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The Colour of Polished (Stainless) Steel

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Christmas Eve, 1986.

 

Klaus stood in the driveway under the towering façade of Schloss Eberbach, gaping at the sleek silver car parked there: a De Lorean DMC-12, gleaming subtly in the morning sunlight, its windscreen adorned with a large red velvet bow.

“Well, Major? Do you like it?” The blond thief leaned seductively against the car’s bonnet, smiling expectantly. “Nought to sixty miles per hour in eight seconds; leather upholstery; air conditioning.” He stroked the shimmery stainless-steel bonnet with slow, suggestive fingers. “I thought the stainless steel finish would appeal to you.”

Klaus found his voice at last. “A De Lorean? You reprobate, did you steal it?”

Dorian raised a disdainful eyebrow. “Major, I’m a wealthy man. I don’t need to steal everything I want. Besides, I know how much you disapprove.”

That was all true, as far as it went. Dorian had stolen the car, of course – but perhaps the Major didn’t need to know. If he thought it was legitimately owned, then he might accept Dorian’s gift.

With a suspicious grunt, the Major walked across to the car to look at it more closely. He had to admit it was a classic vehicle. He wouldn’t have chosen to buy one himself – he disliked flashy cars that drew attention – but that didn’t mean that he didn’t find a well-designed, well-made vehicle interesting. He circled the car slowly, taking in the clean lines and the careful engineering. The red velvet bow stuck to the windscreen detracted from the car’s severe beauty. Klaus scowled at it, and tried to block it out of his awareness.

“I know you told me you like the colour of polished steel, Major,” the thief was saying, “but the sheen of brushed stainless steel is so sensuous, don’t you think?” He drew his hand slowly across the car’s lustrous surface, his eyes focused hotly on Klaus.

Completing his slow circuit of the car, Klaus straightened up and turned his attention to his visitor.

“So are you telling me that you didn’t steal this?”

“Why would I steal something I can afford to buy twice over?” Dorian smiled. “Merry Christmas, Major.” He held out the keys.

“Fuck Christmas,” Klaus growled. “And fuck you, Eroica. I can’t accept valuable gifts, you know that. I have to declare everything, and something like this would spark off an investigation.”

Dorian purred, “It sounds as if you’d really like to accept it, Major.” He shook the keys gently, and they jingled like tiny bells.

Klaus glared. “I will not accept this gift, Eroica. You’ll take it away with you, and you’ll never mention it again.”

“Stainless steel construction. Cast alloy wheels. V-6 engine. Power-assisted disc brakes.” The thief’s smile was sly, seductive. “Wouldn’t you at least like to drive it? Just once?”

Temptation rose in Klaus’s throat like a physical force taking hold of him.

Well, fuck it. Can it hurt?

He peeled the red bow off the windscreen, opened the passenger-side door, and threw the bow into the back seat. “You’ve got the keys. It’s your car. You drive.”

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The car rolled smoothly down the long driveway, and Dorian turned onto the road leading away from the Schloss.

“Where would you like to go, Major? Shall we take the car out onto the Autobahn and see how it performs?”

Klaus grunted. “It’s your car, Eroica.”

Dorian chuckled happily. “Would you like some music? What’s your favourite radio station?”

He began punching buttons and twisting dials. The displays were not familiar to him. So many more knobs and levers than the Lamborghini – but one of these must operate the radio! He punched a button, and the word ‘Local’ came up on a small screen in red script. He twisted a knob next to it, and the numbers ‘1586’ appeared.

“Major? What’s the call sign for the local radio station? 1586?”

“Pay attention!” Klaus snapped; “We’re coming to the Autobahn!”

Smoothly, Dorian eased the De Lorean onto the slip road and began to accelerate, blending seamlessly into the traffic. “All right, Major; now let’s see how this car can perform!”

The vehicle surged forward, numbers climbing on the speedometer. Seventy … seventy-five … eighty miles per hour!

“Smooth and responsive,” Dorian remarked. “Exactly what I look for in a car – or a lover!”

“Can’t you stay away from indecent subjects?” grumbled Klaus.

Eighty-five miles per hour! Eighty-eight–!

Without warning, a blue-white aura blossomed around the car and a burst of bright light blotted out reality.

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Seconds later, the car bumped to a stop.

The blue-white light had gone. So had the Autobahn. The car now stood on a muddy cart-track bending through snow-laden trees.

“What the fuck?” Klaus wrenched open the door and jumped out.

His breath clouded in front of him on the dry, frosty air. He turned to the car, expecting to see damage; it wore a thick layer of frost, but seemed to be unharmed.

Dorian climbed out of the driver’s seat. “Major? What was that? Where are we?” He gazed around, astonished and a little uneasy.

Klaus paced around the car, looking down the track in both directions for any clue that would explain what had happened.

When the bright lights started, his thoughts had flown straightaway to sabotage. The vehicle must have been booby trapped – had there been a bomb? But had he heard an explosion? He couldn’t remember. And he could see no damage.

“Major? Are we dead?”

“Don’t talk bullshit!” Klaus snapped. “Of course we aren’t dead. There has to be an explanation.”

He strode around to the driver’s side, and pulled the lever to open the engine cover. He lifted up the frost-encrusted stainless-steel shell, and—

“What the fuck is all that?”

Klaus knew his way around engines, and he thought he’d seen every variation on the internal combustion engine that there was. He’d never seen anything quite like the high-tech tangle he was looking at.

Dorian joined him, staring into the De Lorean’s working parts.

“Major,” he said slowly, “I have no idea.”

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Neither of them thought that getting back into the car and driving on would be a good idea. Clearly, they weren’t where they had been. The Autobahn was nowhere to be seen, and the car was on a track somewhere in a vast pine forest.

Had they both blacked out? Suffered temporary amnesia? Had Dorian driven off the Autobahn, down some little-used track, whilst suffering this temporary lapse? While Klaus failed to notice, or to remember, what they had done? One thing was certain: they needed to find out where they were, so they could get back to where they’d come from.

Dorian carefully drove the car off the track, behind some low bushy trees at the edge of the forest, and they set out on foot. They walked for twenty minutes without seeing any sign of human habitation. No houses, no fences, no people.

“Major, you must have some idea where we are,” complained Dorian. “We weren’t very far from the Schloss. You must know the local area.”

“We’re in a fucking pine forest, Eroica. It goes for miles. We just have to keep walking till we get to the edge.”

The track led them over the brow of a hill, where the pine trees began to thin out. About quarter of a mile away, half a dozen men and youths appeared to be busy collecting dead wood and loading it onto a cart.

“Oh, good! Let’s go and ask for directions!” Dorian quickened his stride.

Klaus caught Dorian’s arm. “Wait a minute. Something’s not right.” He gazed, frowning, at the wood-gatherers, wishing he had a set of binoculars with him. He cast a critical eye over Dorian’s loose embroidered tunic and tight trousers, and his own sweat-shirt and track pants. “You go. I’ll wait here.”

“Major?”

“Go on. I think you’ll be all right. If there’s any trouble, I’ll come – but best if I stay out of sight.”

Puzzled, Dorian set off across the half-cleared field.

The wood-gatherers noticed him when he’d covered about half the distance, and they greeted him with friendly salutes.

“Good day to you, Captain Red!” one of them called, in a German dialect that sounded stilted to Dorian’s ears.

Captain? What?

The speaker, a burly man with frost-reddened cheeks, wearing a sheep-skin jerkin, crossed the clearing to meet him.

“Are you out for a walk, Captain? We’ve nearly finished loading the cart; you can tell Captain Persimmon that we’ll bring the wood up to the Schloss this evening, after we’ve trimmed it.”

“Yes, of course,” Dorian replied, wondering if his German sounded as odd to their ears as theirs did to his. His brain was in overdrive. The men and boys loading the cart were dressed in rough-spun clothes that made him think of Breughel’s paintings. The cart had wooden wheels, and the pony dozing between the shafts wore a harness of ancient design with few metal fittings.

Captain Persimmon? Did he say Captain Persimmon?

A creeping awareness was gradually claiming Dorian’s mind. They were somewhere else, all right: they were someWHEN else, as well.

Dorian gave the man a self-effacing smile. “Yes, of course, I’ll let him know. He’ll be pleased. The thing is – I seem to have lost my bearings. Could you point me in the direction of the Schloss?”

The man laughed, a friendly guffaw. “You navigate better on the sea, Captain Red, no?” A broad hand on Dorian’s shoulder turned him back toward the track. “Back the way you came, take the first turn to your right, and straight down the hill.”

Dorian made himself walk back slowly, although every fibre of his being wanted to rush back to Klaus to tell him what had been said. He found Klaus sitting on a fallen tree, out of sight of the wood-gatherers.

“Major, you’re not going to believe this…”

To Dorian’s astonishment, Klaus was inclined to believe what he was told.

“I don’t know how this has happened, Eroica, but it’s something to do with that fucking car. Where did you get it?”

Dorian winced. “I stole it from an experimental laboratory in America, run by a researcher called Dr Emmett Brown. The security was practically zero, so taking it was child’s play. I had it flown out to Germany because I thought you’d like it; you like machinery.”

“Well, I’ve got no idea how this has happened, but it has, and now we need to get back to where we came from.”

When we came from,” Dorian corrected. “I think we’re exactly where we were before. The Schloss is just over that hill.”

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In the courtyard of Schloss Eberbach, the master of the house passed a purse full of coins to the head woodsman.

“Thank you for your labours,” he said. “Divide the coin amongst your workers, and then you must all come inside for a mug of hot ale. Something to warm up your blood.”

The sun had gone down behind the hills, and a velvety darkness was thickening over the scene. From the narrow window of the hayloft in which they’d hidden themselves, Klaus and Dorian watched as the master of Schloss Eberbach went back inside and the woodsmen gathered round to get their share of the payment.

“That’s your ancestor, Tyrian Persimmon!” Dorian could scarcely contain his excitement. “The Man in Purple himself!”

“Fucking Pumpkin Pants,” Klaus scowled.

Klaus hadn’t said much since they’d trudged down to the Schloss from the pine forest track. He was a logical man. He liked to base his reasoning on facts – but try as he might, he couldn’t come up with a logical explanation for what he was seeing. Everything he could see, hear, or for that matter, smell, told him what his logical mind refused to take in: they were indeed at Schloss Eberbach, but somehow or other they had slipped back in time some four hundred years.

The Schloss looked much the same as its twentieth-century self. Klaus’s father had always claimed with pride that the man who built Schloss Eberbach would still recognise it, because the von dem Eberbachs had not defaced the handsome old building with extensive remodellings.

The master of the Schloss was tall and well-dressed – although not in purple, but in dark blue and brown. His proud, handsome face and haughty bearing were unmistakeably those of the man in the ancestral portrait that Dorian had coveted for so long. From their hiding place, they could see him through the windows of the Schloss, moving around a spacious, sumptuously-furnished room full of people, some as richly dressed as Tyrian himself, and some dressed plainly in peasant clothing.

“Do you think it’s a Christmas celebration for the tenants and neighbours?” Dorian suggested. “The Earls of Gloria used to hold those every year. The tradition really only stopped after the Second World War.”

Klaus shrugged. His mind was working on the problem of what they should do about getting back to where they’d come from. Back to the present time. To the future.

Why had this happened? It had to have something to do with that car. Dorian had said he’d stolen it from a researcher; what had the man been researching? Time travel? Klaus probed the idea cautiously. He’d read articles that suggested time travel was theoretically possible, but surely nobody had actually managed to work out how it could be done?

A door opened at the rear of the house, and Tyrian came outside, followed by—

Klaus stared. The man who followed Tyrian outside was practically Eroica’s double!

Beside him, Dorian smothered an excited exclamation. “It’s Benedict Red! The first Earl of Gloria! It’s him!” He leaned closer to the window. “I wish we could hear what they’re saying!”

Klaus frowned. He wasn’t so sure he wanted to hear. Tyrian had drawn Benedict into the shadows and the two were—

He snorted in disgust. The two of them were kissing as if they were trying to eat each other alive.

“It’s true! They were lovers!” Dorian breathed delightedly. “Your ancestor and mine were lovers!”

“Fucking degenerates,” grumbled Klaus.

In the shadows, Tyrian was seen to murmur something in Benedict’s ear, and the Englishman’s reply was a delighted peal of laughter that floated musically across the frosty courtyard.

“Good. They’re going inside. Fucking exhibitionists.”

The lovers moved out of the shadows – but instead of going back into the house, they loped across the courtyard, lifted the latch on the barn door directly below Klaus and Dorian’s hiding place, and went inside.

Mortified, Klaus and Dorian stared at each other.

“What if they find us?” Dorian mouthed – but within moments it became plain that the newcomers had no interest in searching for uninvited guests. They had other things on their minds.

Their voices drifted up to the hay-loft.

“Here’s a clean blanket. This will do!”

(Sound of hay being shuffled around, and a burst of hay-scent wafting upwards.)

“Mmm, I love the smell of hay.” (An English voice … the accent not quite like anything Dorian was used to.) “Best when it’s newly-cut, but this is sweet enough!”

“For a pirate captain, your thoughts are remarkably like a farm labourer’s.” (A darker, sardonic tone; the accent mixed.)

The sounds now became indistinct, and Dorian edged over to the trapdoor to look down.

“What are you doing, you voyeur?” Klaus hissed.

“Oh, Major—!” Dorian breathed. “Look!”

Klaus gritted his teeth. No, I will not bloody well look! You fucking voyeuristic pervert! – but half a minute later, he found himself leaning tentatively toward the opening, just to confirm what he suspected he’d see.

Yes, as the sounds filtering upward suggested, the master of the Schloss – his ancestor, Tyrian Persimmon – was entwined with Eroica’s ancestor, the blond pirate, and the two of them were engaged in God alone knew what perverted activities.

He sat back, willing them to finish up and get the hell out of the barn.

Dorian sat back too, his eyes shining. “I can’t watch. They deserve their privacy.” He smiled radiantly. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

“Fucking degenerates.” Klaus looked at his watch, which was still working, and noted the time. Surely they wouldn’t take long?

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Nearly an hour passed before the barn door opened and closed, and Tyrian and Benedict crossed the cobbled yard and went back inside the house.

Klaus slumped back against the wall with a loud sigh of relief. “Thank god that’s over. Pair of perverts. Skulking in the stable like thieves.” He shook his head. “Of all the things I’ve had to sit through, that takes the prize.”

“You should be impressed by their stamina, Major!” Dorian quipped. “And they were very thorough.”

Klaus glared. “Do you have to go on about it?” He glanced out of the window. Outside, the courtyard was empty, and warm lamplight glowed from the windows of the Schloss. “Listen, Eroica, we have to get out of here. Get a couple of hours sleep if you can, and we’ll leave before sunrise. Whatever landed us here has something to do with that damned car. We need to get back there and work out what to do to reverse it.”

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Klaus woke Eroica before dawn, and the two of them made their way carefully down the ladder and out of the barn.

The rumpled blanket still lay on the pile of hay below their hiding place. A vivid picture rose in Klaus’s memory of the sight of two grown men – two naked grown men – intertwined on the blanket. The master of the Schloss and his pirate lover, escaping the estate Christmas party like a couple of naughty teenagers to pleasure themselves in secret. Undignified, as well as debauched.

By the time the sun rose, Klaus and Dorian had climbed the steep path up the hillside to the edge of the pine forest and were making their way back along the muddy cart track. The De Lorean was where they’d left it, undisturbed and undiscovered. There were no fresh footprints or wheel marks to be seen; apparently nobody else had come this way since they’d left the car concealed behind the bushes.

Dorian started the engine and eased the car out slowly onto the track, facing back the way they’d come.

Klaus climbed into the passenger seat. “Right, Eroica. Now think. What did you do, exactly, before the light show started and we ended up here?”

“We’d just got onto the Autobahn, and we were accelerating— Hold on! I was trying to turn on the radio.”

Dorian pressed a button, and one of the small screens displayed the word ‘Local’ in red letters. He twisted a knob, and beside it, another screen showed the figures ‘1586’.

“Oh. That’s not the radio station, is it, Major? That’s the year! That’s where we are now. I mean, when.”

Klaus frowned. “Maybe. All right: can you do it all in reverse?”

Carefully, Dorian turned the knob until the screen showed ‘1986’, put the car in gear, and began to accelerate.

The De Lorean bumped along the rutted track, gaining speed. Dorian kept his eyes glued to the track ahead, watching for potholes. Klaus’s eyes were on the speedometer.

Sixty … seventy… eighty … eighty-eight – and the car was engulfed in a blue-white plasma cloud.

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For a second or two, all sight and sound was blotted out – and then they were back on the Autobahn, speeding smoothly along with the flow of traffic.

Klaus pointed through the windscreen. “There’s the exit for the road that goes past the Schloss!”

Dorian steered the car onto the exit ramp.

They parked the De Lorean in the paved yard behind the Schloss, next to the long stone barn that had been converted into garages and workshops sometime before Klaus was born. Dorian glanced upward, noticing with delight that the narrow window was still there, high up in the wall.

Klaus led Dorian into the house and upstairs to his study. He sat down behind his desk, waved Dorian into a chair next to it, and pushed a pen and paper across to him.

“Write down the address of that research facility you stole the car from. NATO will want to talk to this Dr Brown about his work. Then, I want you to get on the phone and make arrangements to have that car picked up and taken back to where it came from.”

Meekly, Dorian did as he was told.

While the thief was busy, Klaus sat staring up at the portrait of The Man in Purple, hanging on his study wall. If he could believe what had happened in the past twenty-four hours, he’d seen the subject of that painting, Tyrian Persimmon – Old Pumpkin Pants himself – in this very house, entertaining his guests and workers. Entertaining his damned degenerate lover in the barn as well, the pervert.

Klaus frowned slightly, puzzling. His ancestor had looked just as a master of the Schloss should look: businesslike, in control. Masculine. Not a poncy fop. And, to be honest, Eroica’s ancestor the English pirate hadn’t looked like a mincing pansy either. Both of them had looked like men to be reckoned with. Men you could imagine in command of ships and estates. Men who’d be respected. And yet—

He watched Eroica, on the phone to his second-in-command back in England, issuing clear instructions. Eroica acted like an effeminate fool sometimes, when he wanted to be annoying – or when he wanted to create a distraction. Mostly, though, he knew what he was doing, and his men took notice of him. Being a pervert didn’t necessarily mean being a powder-puff.

Eroica hung up the phone.

“It’s done, Major. The car will be collected in three days’ time, and transported back to America. You might like to get your boys at NATO to contact Dr Brown before it arrives.”

Klaus grunted an acknowledgement.

The thief sat twirling a blond curl around his finger. “I must say, Major, it’s been a rather more eventful Christmas than I’d planned. Not entirely unenjoyable, though, wouldn’t you say so?”

“Eventful? That’s one word for it.” Klaus stood up, and as he did so, he noticed that there were still fragments of hay tangled in Eroica’s hair. Even though they’d been acquired innocently by spending a chaste night in a hayloft, the fragments reminded Klaus of the spectacle that had been played out beneath their hiding place. A faint blush coloured his cheeks, and he hoped Eroica wouldn’t notice.

He cleared his throat. “I suppose it is Christmas Day. It would be churlish of me not to offer you a drink. Perhaps you would like some cognac?”

A slow smile spread across Dorian’s face. “Why, Major – thank you. And merry Christmas to you, too.”