A walked through the security checkpoint that he had passed so many times in his life that it's features would be indelibly imprinted on his mind forever. His boot soles clicked and clacked on the ground rhythmically as he walked down the sterile white hallway to the Alphabet Room and his little desk where he had been stationed for so many years now.
The building was quiet. The cleaning crews had long since finished their work, and none of the alphabet had yet arrived, since not even the Major expected any to arrive before 07:00, and it was only now turning 06:00. And yet he was here, walking through empty halls, taking the opportunity as he did each morning to savor the solitude of a place which in a few hours would become so hectic with scurrying workers and harsh shouts from a demanding superior.
Years before, when he had first been appointed to "A" he had made it a habit to come in no earlier than he was expected, and leave no later than he absolutely could, doing his utmost, as most of his coworkers did, to keep as far away from Major Eberbach for as long as possible. It was instinctual in the new members, in fact in anyone who didn't have prolonged contact with the Major. Looking back, A wondered if the old members of the Alphabet who had been there when he joined received the same amusement from watching him quail in the Major's presence as he now did with the new ones he saw.
The first morning he'd had to come early he'd almost thought about resigning from NATO. He'd been unable to finish a report the night before, a report due first thing in the morning, and as a consequence he'd woken up early and finally forced himself into headquarters hours before he thought anyone would be there. He'd been wrong. As he'd turned into the room filled with 13 little double-desks he'd nearly walked straight into Major Eberbach who was navigating through the maze of desks, eyes cast downward as he read a report, a cigarette perched firmly between his lips. Without pausing, barely looking up, the Major had avoided him, and muttered a civil, "Herr A." in greeting. It had left him flabergasted, standing and staring at the door to the foreboding office into which the Major had just disappeared, fully expecting that at any moment the he would come out yelling, telling him not to stand around like some frigging moron, or to stop staring.
It never happened. The Major had reappeared and disappeared several more times, but never said one word, never cast a disparaging glance, never really acknowledged A's presence, and yet A was certain that the Major was still in his own way acknowledging it. He'd worked along in silence, and by the third time the Major had come out of his office it wasn't even bothering A enough to look up from the report he was fine tuning. And when the other members of the Alphabet had begun filtering in, and the silence had been broken by the phone lines ringing and chatter buzzing, and then finally by the Major's overpowering voice booming throughout the room, A had come to realize just how much he had enjoyed working in the quiet and peace that was NATO headquarters in the early hours of dawn.
What had started out as a random occurrence after that had by now turned in to a full-fledged habit. He'd gone a step closer to understanding the Major in those first months of early mornings. The Major could actually be... mellow, if such a word could ever be applied to the Major, during the very quiet dark hours when no one else was around, except maybe A, and on a very rare occasion Z. He, A, just like the Major he suspected, liked the idea of sitting in solitude in a place that in a few hours would become frenetic as the sky lightened and the official world of espionage and politics began grinding to a start.
It was actually addictive to work like this, only he and the Major, barely crossing paths. Something of a windup before work, rather than a wind-down after. The Major was always busy with managerial duties before work, but he seemed to respect and even crave the silence of the workplace as much as A did. There had been a few times when he had held off yelling at A until the day had officially started, and the peace was over for the next 20 hours. It wasn't with any intent to embarrass A, rather simply to maintain the balance.
Turning now into the Alphabet room his nose detected the trace of cigarette smoke which announced the Major's presence at work. Thus began the day for A, quietly, with the tick of the clock and the clicks of the typewriter and the grind of a pen across paper. A shatter startled him as a phone in the Major's office rang and was picked up before the second ring could sound.
"Eberbach. Oh, 's you. Isn't it a little late for even you to be up? Oh? Where are you? What the hell are you doing there? Wait, no, I don't want to know. I might then feel obligated to call the authorities."
Ah, it must be Lord Gloria.
"Well that's why I said don't tell me, you idiot. I told you, that wasn't me. Well 's not my fault you don't believe me. Dunno. You're the one who takes an abnormal interest in my career, imagine what it would do for it if I were to close such a high-profile case." There was silence which was suddenly broken by loud laughter from the Major. A jumped at the sound, startled, and a bit guilty that he'd caught himself eavesdropping.
"Yes, I am," the Major said, agreeing happily to something which the person on the other end of the phone had said. "No, I never said that..." A forced himself to stop listening, and go back to working on his reports. For the most part he succeeded in ignoring the murmurs that came from the Major's office, until:
"Oh, what the fucking hell is this?! What? S's expense report. I am not. Don't even try to compare me to that stingy-bug." Well, that certainly settled it, if nothing did before. The man on the other end of the phone had to be Lord Gloria.
"...wait til he gets here. I do not terrorize my alphabet." A's head twisted towards the Major's ajar door. It was almost worth it to go in and correct that statement, but first he wanted to see how Lord Gloria might respond to that when he heard, "Well, maybe J." A almost choked at the humor in the Major's voice. He could hear the smile!
"Of course. You remember, the one in Morocco who kept tripping Bonham up while he was trying to work... Yes, that's him. I didn't choose him, you stupid queer! Do you think I would choose anyone so fucking incompetent?! Fuck, I shouldn't have said that here. No, some asshole above me put him in my department because no one else can stand him. So what if I do get a bit of pleasure out of scaring him? No, that does not mean that I terrorize the rest of the Alphabet on purpose. They're all still alive aren't they? If terrorizing them in the office keeps them sharp enough on the field to keep them alive, then I'm not going to stop. I haven't lost an Alphabet agent yet, and I don't plan on it either." Some low-voiced grumbling came from the Major's office, and A listened more carefully, fully caught up in the Major's side of the conversation, but the other office was silent now.
"Hmm? No, 'm still here... This report is horrible. You could write a better report than this. I'm not saying that at all. Just that you include the most useless and meaningless information you possibly could when you make your reports." There was the sound of a file drawer opening and pages being sorted. "Like this: 'And then we ran into that awful man with the horrible taste in cravats. He went after the dear Major while you were off doing whatever it is you do and as a consequence you missed the Major vanquish the ugly creature in a game of fisticuffs.' Do you do that to them on purpose? Poor A, G and Z cringe every time they need to decipher one of your statements. You say I terrorize the Alphabet."
A chuckled to himself and went back to working on the report he'd come in for that morning. Lord Gloria's pursuit of Major Eberbach had confounded both the Alphabet and the Earl's own staff for years. And the Major as well, who despite throwing insults and punches at the flamboyant man, had still found himself clung to, figuratively and sometimes literally when Lord Gloria could get away with it, with tenacity which would rival the KGB in intensity. Simply no one had comprehended the Earl's attraction in the workaholic man who didn't appear to have any compassion, desires, or thoughts outside of NATO.
A hadn't been around when the Major and the Earl had first met. He sorely regretted it, though he'd had no choice or knowledge in the matter. He wanted to know what their first reactions had been to one another. Even now the animosity between the two could still be seen, though it was in smaller doses and much longer between episodes. The first few years of Lord Gloria's tangled interference with NATO missions had been trying in the extreme, for all involved, especially for the Alphabet who'd had to constantly deal with an irate and high-strung Major who became ever more unbearable whenever the Earl put in an appearance.
A stopped his typing mid-sentence. It was so much easier to think fondly of the Earl when he wasn't around, bringing upheaval with him wherever he tread. It was a frightening thought that the Earl was older than himself, not by much, but his capricious whims could be so... capricious. Lord Gloria had the amazing talent to unbalance the most stable of situations when one of his fancies caught him, a fancy which could be completely unrelated to NATO business. And the Earl's other amazing talent was to find himself entrenched in delicate NATO operations, time and time over.
A glanced at the Major's office, wondering how he had managed to handle Lord Gloria's unwelcome presence for so many years without killing him in a fit of rage.
But to think fairly, he had to admit that Lord Gloria could be brilliant when he so wished, throwing wild cards of his choosing into the international espionage playing field which inevitably served to aid Major Eberbach - eventually. And it certainly helped that Lord Gloria possessed what any senior field operative would cheerfully kill for: a team so loyal that they would follow him anywhere, without hesitation, when he so asked. A was astonished every time the Earl's staff of collected mavericks followed him blindly into whatever their Lord took them. Never before in his life had he seen such loyalty, not even for the Major, who commanded both respect and fear, and more loyalty than most superiors got.
It was a secret pleasure to work with the Eroica team members, especially Bonham, and A could always see the feelings reflected in others from the Alphabet team, especially Z, who had held a great deal of respect for Bonham and Jones ever since they incident over the Göering collection in the Alaskan wilderness. When the Earl wasn't around to complicate things with his sometimes bizarre trains of thought, his staff was briskly efficient and very competent at what they did, every last one of them dedicated to the goal of keeping their Lord safe and happy.
There were good consequences when Lord Gloria teamed with the Alphabet, for the most part. A could name off several times when the Earl had been in a position to help out where the Alphabet had failed, giving them the support and use of his team when it was necessary. The Lord's actions oftentimes helped to keep the Alphabet in peak condition, as they tried to keep ahead of him as he wreaked havoc through mostly innocent actions and reactions.
And Lord Gloria had also come at a time when the Major had needed someone the most. It had been after a random firefight with the KGB, NATO had been chasing Red Army operatives through the dark and slushy streets of West Berlin, and the events had come to a head when one of the spies had pulled out her weapon and aimed at the Major, who was in hot pursuit. Both the Major and the Alphabet members there had drawn their sidearms, and the following storm of bullets had lasted a good 5 minutes before the last KGB man went down. In the aftermath Agent Z had discovered a small girl, not yet 7, in the alleyway who had been gravely wounded by a ricocheted bullet, later identified as from a .44.
It had nearly destroyed the Major. He'd abandoned the Alphabet to the clean up work, traveling in the ambulance to the hospital where he used his rank, anger and fierce personality to pull strings and stay nearby the little girl and monitor her condition.
A and Z had later gone to the hospital where the Major sat vigil in stony silence, refusing to speak more than one word answers, refusing food or coffee, or cigarettes. For hours the two Alphabet men had stayed in a nearby room, offering unasked and unaccepted support to a man who obviously blamed himself for the entire situation. Z had flagged down one of the doctors who had performed the surgery on the child and questioned him, returning to report to A that the hospital staff said the little girl would not survive.
A had immediately gone to the girl's room to look in on the Major, who still sat in the same position as he had been when A had first arrived.
"Sir, would you like any coffee? I'm about to go get some," he'd asked, hesitancy fully noticeable in his voice. The Major didn't speak, and he had waited patiently, watching the Major's hard-featured face watching the girl unwaveringly for so long that the Major's head had begun shrinking.
"No," he had finally replied, in his terse, cold voice. A had paused for a moment longer, wanting to say something to help comfort his superior, but he couldn't think of anything to say. Finally he'd left the room, going to get the coffee he'd promised himself. When he had returned to the hallway he and Z were occupying, he had experienced one of the shocks of his life.
Lord Gloria had come walking in through the far doors, dressed in subdued white clothing, hair pulled back, looking for all the world like the angel his staff sometimes claimed him to be. He appeared to be alone, and without halting he'd strode with determined, silent steps into the room with the little girl and the Major.
How the Earl had known about any of this was still unknown to anybody except the Earl himself probably, but one certainly could not fault his intelligence network which at many times was better than NATO's. A had unabashedly snuck close to the room to see and listen to what was happening in the room.
But the room was silent still, time being clocked off by the steady beeps of the heart monitor and the airy sounds of the respirator which kept the child breathing. Lord Gloria had knelt down in front of the Major, saying nothing, merely taking one of the Major's stiff hands in his and resting his forehead on the mass of muscles and bones. The Major had not looked away from the girl yet when the Earl had looked up after several minutes. A had watched in fascination as finally the Major looked away from the girl as though a connection had somehow been severed, and with the severed connection the Major had fallen over the Earl, draping himself over the thief's back, inelegantly grasping the cloth and curls so tightly his knuckles turned white. The Earl had brought his arms around the Major's waist, and the two had remained in the clinch for many long moments, and A was about to turn away when the Earl had looked up at the Major, and to his astonishment, A had seen tears in both their eyes.
"Du bist kein Monster, Klaus," the Earl had whispered fiercely. To his dying day Lord Gloria would always have A's help in whatever he needed, for saying that. A had chosen then to leave, and let them have whatever privacy they could, for the Major's cold mask had completely shattered, and really, it had been too much for A to take in, seeing Major Eberbach like that. The only emotion any of the Alphabet had seen to that point was anger, and maybe satisfaction at a mission well done. But absolutely nothing approaching this scale of pained emotion.
The girl had passed away a little over 2 hours later. Much to Z's great surprise, but not so great for A, there was no sign of the Major after the hospital staff had cleared out. What had been shocking was the next morning there was someone else in the Major's office, no sign of the Major except one of his clinical reports, and 24 very confused Alphabet members who had not heard about the Major's connection with the little girl who had died, nameless, in a stark hospital bed in the early hours of the morning. The new commander in charge was another Major, however he was more a politician than a military man, and ended up causing havoc among the Alphabet. Finally the A and Z had taken over running the operation, coordinating with each other, though in most cases Z would defer to A.
The only word the Alphabet had been given in regards to the Major's abrupt disappearance was that he would be taking a leave of absence for an undetermined time. Rumors had begun to circulate through the Alphabet, that he had been reassigned, or sent off on a very dangerous, super-secret mission, or that the Major had resigned. With a free moment, A had telephoned the Earl's estate, looking for Bonham, hoping to get some answers close to the source. Instead, Bonham had been just as confused as most of the Alphabet members. It seemed the Earl really had been alone that morning. Promising to call back, Bonham had rung off, leaving to search for answers.
By the end of the day Bonham had still not called back. A stayed for another hour after everyone, the new Major included, had left before finally giving in and returning to his apartment on the edge of Bonn proper. When he came in he'd had a message waiting for him on his machine, a middle class English voice rattling off a number and then hanging up. He dialed the number, and after one ring heard the Earl's voice addressing him immediately.
Many long weeks later A had come into work at his now normal two hours early to get all the paperwork from the day before in order, and to start on that day's paperwork, to smell a nearly forgotten scent. Cigarettes. A very harsh smelling tobacco scent permeated air which had been free of it for weeks.
He had run into the Major's office, shouting, "Major!" thoroughly unable to disguise the joy in his voice. Major Eberbach had glanced up at him from the piles of paperwork he was looking over on his desk.
"How long was it before you started doing the work for that incompetent asshole they had in here?" he had asked. A hesitated as the Major kept a level stare on him.
"Five hours, sir," he had answered reluctantly. And he would later have sworn that the Major had almost smiled at that. He had nodded and looked back down at file. When A hadn't left immediately, the Major looked back up at him.
"Was there something else, Mr. A?"
"No, sir," he'd replied automatically before giving thought to the question. "Just... Are you okay, sir?" The Major's eyebrow had raised at the personal question, and A felt embarrassed for having asked, but he had really wanted to know the answer.
"I'm fine. I needed time away from here to think." The Major had watched him until he had nodded and left to help get the paperwork in order for him. When the other Alphabet members came in that morning there was an rush of happy feelings to have Major Eberbach back which lasted for nearly half a minute (a new record) before the Major began barking at people and yelling at how lax they had become in his absence.
And apparently the Major's return hadn't been known by anyone, or at least very few, for the Major who had technically been in charge while Eberbach had been gone came in... 15 minutes late, quite normal for the man. The Alphabet had watched with bated breath as he had walked into the Major's office and halted. Then in anticipation as Major Eberbach had risen from his seat, walked calmly over to the door and shut it, trapping his prey inside. The ensuing half hour had been filled with angry German words between the two officers until a browbeaten man stepped out of the Major's office. Seconds later Major Eberbach had appeared in the doorway, shouting for Agent N. The rest of the day was spent with the Alphabet waiting in terror to be called into the Major's office, and watching as the agents came out with downcast eyes and haggard appearances.
When the Major had called for A, he had stood up reluctantly and gone into the office, closing the door behind him, but not before he had seen the sympathetic and cowed looks from the others in the very quiet room.
"Have a seat Mr. A." He did as instructed, and watched as the Major took up the cigarette in the ashtray and opened a file folder in front of him.
"How long have you been coming in early to work on Major Ellwanger's paperwork?"
"Since your first week of absence, sir."
"And you were staying after hours, as well?" One cigarette down, another started, and still the Major had to look at him.
"Yes, sir. To complete my own paperwork."
"Have you put in for overtime salary yet?"
"No, sir," A had replied, confused. The Major had nodded.
"Fill out the request form before lunch and I'll authorize it."
"Yes, sir." The Major continued to leaf through the file before him, pausing now and then to stare at one page in earnest. Another cigarette down, another begun. Minutes ticked by as the small piles of ash multiplied in the large glass tray, and the carbonized cylinder grew on the cigarette.
"You coordinated with Mr. Z?" A's eyes had widened in surprise.
"Yes, sir." The Major had nodded once more before closing the file and looked up, his cigarette finding its place in the small groove of the ash collector.
"You showed excellent judgement in taking over the coordination and duties of the Alphabet when you did, Mr. A. You shouldered your new responsibilities, along with your previous duties very well, and further you gained greater respect from the rest of the team. Your leadership abilities have proven very adequate, and so from here on out I will be giving you added responsibilities as a team leader for the Alphabet. Also, I will be placing a commendation in your file and suggesting you for review as soon as possible. Should that review go well, you may have the option of being reassigned. However I would like you to consider staying with the Alphabet for a while longer. You will have an excellent opportunity to expand your leadership skills here, as well as continue to gain expertise in the field. Do consider it.
"There is one place where your actions needed improvement." Here A had tensed, waiting with a feeling of impending doom. "When you see a superior who is incompetently performing his job, it is your duty to NATO and the agents around you to report it immediately. If the superior is new, and you know the most efficient way to carry out tasks, then you find a way to train him. You have a head on your shoulders, and you use it well. Don't reign yourself in simply because you are afraid to speak your mind." The Major had finished and looked at A levelly. "Was there anything you wanted to say or add, Mr. A?"
"No. No, sir. Th-thank you, sir."
"Good. Keep up the good work."
A had been flabergasted as he stood and left, and looking back he had probably borne the same shell-shocked face that other Alphabet members had as they exited the Major's office, without the browbeating engraved into the lines of his face.
A had taken the Major's advice and remained in the Alphabet, much to the confusion of many of the members who still quaked at the approach of the Major's steps. Even he still had moments where he wondered why he had stayed, subjecting himself to the Major's wrath when things didn't work out the way Major Eberbach had planned. And then he was reminded every time Lord Gloria blundered into a mission NATO was carrying out.
But in the midst of watching the battle of wits and chance between the Major and the Earl, A still, even now, worried about Lord Gloria. The man had such a delicate personality, very innocent and childlike in many ways. And A worried whenever the Earl got involved with NATO that the he would get into a situation that was over his head. He certainly didn't know even half the consequences of his actions. What would happen if one of these days the KGB decided that Lord Gloria's interference was too annoying, and decided to get rid of him? Or if the Earl accidently intercepted a "welcome" from the KGB to Major Eberbach? Even though he was a famous thief, Lord Gloria was still incredibly sheltered from the evils and terrors of the world, and A feared that one day he would step wrong and be hurt or killed, especially with how he blindly followed the Major into such dangerous situations, moreso since the two had become more than enemies.
Of course, it had been by complete accident that A had discovered anything between Lord Gloria and Major Eberbach. The Major had been ordered to use his accumulated holiday hours, and for the first time he had not found a way to avoid his mandatory relaxation. With copious amounts of profanity and violence the Major had packed up and turned over operations to the temporary team director for two weeks, muttering to A to call him if Russia attacked.
A good number of the Alphabet, A included had put in holiday requests themselves. He had decided to go to London, a city he often went to for his job, but had never seen otherwise. While in England, he had met Bonham for lunch several times, and during one lunch - their second - he had mused aloud about the Major, hoping he was okay.
"Oh, 'e's fine," Bonham had replied, absently.
"What?" he'd asked, astonished. Bonham recovered quickly and well from his slip.
"Well, Uncle NATO is always okay. Can you imagine him not?"
A had let him get away with it, more because he was too busy racing through the implications of Bonham's slip than anything else. Good God! If the Major was staying with the Earl, then what would that mean for future missions with Lord Gloria? For the Major's career!?
A stopped his musing, laughing to himself over his initial reaction about the Major's personal life. That had been over a year ago, and the only consequence for the Major's career had been positive, the death of the little girl an excellent example. There had been other missions that Eroica had been brought in on, and with the exception of one, there was no change in either man's behavior. A strongly suspected that the one mission where there had been an excess of animosity on both sides was because they had been arguing over something, though what it might have been A could never guess. But it had made the entire mission surreal. The Earl's staff had been uncharacteristically edgy whenever the Major or the Earl were around, and that feeling transferred to the Alphabet, and by the end of the 5 day mission no one could understand why their nerves were so tattered over such a simple assignment. A only prayed that it never happened again; he wasn't certain if he would be able to maintain sanity if it did. Working with a high-strung superior was one thing, but having Lord Gloria as a vexed, mostly unwilling, high-strung contractor and having to dealing with the Major... Three of the Alphabet had burnt out on that mission, and several more had needed to see counselors afterward.
However, fortunately, the Major and Lord Gloria were very adept at separating personal from professional at times when it was called for. When the time was right, the Major tolerated Eroica's presence on the mission, and the Earl tamed his eccentricities.
Separating personal from professional. Yes, that described it well, since Lord Gloria still took every opportunity to disrupt a mission he had accidently happened upon, when he found something of value to anyone involved. Sometimes the Alphabet still had to chase the Earl and his staff halfway across the world to get a document he had stolen, or a piece of important information he had managed to obtain, much to the Major's obvious displeasure. The Earl took his professional thievery very seriously, and apparently a relationship with Major Eberbach wasn't about to change that. Or maybe it didn't matter. A had to wonder what sort of balance had formed between the two whose careers which were so diametrically opposed. It struck A suddenly how odd it was that the two men's teams worked so smoothly with one another.
"Oh, by the way, NATO may have another mission for you shortly. Be horrible if we couldn't get in contact with you because you were out of the country. Don't give me a contact number! How would I explain having it? Go back to England if you want the job. I'm not lying! Why're you so fucking disbelieving today? Tough choice, isn't it. No, rumor says that the chief is pissed off at me again, and we all know that when the chief is mad at me it means more money for you and more headaches for me and my team. Yes, I believe that. Because no matter what you do, you always find a way to make it happen. I can call Mr. A in here to tell you himself. In the Alphabet Room, listening to every word I'm saying, probably." A nearly fainted at that. He hadn't known the Major would realize that he could listen in, and he felt the sweat start to break out on his forehead.
"Oh, he might have a heart attack, but it would be worth it to hear his answer. No, he nearly dropped over dead first time he came into the office early and saw me here. Ask him about it next time you see him. How the hell do I know? Hmm? What? No, I haven't. Yes, my butler feeds me properly! What the hell kind of butler do you think I have!? Eventually. Yes. No. Okay." A heard the Major expel a breath in a harsh sigh. "You do know what they do there to people who steal cultural artifacts, right? Of course you do. Yeah. 'S okay. Okay. Yes, good-bye." The sound of the receiver clanging down on the cradle rang throughout the still quiet office.
A looked at the clock gracing the plain wall in front of him. It would be only 15 minutes longer before the peace here would be shattered by agents who would finally start arriving. 17 before Major Eberbach began yelling out orders to everyone, and 25 before the weekly conference meeting. He wondered if the Major would be in a better mood or a worse mood knowing that Lord Gloria was apparently about to begin a heist. Glancing at the ajar office door, and then back at his report he guessed it would be best to assume the worst, and went back to working on his report, hoping that he wouldn't be caught in any explosions that might happen during the day.
No matter how far away he was, Lord Gloria's presence was always felt by the Alphabet, whether they realized it or not. A smiled secretly to himself. He was actually glad for that.