torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
August 2001 (October 2001)

Disclaimer: Aoike rules. Many, many thanks to elynross, Sylvia, ari, and C, for helping me out. Do not archive this story without permission.

And seek

Dorian flexed his fingers to keep them from cramping and tried to get a better grip on the strip of wire. Being without his tools was turning out to be a damnable nuisance. This small, simple lock shouldn't be giving him any trouble, except that some fool had oiled it, and the oil was now a congealed, sticky mess, glueing everything together.

He'd already tried pulling the locked box out of the wall, without success. It would probably have been better, Dorian thought with some annoyance, if the Major had gone into the house to retrieve the contents of the box, while Dorian distracted the elderly caretaker. The Major was not very good at small-talk, but he would probably have made short work of the mortar that held the box in place. This was clearly not a job that called for subtlety. In fact, he wasn't at all sure what he was doing here, except that Klaus had called him and demanded assistance in a voice Dorian had never heard before.

He'd thought they were meeting for a mission briefing, and instead, he'd been hustled off to start the job at once. Well, he could work with what he had. Giving the wire an extra twist, Dorian tried again, pressing painstakingly until something finally began to move. He held his breath, turned his wrist, and the lock sprang open.

Inside the box he found a sealed envelope and a small notebook, just as Klaus had said. Dorian flipped quickly through the notebook, catching only the occasional German word in small, cramped handwriting. Absoluter und unbedingter Gehorsam. Ausführung. Linientreu. Die Generalität ist gewillt... Endlösung.

Klaus hadn't told him what he was stealing, and the phone calls he had put in after talking to Klaus had not provided much illumination. He closed the book and tucked it, along with the envelope, inside his shirt, and closed the box again, jamming the lock with a smaller piece of wire to delay discovery of the theft.

He walked back quietly through the large, chilly rooms. The air was humid, and he tugged absentmindedly at the tiny corkscrew curls forming at his temple. A damp climate made his hair look simply awful. Dorian listened for a raised voice, usually the easiest method of locating the major, but heard nothing. That might be a good sign. Or not. He went towards the front door, keeping so close to the wall that his coatsleeve brushed loose chips of flaking grey paint.

The hall was empty, and he went out through the unlocked door with quick steps, into the lightless, foggy afternoon. Wet mist hung over the gravel path and the boxwoods, caught on his lashes, and put its fingers down the back of his collar. Dorian buttoned his coat and walked towards the slate-roofed, one-room outbuilding where he'd left the major, keeping to the grassy edge of the gravel path to hush his steps. Light still shone from the small window, and Dorian paused to glance inside.

He could see part of the desk, and the shelves behind it, and the caretaker's shoulder and arm and part of his back, his slight, old-man's body in a worn coat slumped forward, and the head that Dorian could not see must be face-down on the desk. Craning his neck, he caught a glimpse of a large hand, palm up on the desk, fingers lax and unmoving. Dorian skidded on loose gravel and wet grass around the corner of the house and pulled the door open.

The caretaker was fast asleep with his head pillowed on his folded arms. Klaus sat in the chair on the other side of the desk, watching a spider walk across his palm. Between them stood an empty bottle of vodka and two glasses.

Dorian let his breath out in an exasperated snort. "Please don't tell me you're drunk."

Klaus seemed to give the question due consideration. "No. I am not." He brushed the spider from his hand and stood up, blocking the lamplight. "Do you have the contents of the box?"

"Of course." Dorian patted the front of his coat and felt the crinkle of paper under his fingers. "Did you have to get the poor old man drunk, then? Though I'm glad I don't have to tell him how I liked the garden. It's shamefully neglected."

"Give them to me." Klaus' vowels were not quite so precise as they usually were, a faint guttural hint of German creeping through. Backlit by the lamp, he had a soft reddish halo.

Dorian glanced at the caretaker and decided he was not likely to wake up any time soon. He began to unbutton his coat, and then his shirt, making a production out of toying with the buttons. He glanced up at Klaus, expecting quite a different look from the dark, intent one that met his eyes. "What is this?" he asked, dropping his hand. "What is it you've had me steal, all alone on a mission without your men?"

"It is none of your business. Give it to me."

"It is now, isn't it?" He shook his head, but undid another few buttons and began to pull out the envelope and notebook. "I can't quite see you tracking down someone's diary just for the fun of it."

Klaus' hand closed around Dorian's wrist, an iron grip. "Did you read it?" Klaus asked in a soft, quiet tone infinitely more frightening than his usual shout.

"No." Dorian tried to move his hand. Klaus' fingers were cutting off his circulation. "And whoever is going to read it has his work cut out for him. Awful handwriting. Major, either make up your mind to break my wrist, or let go of it." Klaus let go, but Dorian still felt the pressure, an invisible handcuff. He held out the notebook and envelope, waiting for Klaus to snatch them from his grip. "It's unusual for NATO to want my assistance with something so poorly guarded. I think you could have stolen this yourself."

Klaus took the book and envelope and looked at them, one corner of his mouth turning down in what looked like distaste. "This — it was so easy, then?"

He swept out with his free hand and sent the glasses and the empty bottle crashing to the stone floor. Glass splinters flew; Dorian looked down to see fine shards catch on the toes of his suede boots, and up again to find that the old man was still out cold. Klaus strode out through the half-open door. Dorian hesitated for a moment, then used a folded newspaper he found on the desk to sweep most of the glass into a pile, and put the paper next to it to make it more visible. The old man was wearing stout boots. Dorian went out after Klaus and found him only a few steps past the door, staring out into the mist-drenched garden.

"Yes, it was easy," Dorian said, trying for casual. "Does that mean NATO will try to skimp on my pay?"

"You will be paid." Klaus lit a cigarette. Dorian wondered if Klaus' hair smelled of tobacco smoke. "Do not concern yourself."

Dorian kept his voice soft. "But not by NATO."

Klaus turned his head sharply. "What the hell are you saying?" The spark of anger was there in his voice, but his eyes were distant, haunted. The mist beaded in his hair, drops clustering like translucent seed pearls in the dark strands.

"You didn't give me very much information," Dorian said, "so I did a little research of my own. Whatever Mischa the Cub told you, surely he cannot be trusted to—"

"Dammit!" Klaus flung the lit cigarette into the boxwoods with the same violent gesture that had swept the bottle off the desk. "I don't care what the Chief says, I'm sending G to fucking Alaska the minute I get back."

"Oh, no," Dorian protested. "Klaus, you can't. Poor little G would absolutely hate it." He looked at the Major's tense profile, and then slowly turned his back, looking at some other boxwoods and the dripping branches of a tree. The bulk of the house loomed up, a dark solid shape blocked out in tendrils of mist and unhappiness. He might as well have kept on watching Klaus. "I don't know why you wanted this. But you don't have to pay me."

"The Chief will be happy to hear that," Klaus grated out.

"I won't work for NATO for free." Dorian wished he had his own cigarettes. He wasn't even wearing a bracelet he could play with. "But I won't take money for doing a favor for a friend." It felt as though he were breathing water. "What is in that notebook, Klaus?"

In the silence, he could hear the first real raindrops fall onto the slate roof and whisper through the tree branches, could hear gravel protesting as the major shifted his weight. The air was so cool that Dorian almost fancied he could feel the warmth from the major's body.

"It is information from.... It is from the war," Klaus said finally. "It is a record of things that were done." And it seemed to Dorian that every word might as well have been specific and exact.

Absoluter und unbedingter Gehorsam. Ausführung. Linientreu. Die Generalität ist gewillt... Endlösung. Absolute and unconditional obedience. Implementation. True to the party line. The generals are willing to... Final solution.

He thought about the bottle and the glasses, and the sleeping man, and how easily the bottle had broken against the floor; one could hardly make out its original shape from the fragments left. Those sharp-edged pieces could slice a man's flesh to the bone.

"But Klaus," he said, "that notebook can't be from the war."

Dorian didn't turn; he could feel the major's eyes burning into the back of his neck. "What do you mean?"

"If it's supposed to be from the forties, or earlier, it's a forgery. And not a very good one, either," Dorian said, keeping his voice casual and critical. "Just look at the inside cover — that's lightweight coated paper, for heaven's sake."

"You are not an expert," Klaus said. The words were clipped and hard, but his vowels were out of control. "You know nothing about these things."

"I'm an art thief. I've seen more forged ownership papers than you've seen tanks. Jones is the expert on my team, but he's taught me enough to spot a bad fake when I see one." Dorian thought about turning his head. His hair was weighed down by water. "The NATO experts will tell you the same thing the moment you show it to them."

In the silence that followed, he did turn, to look at the major's pale face and stern mouth. Klaus wore the rain like jewellery, tiny drops glittering at the end of his long dark lashes. His eyes were shuttered, withholding everything. "Perhaps," he said, and the truth was in his voice, that he never would have asked.

Dorian clenched his hands tight, digging his nails into his palms. He would not reach out. Not now. "It's a forgery," he repeated. "Whatever it says in here about — about someone, it's not true."

The words hung in the air. The mist was being driven away by the rain; Dorian felt wetness seep through the toes of his boots and knew the suede was ruined. He kept perfectly still as Klaus stared down at the envelope and notebook with dark concentration. Drops of rain hit the paper, began to soak in.

Klaus took the notebook in both hands and ripped it apart, effortlessly tearing the spine in half. He dropped it to the ground and ripped the envelope in half, too, dropping the halves on top of the pieces of the notebook and grinding them into the gravel with the heel of his boot.

Then he looked at Dorian. "I hate you," he said with quiet, honest intensity. He put a hand on Dorian's shoulder, took a step closer, and kissed him.

The kiss was brief, clumsy, and uncomfortable. Klaus broke it after only a few seconds and strode off without a word. Dorian watched him go and slowly touched the back of his hand to his lips. "Such a bitter taste," he whispered. He knelt down and gathered the pieces of notebook and envelope, making a face at how wet and dirty they were, and tucked them back inside his shirt. They would have to be burned. Pieces of gravel scraped against his skin as he buttoned shirt and coat. The rain fell more heavily. The mist was gone.

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