AUTHOR'S NOTE: My direct knowledge of emergency procedures in the State of Kansas is non-existent. I have taken serious liberties and consolidated several services for the sake of the story. I am, however, very familiar with the customs of the US (The airport codes are for real.) and all the wonderful stereotypes included herein.


IRON MAN & THE PRINCE
By Margaret Price

CHAPTER ONE
DEAD MAN WALKING

A lone BMW raced along a country road in Kansas, far in excess of the posted speed limit, its ultimate destination several hours away. Before it could get there, however, it still had to reach the Interstate highway several miles further on. It was early afternoon, but the sky was growing dark with a gathering thunderstorm, mirroring the Major's current mood.

"I'm never gonna forgive the Chief for sending me to this Godforsaken country again," the Major growled. He threw an angry glance over at Eroica. "With you!"

Eroica simply rolled his eyes. "Major, I don't know what you're complaining about," he replied calmly. "Your mission was completed with only a minor hiccup."

"Minor! You call being booked at the wrong bloody airport a minor hiccup?"

"Well, I'm not the one who didn't know there were two Kansas Cities, was I?" the Earl replied coolly.

"There's only one Kansas City Airport."

"So, what's the problem then?"

The Major threw him an annoyed scowl. "The idiots had us flying out of Orlando, Florida, over a thousand bloody miles away!"

"What? How the hell did that happen?"

"Some damned fool put the wrong Goddamn airport code in. Instead of MCI, they put in MCO. When I find out who it was, they're gonna be on the first plane to Alaska."

"I'm sure they know that airport code," Eroica said aridly.

"I should've known something like this would happen! Whenever you're around, things always get fucked up one way or the other."

Eroica sighed heavily. He'd heard it all before. "Major, if you could, you'd be blaming me for the weather. Anyway, it's all straightened out, isn't it? The airport's just across the river."

Just across the bloody Missouri River, probably at fucking rush hour, that's all! The Major threw another angry glare in his direction. "I can still drop you off at Leavenworth."

"Major, that wasn't funny the first time." Eroica folded his arms. "And don't get mad at me because your contact lives in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas!" He received an indignant snort in reply. "Wouldn't it've been easier for him to come to you rather than the other way round?"

The Major allowed himself a small smirk, but did not take his eyes off the road again. The clouds overhead were boiling now, dark and sinister. He could see lightning flashes starting in the distance. He knew what this meant, and had hoped he could outrun the storm before it turned into something more deadly. Unfortunately, the storm front was moving in faster than ever.

"That wouldn't've given the others enough time to get to Washington," the officer said cryptically.

"So?"

The Major chanced a quick sideways glance in the thief's direction. "They're not the decoy, Lord Gloria. We are."

"What?"

"Agent Z isn't taking reports to NATO. He's taking the information we came after."

Eroica's mouth dropped open. "Are you saying…?"

"While the KGB waits patiently for Iron Klaus to return to Kansas City in the hopes of stealing whatever you may have procured for me, the real documents will've been safely delivered already."

Eroica found himself at a loss for words. He never imagined that Iron Klaus would use himself as a decoy. But then again, neither would the KGB, which was probably the very reason the Major had done it.Before the Earl could think of anything to say, he was startled by a solid thump on the roof of the car. "What the hell…?"

"Hail."

Eroica's eyes grew wide. "Hail? That size?" Chucks of ice were suddenly raining down around them, the smallest of which were the size of golf balls.

The Major did not reply. He was now too busy trying to keep the car on the road against the gusting wind. He looked in the rearview mirror, and then straight ahead. "Fuck." The storm seemed to be surrounding them.

"What is it, Major?"

"We need to find shelter."

This was not the reply the Earl expected. "Shelter? You're not thinking of running through a hail storm, are you?"

"Hail is the least of our problems," the Major replied, glancing in the mirror again.

Eroica turned to look out the back window, wondering what the Major could see that concerned him. All he saw was more black storm clouds. Then he jumped when a chunk of hail shattered the back window. "Bloody hell!" He turned around in his seat. "Can't you outrun it?" he asked nervously.

"That would be extremely unwise."

The car swerved suddenly, sending the Earl back against the door. "Major!"

"Look up there," the Major snapped, nodding up ahead.

Eroica did, seeing a black cloud taking on a shape he had only seen on film. "Christ."

"Have you ever been through a tornado?"

Eroica shook his head. "No. Have you?"

"Yes, several years ago."

"Marvelous." The Earl suddenly noticed why the Major had swerved so unexpectedly. They were heading up a drive to a large farmhouse. Shelter. Isn't that what he had said? They needed to find shelter. Well, at least the hail stopped.

"Hang on," the Major said as he hit the brakes, bringing the car to a skidding halt. It had barely stopped when the German was out the door. "Come on," he ordered, looking up at the sky again.

"Are we going to break in?" Eroica asked nervously. It wasn't the thought of breaking in that made him nervous. It was the thought that Americans in rural areas tended to have guns. They also tended to use them to shoot intruders.

"We'll ask, very nicely, if we can hide in the cellar," the Major replied tersely.

"You are joking."

"You idiot—" The Major broke off when a siren suddenly sounded. He turned in the direction of the noise. Then he grabbed the Earl by the arm and pulled him toward the house. "That's the tornado warning."

"And that's the tornado," Eroica gasped, pointing in the direction they had been heading.

The Major turned to look, his eyes widening when he saw a second funnel cloud dropping to the ground. Then it started moving very near the first. If they came together, they would be even more deadly. The Dead Man Walking. He learned that the last time…

"Come on, we need to get inside." By this time, the Major had to shout over the sound of the wind.

It took the combined efforts of both men to get the front door of the house open against the pressure of the wind. "Cellar," the Major called. "Find the cellar."

Eroica saw a door and pointed. "There!"

This time the door flew open in the Major's hand, banging loudly against the wall. The pair were greeted by the startled screams of several children. A woman suddenly appeared at the bottom of the stairs, took one look at the strangers, and waved a hand for them to come down. "Hurry!"

"Have everyone get under something heavy!" the Major called down to her.

"What?"

"I saw two tornados coming together. The dead man walking," the Major said as he started down the stairs.

Eroica gave the Major a bewildered look. The woman, on the other hand, let out an alarmed cry and gathered up the children, herding them away from the stairs and further into the safety of the cellar.

Eroica made to follow, only to find he could not move forward. In fact, he was being pulled in the opposite direction. He grabbed at the doorjamb and held on for dear life. "Major!"

The Major was already hanging onto the railing with both hands and leaned against it before turning back. Eroica was straining against the forces trying to drag him away. The Major reached out and the Earl grabbed his wrist. Then he struggled to grab on with his other hand. Suddenly his feet were being lifted off the floor.

"Major, don't let go!"

"Don't you bloody well let go!" the Major called back, pulling with all his might to drag the Earl to safety. He wedged his body into the corner of the narrow stairwell in order to prop his feet against the wall. He hoped this would give him better leverage without being sucked out himself. If he could wedge himself in tight enough, he would be able to reach out with his other hand…

"Major, my hands are slipping!"

The Major looked up, his eyes locking with Eroica's. A split second later, the Earl was pulled from his hand by the unrelenting forces of the storm. He felt the other man's nails gouging into the back of his hand as he was torn from his grasp.

"Dorian!"

The last thing the Major saw before the world came crashing down around him was the horrified expression on the Earl's face as he was carried out the front door.