Every December, the NATO office in Bonn hosted a holiday party for its employees. Carefully orchestrated to avoid any possible offense and decorated by turns with symbols of all the relevant holidays or none at all, it was widely enjoyed by the attendees as a chance to skive off work for an afternoon in order to eat and drink at their employer's expense.
Major Klaus von dem Eberbach naturally loathed the whole affair, but as the party was used to distribute year-end bonuses and performance awards, as a supervisor he was required to attend.
He was sulking in a corner over a glass of mineral water when two security guards came in, carrying a large crate between them. There was a red rose stenciled on one side of the crate, and Klaus felt a sinking dread as he watched them navigate the box through the fascinated crowd to where he stood.
The crate was from Eroica, obviously; who else would have the audacity to suborn the security guards thus? But nonetheless, it was inexcusably remiss of them to accept and deliver mysterious packages.
"You will get us all killed with your carelessness," he growled. "That delivery could be part of a terrorist plot."
"Nonsense, Major," said the Chief, approaching Klaus with an infuriatingly smug expression. "Our mutual friend consulted me personally about this, and I assured him that I would personally guarantee its safe and prompt delivery. It was, after all, the least we could do for someone who has made such a valued contribution to our work." He peered at the crate, craning his neck to see the top. "Is there a card?"
Klaus snatched the card from the narrow top of the crate. The Chief would likely have read it aloud for the whole room to hear; he acknowledged grudgingly that this was probably why the damned thief had put the card on top. He wasn't unobservant, for all his silly affectations of brainlessness.
Of course, the card smelled of roses.
Klaus folded up the note and shoved it deep into his pocket, eyeing the crate with trepidation. Eroica had indeed given him a vast assortment of Christmas presents over the years, beginning with jeweled tie-tacks and cufflinks and working up to cashmere overcoats and, once, a Benz, all of which Klaus had promptly sent back to the giver. In time, Eroica had changed his tactics, giving things that couldn't be returned, making outlandish donations in Klaus's name to various charities so that Klaus was by now honored in the naming of three stars, one comet, one minor extinct volcano in Antarctica, a species of deep-sea lobster, and the new athletic wing of his own old boarding school. But Eroica had never sent his Christmas gifts to him in a public place before. For someone as flamboyantly demonstrative as he was, the thief could demonstrate a surprising sense of propriety at times. It unnerved Klaus that he seemed to have abandoned it now.
The Chief had produced a crowbar, seemingly from nowhere, and was prying ineffectively at one corner of the crate. Klaus sighed. There was no use in trying to stave off the inevitable.
"Allow me," he said, and took the crowbar from the Chief's reluctant hands. He pried the front off the crate efficiently, glaring at A, who was hovering nearby trying not to stare too obviously, to catch it. As it came away, a shower of packing material tumbled onto the floor, covering Klaus' neatly blacked shoes with Styrofoam peanuts and red tissue-paper roses and revealing the gift.
It was a marble statue between three and four feet high, a young soldier in armor holding his helm beneath one arm. His face was uplifted, serene, his eyes closed, as though he had turned into a ray of sunlight to feel its warmth.
Behind Klaus, the room fell silent.
"Major? Is that--"
"Ja," he said, quietly. "I think so."
"The Warrior Greets Death," G breathed, edging around Klaus to get a better look, picking through the packing debris in his delicate high-heeled shoes. "I thought surely it had been destroyed in the war. The reports--"
"Reports can be falsified," said Klaus, sternly. "Apparently, that is what happened."
"But we could never even find a trace of it," said G. "All those investigations, all the files. And it turns up now?"
Klaus moved closer to the statue, examining it. There, on the right arm, a triangular chip; a mended crack in the plume of the helm; worn places on the grip of the warrior's sword. It was either the original work, or an exceptional forgery. Then he saw something else, caught on a splinter of the crate. Another note, this one addressed to "The Major and his Alphabets."
"Eroica found the statue while going about his... business," Klaus said, raising his voice so that the crowd could hear. "He recognized a piece of art looted by Nazis during the war, and sent it to us so that we could return it to its proper owner." The noise level in the room rose as people began talking, chattering to each other in excitement, forgotten drinks half-empty in their hands.
"It seems rather strange," said Z, quietly, looking at the statue. "For an art thief to be so upset over a piece of stolen art."
"Eroica has his own kind of honor," Klaus said brusquely. "It is not the same as ours, but he follows its demands as faithfully as we do ours."
"I suppose that is true," said Z, sounding surprised, and Klaus tuned out whatever else he was going to say. Why on earth had he defended that pervert thief?
Still. Returning the statue had been an honorable thing to do. Eroica had been right; he had finally hit upon a Christmas present that Klaus was glad to receive. He would, he thought, have to send Eroica a thank-you note.
He felt decidedly less grateful the next night, when he arrived home to find Eroica sipping a glass of wine in front of his hearth, firelight glinting dull gold in his outlandish hair.
"What the fuck," he said, "are you doing here."
Eroica handed him a glass of wine. "It's lovely to see you, too, darling," he said. "I came in answer to your charming letter."
Klaus glared at him. "This is why I do not accept presents. It makes people feel they can take liberties."
"Darling, I would never! I only thought that you might want to discuss your Christmas present a little, away from work."
Klaus opened his mouth to tell Eroica that he would never want to discuss anything with him, but then remembered that he did in fact want to discuss the statue.
"Where did you find the statue?" he asked. "Did you steal it from someone?"
"Of course I did," Eroica said, looking amused. "How else would I have gotten it? If I'd bought it and then given it to NATO it'd be all over the art world in hours, and then I'd never get invited to the interesting parties."
"As Eroica, or as Lord Gloria?" Klaus asked.
"Lord Gloria has a spotless reputation as an art historian and appraiser, as well as a peerless collector," Eroica said, sipping his wine. "As such, he is never allowed to hear of any sales with less than flawless documentation. However, certain of his contacts are... not quite so scrupulous. I'm sure it's no surprise to you that there is a fairly active underground art trade, between collectors who are less than concerned with the legality of a piece than with its authenticity. People know people who might whisper in one's ear that a certain house party will be hosting a gathering. I naturally have an interest in such things."
"Naturally," said Klaus, dryly, and took a sip of his own wine. It was quite good. Eroica liked to have high-quality things.
"I attended one such gathering with a view to acquiring a different piece altogether, but when I viewed the pieces for sale I recognized your statue immediately."
"Z was surprised that you seemed to disapprove so much, considering your profession," Klaus said.
Eroica flushed. "Z obviously doesn't know what he's talking about," he said sharply. "I only steal things when it's fair, when they've got security and guards and chances to stop me. I never steal from people who can't defend themselves and I certainly never let anyone get hurt on a job if I can help it. That statue wasn't stolen fairly, it was looted, and for the last few decades it's been floating around on the black market, getting sold back and forth, and nobody would have done a thing about it. It wasn't right."
"So you noted who bought it and then stole it from them later?"
"I didn't even leave a note," Eroica said. "It wasn't an artistic job. But it needed doing."
"Sometimes jobs do," said Klaus. He looked at Eroica. At times like these, when he wasn't playing his accustomed role, he was almost pleasant to talk to. "I think that, in your own way, you have as much honor as we do," he told him. "I told Z that."
Eroica stared at him with wide eyes, setting his wineglass on the mantel with an audible clink. "You said that?" he said. "To Z?"
"It is true," said Klaus. "Though you do your best to pretend otherwise."
"Perhaps I do," said Eroica. "You're very perceptive to notice."
"I don't like people, much," said Klaus. "But it's my job to notice them."
"People look at me all the time," said Eroica. "But they don't often notice. I think that's why I find you so fascinating, Major."
Klaus frowned. "You find me fascinating because you surround yourself with sycophants and idiots and aren't used to being denied things," he said. "I'm a novelty."
"You're a wonder," said Eroica, quietly, and crossed the room to where Klaus stood. "I won't keep you," he said. "You've got work to do. But-- thank you. For noticing." He made a quick, aborted movement, as though he were going to kiss Klaus but thought better of it, and settled by extending his hand. Klaus shook it, gravely. A strong hand, not rough, but calloused, more than Klaus would have expected; of course, Eroica did climb walls and crack safes for a living.
"Good night, Major," Eroica said, quietly, and slipped out the door.
"Good night," Klaus said, to the silent room. His wine glass was empty. He picked up Eroica's glass from the mantel. In the dim light, the wine glinted deep gold. There was a small smudge on the side, where Eroica had drunk.
Tomorrow was Christmas, and Klaus would be working. He drained the wineglass dry and went to bed.