"Dorian, wake up," said the Major's voice, calm and commanding.
In the thief's happy dreams, just now, that same beloved voice had been whispering into his ears, while the two men admired the rose garden at North Downs.
"Please wake up." Not so calm. Even asleep, the thief heard the worry. And pain. His dream-Major seemed uninjured, when Dorian looked. The whole scene wavered, blurring as dreams did, into something else.
Dorian thought at first it was a nightmare, from the harsh lighting and the slaughterhouse reek.
"Will. You. Fucking. Answer. Me?" the Major growled, and Dorian realized he was already awake. Hard, cold floor under his cheek. Hair sticky. Oh. He'd been hit on the head. That was where the blood came from.
Fighting nausea, Dorian sat up.
Long-honed instincts catalogued the little room first: an empty cold-storage vault at an industrial complex in western Germany. A bank of pitiless lights flooded the room with a white glare. From the stillness, Dorian realized there was no air circulation. He and Klaus might suffocate, before they froze to death. The door -- he was beside it, without being aware of crossing the distance. Stripped of every obvious weapon, his enemies had made one mistake: his clothes. He worked a fine titanium wire out of a collar-seam, and tickled the key-slot in the door. Dorian heard the proper click, concentrated his efforts.
"I think they welded it," whispered Klaus, behind him. "What a reputation we have, eh?"
Dorian stared back at Klaus, appalled. Not all of the blood pooling on that icy floor was Dorian's. The Major sat braced against a wall, pressing both hands over his abdomen. Below the waist, his khaki shirt and pants were dark red and glossy-wet. Above his head, a spattered pink mist stained the steel wall. Two massive dents distorted the metal. Dorian saw skid-marks, indicating something heavy and bloody, that had slid down from a standing position.
Again, the thief wasn't aware of moving. Only of kneeling beside his beloved German maniac, and lifting one cold hand away from the wounds.
He didn't want to believe what he saw, then. That the Major still lived, was a miracle. Dorian could believe in more miracles --
"Two shots, point blank," said Klaus, through clenched teeth. "Felt them ricochet back into me."
"No. Not now, this way. I won't let --"
"Yes," Klaus grated, his eyes dilated black from shock and pain. "Make it faster?"
Dorian pulled away in involuntary horror.
"What we know -- the mission -- important,"Klaus said, marshaling his incredible endurance. "Too cold. Not enough air. One of us – stay alive."
"Or neither of us is going to make it?" Dorian confirmed.
Klaus' body shuddered, and a new wave of coppery blood-stench filled the room. Klaus ignored it. "Z and A will find us. You might not be alive. So you must write. All we know, on the walls and floor. The enemy may still be caught. They won't know. Welded in. No window. They won't look at us again."
"I have no pens."
Klaus raised that slick red hand. "Ink. When it freezes -- use yours. But you need air. Help me."
"God, no," Dorian moaned.
"Hurts," Klaus said carefully. "Too slow. Scream -- use too much air."
Dorian remembered some Eastern-bloc bullies, who'd boasted about how long it sometimes took for a man to die from a gut-shot. Hours, if the involuntary writhing didn't hasten blood loss. They'd said there would be screams, too --
No. Not from Iron Klaus. Not unless Dorian himself elicited them, in the depths of passion. This way was obscene. Intolerable.
"How?" he asked.
That earned him a strained smile. "Strong for your looks. Break my neck."
Dorian didn't have the same faith in himself. "And if I fail?"
Dorian leaned forward, carefully embracing Klaus' shoulders. "I'll do it," he whispered. (I'm probably dying an hour or so after him,) he finally realized. (Nothing will change that -- we have nothing left to prove. We each have something the other wants.) "But on one condition."
Klaus answered him in a wordless snarl.
Dorian wasn't buying it. He rocked back on his heels, searching that white, strained face. The Major's lips were blue-grey around their edges, his eyes glittering. From tears? "I have to know, Klaus. Did you ever love me?"
"Idiot," Klaus whispered, face softening in a way Dorian had only fantasized before. "Always. Always. I wish -- "
Then his body tensed in another convulsion. Neck tendons snapped into high relief, as Klaus fought for control. Only a low, mindless whimper escaped. The dark eyes didn't seem to see Dorian anymore.
A third time, Dorian moved without thinking. This was Klaus, his darling Major. There was only one chance to do it right. Dorian slid his hands up to cradle Klaus' face, thumbs caressing then digging into the join between neck and skull. Klaus helped, tilting his head back even more.
The sideways twist was over before Dorian really understood its finality: a grating sensation, that ended in a soft crack! under his hands. The Major's slight shudder. The emptiness that suddenly wiped Klaus' face clean of both agony and love.
No time to mourn. To split hairs between 'murder' and 'mercy'. To hope, in a last show of vanity, that the Alphabets found them frozen but intact. If the power was shut off --
Dorian blinked away that thought, and started writing.
"Herr Weisman?" someone asked at the doorway, and the grey-haired man looked up from his desk. "Rolf Weisman, formerly of Bonn?"
It was not his name now, the one Anna had made real with her love and pride. Nor the code designation he'd used for many years. Not even his birthname. Simply a name hung on him and his family after the dimly-remembered defection from the U.S.S.R. But that someone knew it, and had traced him --
His hand found the gun secured up under his desk. The pudgy man in the doorway deciphered his movements, stepped back in alarm. "I mean no ill to you, sir," he said quickly. "Whatever you do now, is none of my business. But once, you worked for NATO Intelligence. The Alphabets, ja? I was told you might be able to help me."
"Go to NATO."
"I did. They sent me here."
"What is your trouble?"
"My company -- we refurbish buildings. Re-build what we can, and salvage materials where we can't. We bought an electronics factory, abandoned since the turn of the century. There is a problem with one room in the basement of the factory."
The man at the desk shrugged. "I am a computer security expert, not a structural engineer."
"There is a ghost."
"Ghosts do not exist."
"I have seen this one in my dreams, when I was unconscious after an accident in that room. Others have seen him. He asks for you."
There were too many dead people in Herr Weisman's life. Which was this? Someone he'd loved -- or killed?
"His name is Klaus."
A day and a half later, Anna and the teenagers had been soothed with the excuse of a company-sponsored camping trip. His own job could wait a few days. He made a quick stop by his solicitor's and financial planner's offices. Eventually, a train, a bus, and a little electric rental car took him to the old factory. The city had crept out around it; the factory was the last vestige of grimy industrialism in an area transformed into semi-pastoral suburbs. For God's sake, there was a park -- with children playing ball in it -- just down the road.
A nervous receptionist mistook him for an investor, and plied him with a sales pitch about the company's plans to turn the building into genteel office space. Until Herr Weisman announced himself, and the poor woman retreated to her desk.
Not long after, the man once known simply as 'Z' hefted his backpack and bedroll, and stared at a door he'd hoped never to see again.
The once-clean white tiles of the corridor were dingy, and fluorescent bulbs buzzed weakly overhead.
He remembered those lights as brilliant, unforgiving as noon sun in a desert. Clumps of welded steel had sealed the door, even though the lock had been opened from inside. Years later, welded areas still showed scars where frantic high-temperature torches once ripped them apart.
The building manager dealt with the small padlock and chain, opened the door partway, reached in, and triggered a light. "I -- I am sorry. I won't go in again. Not invited, you see."
This time, the door opened on flickering dimness, instead of bright cold. The floor and walls were cleaner than the outside hall, courtesy of the NATO team that scoured them of blood and secrets fifteen years before.
Z remembered the blood. Frozen near-black pools of it on the floor, crimson letters neatly written on the walls. Even now, he remembered the writing, first.
The walls had been covered in mathematical formulae, scrawled down by someone with an eidetic memory driven by desperation. Maps. Names and telephone numbers, internet URL's and bank accounts. And down near the threshold, in a script gone spidery and weak, the last communication of Dorian Red Gloria: 'Watch says 5:20 am. Hate morning. I got it all, Klaus. Tired. Sleep now.'
He'd died there, curled up like a child, head pillowed on one arm. The would-be rescuers had scorched part of his yellow hair, he was so close to the door. They'd had to step over him, coming in.
The Major had been across the room, sitting upright, head lolling too far forward in a frost-whitened fall of matted hair, hands still clenched against the total ruin of his belly.
Blood and secrets. From the information the two men had conveyed before they died, NATO operatives were able to decisively break a nuclear weapons-smuggling ring, and bring down a dictator on the verge of beginning another World War.
One or more of the Alphabets had stayed present, until the whole dreadful job was done and the room clean. They could not allow Eroica's civilians in, so they stood a death-watch of their own. It seemed proper, once they understood how the Major had died, and how the thief had followed him.
The forensics team had not known the Major, or Eroica. To them, the bodies were simply evidence to be catalogued as efficiently as the rest of the room: photographed, partially thawed, removed, and autopsied. The subjects of inquests, reports, separate funerals.
The man known as 'Z' had never thought that it wouldn't end there.
"Major?" he called softly now. "Are you here? They found me. I came right away. I am sorry. I will help, however I may."
He didn't expect an answer right off, if what he'd learned from the building manager was true. The spirit caused poltergeist damage within the room, slamming around desks and boxes. But Klaus couldn't reach a waking mind.
The only obvious trace of the Major was the pair of bullet impacts denting the metal walls. Z eyed them grimly, then chose a spot on the floor less than three feet away from where the Major's body had been.
"I apologize for being too close to you, sir," Z began. "But you need to know that I trust you. I always did, no matter how much you yelled and cursed. If -- if you want to hurt me, or kill me, it's all right. I've set my affairs in order."
Z pragmatically bent to the task of laying out his gear for the night, neat and business-like, just as the Major would have insisted. Bedroll there, water canteen here, boots set out in easy reach. He groped for a packet of beef jerky, and found it suddenly in his hand.
"Thank you, Major," Z whispered, controlling his shudder. It wasn't until he'd eaten and was bedded down for the night, almost fully-clothed, that he remembered those damned lights. He wasn't sleeping under them. Darkness, and the ghost of a friend, seemed slightly better. He sat up, meaning to cross the room and hit the switch.
He saw one of his boots lift easily into the air, and slam fifteen feet against the control panel.
The lights went out.
"Good night," Z said calmly, and went to sleep.
Suddenly aware of bitter cold, Z blinked away tears, eyes stung by the unforgiving white glare overhead. Ach, Gott, they'd gotten the lights working again --
Then the smells of violent death nearly made him gag.
Z moved. The sleeping bag seemed wet and heavy, clinging to the floor. In the next moment, he realized the quilted fabric was soaked with clotting blood. It didn't seem to be his own.
"Moron," said a familiar voice and tone. "You've ruined it, now. That will never come clean."
Z sat up automatically, almost saluting. "Sir --"
The Major leaned against the wall next to him. This time, the man's frost-paled head was up and turned alertly, looking back at Z from eyes dulled to the matte green of beach glass. "You have aged well, Herr Weisman. I am glad you had the chance."
"Major," Z said, then in anguish: "Klaus --"
"It's all right, Z, " rasped the Major. "Dorian stopped the pain. I don't hurt anymore."
"But you're still here, sir. How can we get you out?"
The cold blue-grey lips smiled, dreadfully gentle. "You can't. No one can, but me. And I'm not ready to go, yet."
"What do you have to do?"
"I don't know. But I've been trying to remember Eroica. Dorian. Every word we spoke, each moment from the day he wanted to buy that damned painting. Even the times I thought about him. It's important, to remember all that."
"Because he can't."
Z looked around, startled. "Is he here, too?"
"No," said the Major, softly. "He is gone. I told him I loved him. Then he killed me."
"Yes, I know," whispered Z, watching a peculiar distant madness settle on that white face. He began to understand. Memory was either the Major's salvation -- or his cage. Z listened quietly to the halting litany.
"I asked him to, and he did it. My beautiful thief. I was so proud of him, then. He wrote everything we needed to say. It took a long time. I didn't think he would last, but he did. I was happy. I thought 'he will stop soon, and at least we will be together, and I can tell him better how much I love him --' But no."
The dead gaze fixed once more on Z, in grief and self-reproach. "I watched him fall asleep. Felt him die, as easy as a boat slipping away from dock. Felt his soul pass through mine. So lovely, so pure -- like a golden light. But he did not remember me, or himself, or anything of life. He was just a soul, going somewhere else -- or fading into nothing. If he is gone," the Major said briskly, "Then I must remember him. That is the least I can do, for the way I treated him when we both lived. But perhaps he will come back, and I can give him the memories. Then we can both be free." A frown. "These people interrupted me. So I had to start over. And over. I got angry. I did not mean to hurt any of them. Only make them go away, so I could think in peace. Can you make them leave me alone, Z?"
"You should not be here, sir." Z grasped at straws. "Would it help, if I had your bodies buried together?"
That earned him a trace of old, familiar scorn. "Where is my body?"
"In the chapel's crypt at Schloss Eberbach, of course."
"But I am here," said Klaus. "What does it matter, where my bones lie, or his? I must do this in my own way, my own time."
Z bent his head, wanting to hide his tears in the sleeping bag. He felt like a gawky new agent, instead of the confident businessman, husband, and father that he had been. But a cold, sticky, gentle hand caught his chin and urged it upward. The Major's wry smile sent a wild feeling down Z's spine, like the ringing of deep-toned bells.
The Major said: "I understand about you, too. I was blind. I did not want to see how you looked at me. I never told you that I was proud of you, proud of all my Alphabets. Are you alone now, Z? How are the others?"
As if they sat together over coffee and a chessboard, Z let himself chatter about Anna and the children, about former Alphabets and their adventures.
"And Dorian's people?" Klaus asked, after one story actually set him laughing.
Z was beyond the point of noticing the blood or the cold. "The rascals pulled a fast one on His Lordship's heirs, and left the properties with little more artwork than Eroica had legally inherited. Then a few years after, museums all over the world started getting huge untraceable crates of stolen artwork, all tied up in big red bows and tags that said 'From Eroica, with love. Thanks for letting me borrow these.' He must have set that up, before --"
"He would,"said Klaus, still smiling. "Set his people up for life, too, probably. They were his real family. How's the stingy bug? Richer than kings, I'd imagine."
Z remembered a message from Bonham. "No. He's dead." At the Major's raised eyebrow, Z went on. "Neatly arranged his own funeral six months after his master's, sent a good-bye message to Bonham, and took a bottle of sleeping pills with a glass of vodka. Willed his body to science, to avoid the cost of a funeral."
"Stingy to the last," the Major sighed, that distant look again on his face, and swept a bloody salute across his forehead. "I hope he had a safe journey and kind judges, that Mr. James." Then he glared back at Z.
"I know what you need to do."
"To keep people out of here. You must weld the door shut again."
"Ja!" the Major pointed up at the corners of the room nearest the corridor. "And drill a large hole there, and there. One will vent air. The other will carry in the most durable concrete you can mix."
"Sir, please," Z said, horrified anew.
"You are right. Concrete with powdered lead and other shielding materials,"the Major corrected, grimly enthusiastic. "I do not want to be bothered by ghost-hunters and their machines, either. Fill in the room right up to the ceiling. If no one can come in, no one can bother me."
"I wanted you free of this evil place, not trapped forever," Z said.
"Forever is not so bad. When there is a mountain three kilometres over the ruins of this building, I will still be remembering Dorian, and you, and all my brave enemies and Alphabets. There are worse purgatories, I am certain," said the Major, his voice still resonating in the room when Z woke to darkness.
By his watch, it was 0400 hours. The sleeping bag was dry and clean. The air smelled of dust and ancient disinfectants. Z groped his way across to the control panel and turned on the lights. He could not see the Major leaning against the wall. He felt the weight of that level stare.
"All right, all right. I'll do it, Major."
Three days later, at the train station, he hugged the children -- to their public embarrasment and private joy, he was sure. He buried his face in Anna's heavy dark hair, acknowledging at last a certain resemblance he'd never put into clear thought before. But Anna was herself, too, his love and his salvation.
"I thought camping trips were supposed to be relaxing," she said, feeling the tight muscles across his
"I stopped off on the way home, to fulfill the bequest of an acquaintance who died a long time ago. It's done now," he said, feeling the name and obligations of 'Z' drop away, against the current reality of his life. The sorrow was less than he thought it would be.
After all, he realized, walking back to the car with his wife and children, I am loved, here and now. And I will be remembered forever, by a true friend.