounged back on the surprisingly comfortable carpet and wondered how best to encourage the Major to join him. Surely all that pacing was just wasting his energy. He'd be much more comfortable down on the floor with Dorian.

Probably with less clothes on, as well. That suit jacket looked heavy. At least the trousers were pleasingly form-fitting, so there was one advantage to the pacing even if it was making Dorian feel dizzy.

"Now, Major, I hardly think that's very fair," he said. "I was under the impression you required my help. Of course I came running to assist you."

The Major whirled around - what a shame - to face him again. "Why on Earth would you believe I had sent you a note to meet me at a manor house in the middle of the night?" he demanded.

He gave a mild shrug. "I thought perhaps you might have given in at last." Hope sprang eternal. Nonetheless, Dorian hurried on, as he sensed the fury building. "And besides, it's well known that Doctor Howard was both a paranoid eccentric and an avid art collector. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me that you should call on my expertise to find whatever secrets he left behind when he died." Indeed, despite James's wailing at the lack of any clear mention of compensation, Dorian had jumped at the chance with a song in his heart, delighted that the Major was finally showing signs of acknowledging the value of his expertise.

"Well, it wasn't me, it was the KGB!" the Major roared.

Yes, and hadn't that been an unpleasant surprise. To expect the dashing Major von dem Eberbach and be faced instead with the lumpen form of Mischa the Bear Cub, was, Dorian felt, the kind of disappointment that a man could take a long time to recover from. Still, it had its compensations... "And then you came to rescue me," he said, resting his chin on his laced fingers and smiling up at the Major.

He only glowered still more deeply in return. "I did no such thing. My mission is to stop Howard's chemical formulas from falling into the KGB's hands."

"And a very fine job you're doing of it too," Dorian said archly. The Major might scorn him for having been taken in by the KGB's deception, but he hadn't exactly avoided their snares himself. Of course, if he would just admit that he'd been distracted by his concern for Dorian's safety...

That last barb might have been a shade too far; the Major went purple and swung back to attack the door of their makeshift prison with a renewed violence that was really rather impressive, but also somewhat alarming inside a confined space.

"That won't get you anywhere," Dorian said. "The good doctor clearly designed his bolthole to be impregnable." After the Major had arrived and they realised their attempts to secure Dorian's cooperation were going nowhere, the KGB had locked the two of them in this drawing room while they attempted to solve the mansion's mysteries by themselves. Dorian didn't rate their chances very highly. The KGB were boors and philistines, incapable of understanding the intricacies of a mind that had appreciated such beautiful artwork.

As, rather tragically, was his manly Major. "He designed a bolthole, and then filled it with crap," he said, waving a disdainful hand at the series of small paintings that lined the walls. "What's the point of all these stupid little paintings of things on tables? Why not have something useful, like maps? Or at least some nice pictures of tanks. He was a military man. Why's he want to look at fruit?"

Sometimes Dorian despaired. "Major, a good still life is about more than just objects," he said. "It's about composition, colours, the subtle interplay of light. It can evoke a mood, a sense of place... you can almost feel the warmth of the sun, taste the zest of the lemons."

The Major wrinkled his face up, squinting at the nearest picture for a few seconds.

"Just looks like fruit to me," he said.

Dorian sighed and turned his back on him, studying the paintings himself. Not the highest examples of the art, certainly, nothing that he would ever trouble himself to steal, but still pleasing to the eye - although, really, that picture of grapes one from the end didn't fit with the rest of the set at all. The lighting was colder, the colours much more harsh and far bolder than the subtle warm tones of the other paintings. It might look perfectly fine on its own, but it would take an eye as blind to composition as the Major's to hang it here alongside the others.

In fact, it was really rather curious... Ignoring the Major's futile attempts to break apart one of the sturdy cabinets, Dorian drifted forward, and lifted the painting of the grapes off of its hook.

Behind, there was a small hole in the wall, and inside that when he groped downwards a little, a metal lever.

He supposed he could have alerted the Major to his find, but really, it was much more satisfying to press the lever down and hear the click as the whole of the wood panel below popped out from the wall.

The Major spun around, trained senses on alert. "Open it slowly!" he barked as he saw what Dorian had uncovered. "There could be booby traps."

Dorian could have considered that an affront to his professional expertise, but he chose to smile sweetly instead. "It's nice to know you care, Major," he said.

That won him a wholly predictable scowl. "I don't want your corpse blocking the exit," the Major said.

Well, really. "Perhaps you had better go first, then," he suggested brightly.

The Major's eyebrows lowered. "I don't trust you behind me," he said. He prodded Dorian on towards the crawlspace.

"All right, all right." This wasn't the sort of poking he would prefer to receive. Brushing his hair back, Dorian ducked down to enter the space behind the wall.

To his amusement and delight, there was a proper secret passage behind the panelling, large enough to walk upright although it was a tight squeeze to fit his shoulders. This house was itself a work of art, and one he thought the Major should appreciate, constructed as it was with an eye towards secrecy and fortified defences.

Not that he could be induced to do any appreciating when there were KGB agents about. "Get on with it," he snapped, pressing rather delightfully close behind in the narrow space. He smelled pleasantly masculine with just a hint of perspiration and the ever-clinging aroma of his foul cigarettes - which, like many other things about the Major, were far too strong for Dorian's usual tastes, yet were somehow growing on him all the same.

He was jolted out of the beginnings of a rather pleasant daydream by a brusque shove in the back. "Move faster!" the Major commanded. "The KGB cannot be allowed to get to Doctor Howard's research before NATO."

"They don't have a hope of finding anything without my assistance," Dorian said. Mischa and his men had even less appreciation for beauty than the Major. "And your military stomping is only likely to draw their attention to this passage."

They crept on, until Dorian's educated fingers found a change in the texture of a small patch of the passage wall. "There's something here," he said, and was rewarded with the Major's impatient breathing on the back of his neck as he groped around until he found the hidden mechanism. Another panel popped open, this one apparently the false backing to an ornate fireplace. "After you, Major," he said, gesturing to the room beyond. "I'm sure you'll want to be first in case the KGB are lying in wait."

The fact that afforded Dorian a rather magnificent view as the Major crawled out on his hands and knees ahead of him was of course a mere bonus.

Dorian followed him out into a neglected looking study, smaller and rather shabbier than the one on which the KGB had concentrated their search efforts earlier. There were no exterior windows, and the door was closed and locked from the inside.

The Major's thoughts had followed the same arc. "This must be Doctor Howard's real office," he said. "Just like the KGB to get distracted by whichever room looks flashiest. That's probably why they thought it was good idea to bring you along."

"You would still be in that drawing room if it hadn't been for me," Dorian said. "A philistine like you would never have noticed something was off about that picture." From the sounds of Russian voices and minor thumps and bumps along the corridor, the KGB had yet to take notice of their escape, but their search efforts would bring them to the room of this door soon enough, and the fact it was locked was sure to arouse their interest.

The Major grunted. "Anybody can look behind a picture," he said, moving to lift the nearest off the wall.

Dorian winced at the careless way he let the corner of the wooden frame clunk against the edge of the desk. "Major, do be careful - some of these works of art are priceless." Despite the unassuming appearance of the room at first glance, he'd spotted pieces that looked considerably more valuable than the pleasing but undistinguished works that adorned the manor's other rooms.

"Really?" The Major sniffed dubiously. "Which one's the most expensive, then?"

Dorian glowered, appalled. "Major, you can hardly quantify-"

"I'll bet it's this one," he said, moving towards the largest frame in the room, a painting of a galleon on storm-tossed seas that hung above the fireplace they'd emerged from. Dorian hadn't spotted it when they'd entered through the secret passage, but it would be the first thing that anyone's eyes fell on when they came in through the door - and that made his thieving instincts suspicious.

"Wait, Major!" he said in alarm. "I'm not sure-"

But he'd already heaved the weighty frame away, and as something behind it gave a mechanical click, Dorian dived to tackle the Major to the floor. Something swooshed over their heads - darts? - and he pressed both their bodies closer to the carpet.

The Major didn't appreciate it, flailing a hand at him. "Get off me, you... unngh." The groan was, sadly, not that of a man overcome with lust, but rather sudden wooziness. As the Major clutched his head, Dorian saw that one of the flying darts had managed to strike him in the shoulder.

Abruptly worried, Dorian rolled him over onto his back to check if there were more. Only the one - but one might be enough. He plucked the dart out and wrapped it in a handkerchief, careful not to touch the point, then began to unbutton the Major's shirt.

That roused him enough to struggle. "What are you doing?" he demanded. "Get your hands off of me, you pervert!" Fortunately, or perhaps not, it seemed he was too breathless to quite muster his customary bellow.

Dorian could hear the KGB crashing and banging as they searched one of the rooms just along the corridor. "Major, you need to be quiet," he whispered, tugging the collar of the Major's shirt open only to find a thick, long-sleeved undershirt beneath. Such a ridiculous prude - but on this occasion it might be to his advantage. Ignoring the increasingly panicked look in the Major's fever-bright green eyes, Dorian pulled the undershirt away from his shoulder to inspect the wound beneath. Barely a pinprick, but there was no way of knowing what the darts had been coated with.

And no time to admire the Major's lovely physique, more was the pity. Dorian let the Major's shirt fall back into place and leaned over him to keep his attention.

"Major, you've been drugged," he said. "Probably one of the doctor's special formulas." Hopefully intended to incapacitate for interrogation rather than a deadly poison, but they couldn't assume. "We need to get you out of here and back to your men."

The Major folded his arms defensively across his chest as soon as Dorian let him go, but he managed to muster a squinting echo of his usual glare. "We must find Doctor Howard's research notes!" he insisted.

Dorian glowered back. "You and your stubborn obsession with your missions." He doubted the Major even knew the exact nature of the research he'd been sent to retrieve, yet he still wouldn't rest until he'd done his superiors' bidding. All the same, Dorian rose to his feet, professional instincts coming to the fore. The microfilm that held the notes was almost certainly concealed in this room somewhere, but he doubted the darts were the only trap. A wrong move could have dangerous consequences.

And they were very tight on time. He winced a little as he heard the crash of the door to the next room being thrown open. "Major, we really ought to leave," he warned.

Despite having turned quite grey in the face, the Major was already making the effort to sit up. "Find the microfilm!" he snapped. He really did have the constitution of a tank.

Dorian scanned the room quickly for inspiration. More paintings, but none stood out to his eye. A cabinet with a really quite impressive selection of antique snuff boxes, silver, gold, painted porcelain...

But wait - what on Earth was that cheap tin cigarette case doing in among the finest pieces in the set? A collector with the eye to assemble such a valuable array would surely never have made such a mistake.

Smiling in self-satisfaction, Dorian strode over to pluck the tin from the shelf. He opened the hinged lid and found it to be full, at first glance, of what looked like ordinary cigarettes; on closer inspection, however, it was clear that one of them was a cleverly made fake.

He turned around with a flourish. "Major, I do believe I've found your-"

That was when somebody rattled the outer door of the room. "This door is locked," a man's voice said in Russian, right outside.

"Then break it down, you idiot!" Mischa shouted, from somewhere further off in the house.

Dorian swallowed. "I think perhaps it's time for us to leave," he said.

The Major hadn't moved from where he'd hauled himself up into a sitting position on the floor. His eyes were open, but staring at nothing. Had the drug induced some form of paralysis?

"Major?" Dorian leaned over him. The Major showed no sign of being aware of his presence. Dorian leaned down further, trying to meet his downturned gaze. "Major?"

Still no response. And since, well, he was in temptingly close range of those slightly parted lips, perhaps if he was to lean in just a little more...

"Waugh!" Before Dorian could fully close the distance the Major snapped out of his trance, overbalancing backwards in his haste to jerk away. "What are you doing, you degenerate?" he demanded.

"I thought perhaps you might need the kiss of life," Dorian said.

"From you it would be the kiss of death!" He struggled to stand, though he was obviously dizzy and still weak; Dorian helped pull him to his feet, slinging an arm around his shoulders for support. The wide and panicked eyes that met his would have been quite delightful to savour in less pressing circumstances.

"Major, you need to move," he said. "The KGB are coming." His words were punctuated by a heavy splintering thump against the outside of door.

"I can do it without your help," the Major insisted, but he didn't try very hard to escape from Dorian's supporting arm as they hastened towards the passage in the fireplace. His movements were atypically clumsy and off-balance, and he almost fell as he ducked down to pass under the mantelpiece.

Another hard blow struck the door, and this time the makeshift battering ram broke through one of the wooden panels. Dorian gasped in horror as he realised Mischa's thugs were using a marble bust to do the job. "Those men have no shame," he hissed as he followed the unsteadily wobbling Major into the secret passage.

"Funny thing for you to accuse somebody else of," the Major muttered, the almost conversational tone at odds with the remark. He appeared to be somewhat out of it from whatever kind of drug had tipped the dart, and Dorian would have enjoyed the chance to test the limits of this new more compliant Major had they not been in a definite hurry. As he leaned back to grab the secret panel and press it back into place, the door burst open and two hulking KGB agents smashed into the room.

Fortunately, they were surprised enough to see him that it took them a moment to go for their guns. "The thief has escaped!" one of them shouted. "He's going up the chimney."

It appeared that Mischa too was plagued by the curse of dim henchmen.

Unfortunately, the Bear Cub himself was a more dangerous prospect. "Then Iron Klaus is with him!" he shouted from outside the room. "Don't let them escape!"

Dorian yelped as the first bullet struck the fireplace, and scrambled to shove the rear panel back in place. It wouldn't hold them long now they knew that it was there; he could only hope this passageway led somewhere other than back to the room where they'd first been held prisoner. He moved away- and tripped over the slumped form of the Major, currently sitting on the floor. The darkness of the secret passage seemed to have had a soporific effect, since he only gave a grumble in protest.

"Major, we have to move," Dorian said urgently, hauling him up. "I can't carry you in here." There wasn't even room for them to walk side by side together; the Major would have to propel himself. "On your feet, soldier," he tried, in his best gruff bark.

The Major gave a little huff of a snort. "You'd never make an officer," he said, but he allowed himself to be prodded up and on.

"I managed a perfectly fine impersonation of you, if you recall," Dorian reminded him, laying his hands on the Major's broad back to urge him forward.

"No discipline," the Major mumbled, his German accent becoming more pronounced as his tongue tripped on the less familiar sounds. "Never- never do what you're told..."

"Oh, I'm sure I could be quite obedient, given the right incentive," Dorian said. While he admittedly preferred being the one who gave the orders, it was always worth considering the value of the prize that could be won by being just a little flexible.

"Ha!" the Major said, but whatever thought was to have followed that was lost in his daze. "Light," he said instead, and Dorian thought perhaps he might have started to hallucinate before he too spotted the tiny glint of moonlight through what seemed to be some kind of a peephole. This must be the escape route from the house.

"Major, I need to squeeze past," he said, suiting words to deed. They had little time to lose; if the KGB hadn't already broken through into the secret passage, they'd would manage soon enough.

"What?" the Major said muzzily, leaning back against the wall but seeming more bemused than outraged by the close press of Dorian's body in the darkness. "What are you doing?"

Dorian patted him in passing, sadly only on the arm. "Don't worry, Major, your virtue is safe." For the moment, anyway; the more exciting possibilities of being trapped alone in a dark space had rather a damper thrown on them by the presence of angry Russians on their tail He heard a clatter and a triumphant shout from off along the passageway; yes, very definitely time to leave.

He ran his fingers over the seemingly solid brick wall ahead of them. A few small notches in the brickwork, nothing obvious, but if he was to press here, here and here... Aha. He smiled in triumph as a whole section of the wall popped out, revealed as merely wood covered by a thin layer of brick cladding. "Time to make good our escape, Major," he said.

His moment of triumph was a tad spoiled by the fact that the Major appeared to have fallen asleep on his feet, and needed an urgent shake to be got moving again. Dorian could hear the Russians groping along the dark passageway behind them. Hopefully once the escape hatch was replaced, it would take them a while to figure out the technique to open it - they wouldn't smash through this one quite so easily.

The passage emerged into a shadowed corner surrounded by shrubs, the irregular shape of the mansion acting in their favour when it came to providing cover - no doubt exactly as its owner had designed.

"Come on, Major." Dorian offered a supporting shoulder again, conscious of both the lack of protest and the increasing weight of the man leaning against him. "How did you get here?" he asked. He'd foolishly let his own men drop him off without transport back, hoping he could impose on the Major's hospitality.

"Mercedes," the Major muttered through gritted teeth. "Side gate."

"Ah, of course." The Major would never stoop to driving an inferior, non-German car, even for the sake of better camouflage.

Truly uncompromising in every way - that was his essential nature. Even now, clearly woozy from the effects of the drugged dart, he remained on his feet, refusing to commit too much of his weight to Dorian's support and staggering across the darkened grounds by sheer willpower. Behind them there were shouts and the first signs of torches beginning to sweep the grounds, but by now they were far enough from the main building to evade the pursuit.

They reached the gate, and Dorian leapt nimbly over the top, turning back to haul the Major up after him - with some difficulty. "How can a man without an ounce of fat on his body manage to weigh quite so much?" he wondered aloud. Really, it was a crime that the Major insisted on wearing those boxy suits, concealing what must be some truly astonishing musculature.

But admiring the Major's lines would have to wait; right now Dorian found himself developing an all new appreciation for the sleekly practical shape of the Major's dark Mercedes as he spotted it concealed under the trees. There was much to be said for making a bold statement with a red Ferrari or a Porsche, but sometimes it really was better to blend.

Dorian hastened towards the waiting car, hoping the Major had left the keys in the ignition ready for a quick escape. He hauled the passenger door open-

And heard the click of a gun very close behind his head. "That's far enough, Comrade Eroica."

Dorian stepped away slowly, raising his hands and turning to face the looming bulk of Mischa the Bear Cub. He was flanked by two more of his KGB goons armed with guns and bearing torches. They must have headed straight for the car while the others were trying to break through into the secret passage.

"Remarkably careless of the great Iron Klaus to leave his getaway vehicle so easily found," Mischa said. "Perhaps you were in a hurry to rush to the aid of your partner in crime here?"

"What a touching thought," said Dorian.

Apparently even Mischa realised that the lack of any protest from the Major at that wasn't right. He shone his torch into the Major's face. "Nothing to say? Does the cat have your tongue? Perhaps I should have my men loosen it," he said.

"He's been drugged," Dorian said. "One of the booby traps in the Doctor's office."

"'m awake," the Major insisted unconvincingly, dragging his hanging head up with what looked like a great effort.

Mischa's smile broadened. "Ah," he said. "Perhaps the job of softening up has already begun. Doctor Howard was well-known for his research into making captives... cooperative." He abruptly grabbed the back of the Major's hair, yanking his head up with cruel force. The Major met his eyes, but his own were looking distinctly glazed. "Major. Where is the formula?" Mischa demanded.

The Major set his jaw stubbornly. "Not... telling you," he managed.

"You're confused, Major," Mischa said more softly, in excellent German. "This is urgent. NATO needs that formula to save lives. Every second counts. You've retrieved it for us, but your mission isn't yet complete. Tell us where it is."

"It's Mischa, Major, he's trying to confuse you," Dorian warned, and received a thump in the stomach from one of the KGB goons' guns for his trouble.

"Eroica is trying to steal the formula from us," Mischa pressed on. "You have to tell us where it is so we can protect it. Where did you hide it?"

The Major blinked and focused dazedly, wrinkling his forehead in a vague approximation of his usual scowl. "Damn... thief," he mumbled.

"Yes!" said Mischa forcefully. "He's a thorn in our side. He's after the formula. Tell us where it is so we can keep it safe from him."

The Major blinked some more, seeming to take several moments to come up with a word. "...Cigarette," he said.

Mischa frowned in confusion. "What?" he demanded.

"He wants a cigarette," Dorian said quickly, before the Major could compound his drug-induced slip. "I doubt he'll stay conscious much longer without one." He opened the tin cigarette case that they'd retrieved from Doctor Howard's study and deftly plucked out the fake one containing the microfilm. "Let me just light it for you." Before any of the KGB agents had the chance to protest, he leaned into the car, ostensibly to reach the cigarette lighter. A little sleight of hand would safely hide the microfilm and swap it for a normal cigarette...

But then he glimpsed a greater prize, taped underneath the dashboard.

Oh, Major. Never change.

Dorian yanked the gun free from the binding tape and rolled back out with it pointed towards the KGB. "Let him go!" he said. "Or I warn you, I'll-" He flinched as he accidentally discharged a bullet into the ground. "Oops." He hadn't realised that the pistol didn't have a safety on. "Er, terribly sorry. I'm not quite sure how-" Everyone ducked as he turned the gun over in his hands to squint at it more closely.

Well, everyone except the Major. The gunshot seemed to have startled him awake, and he focused on Dorian with a budding scowl. "What are you doing, you lunatic? You'll kill us all."

"Well, I'm sorry!" he said, spreading his hands. A KGB agent yelped and dived into a bush away from the swinging pistol. "You know I'm not good with weapons. But since you're under the influence-"

The Major stepped forward to snatch the weapon from him. "I'm a better shot under the influence than you are fully sober!" he said. He swung around, with something of a dizzy lurch, to aim the gun at Mischa and his men. "Throw down your weapons!" he ordered. "If any of you move, I'll shoot."

All three KGB agents heaved sighs of relief as they complied, which Dorian thought was very uncharitable.

"You won't make it far in your condition," Mischa told the Major with a thin smile. "What makes you think your pet thief won't betray you? I can make him a very handsome offer."

"Ah, but I'm afraid that can't compare to a very handsome officer," Dorian said, patting the Major's shoulder.

The Major's eyes widened in alarm. "Don't say things like that!"

Dorian hopped back into the car and slid across to the driver's seat to start the engine. "Major, I suggest you get in before you fall down," he advised.

The Major looked briefly as if he was considering taking his chances with the KGB, but then he got into the passenger seat. "Drive," he barked. He kept the weapon trained on Mischa through the window as the car bumped away along the gravel track, until the KGB men were out of sight.

As soon as they were round the first corner, however, he sagged, letting the weapon fall into his lap. Dorian eyed it as he drove. "Perhaps you'd better put that thing away," he suggested. "We wouldn't want you to shoot off any vital parts."

"It's safer in my hand than within your reach," the Major said, but he wearily dragged himself back upright to tuck it into the glove compartment.

"Where are you meeting your men?" Dorian asked him. "Back at the hotel?"

No answer. He glanced sideways, and saw that the Major was already asleep, strong features highlighted by the spill of the streetlights as they returned to the main roads.

A gesture of trust, he was sure; exhausted or not, the Major would have forced himself to stay awake if he thought he was among enemies. For a moment, Dorian's mind danced with schemes: he could spirit the Major away to his castle, investigate just how much of that drug remained in his system and what rather more personal secrets he might be induced to reveal...

Instead he took the turning off towards the hotel, and parked the Mercedes in a darkened bay in the rear corner of the car park. Then he honked the strident horn until he saw a silhouette that looked like Mr A appear in the window.

The Alphabets would soon come hurrying down to retrieve the sleeping Major and the vital information he carried. Dorian drew the fake cigarette containing the microfilm and placed it carefully into the Major's sleeping palm, curling his long fingers around it. Remembering the wrapped up dart that had conveyed the unknown drug, he tucked that into the Major's pocket too.

Neither action did anything wake him. It was tempting, so tempting, to steal a chance to kiss those thin but most inviting lips while their owner remained so dead to the world...

Ah, but where would be the fun in that?

Instead, as he heard the hotel door bang, signalling the approach of the Alphabets, Dorian drew one of his calling cards from his inner pocket and pinned it to the Major's tie: proof that he had not been dumped here by his enemies, but returned safely as a benevolent gesture.

From Eroica, with love.