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The Bulgarian ambassador is found eviscerated in his London quarters, and Major Sonja Slade of the Prussian Army searches for his killer while trying to forget her own ties to the dead man.

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Monday
Oct082012

Week 10

John, The Insurance Clerk

It was so dark that when I closed my eyes I couldn’t see the difference. My breath echoed. It sounded like I was inside a steel box – a shipping container, perhaps, or a prefab shelter. My footsteps thudded but I wasn’t aware of moving my feet. I was drifting and gravity was fluid.

Mine were not the only footsteps either. There was a scrabbling sound, like a rat, but larger and rougher, scraping against the metal floor, trying to get purchase. I was floating backwards or downwards and the scrabbling ripped up the space between us, clawing the air away, and I could feel the sound thumping against my chest as it got closer and closer.

Then the blackness whirled around me and I heard the scream of death.

The poor guy sitting next to me must have been terrified. As I woke up, I yelled and gripped the armrest, not realising that his arm was there, crushing the knuckles of his hand. He yelped too. It was the bearded Prussian from the airport waiting room. After the initial shock and the accusing look, he chuckled at me.

“You are not good with flying?”

“Sorry, I... sorry.”

He smiled again and stared out of the window. We were passing over the Greek Islands already, arid piles of sand surrounded by cobalt blue.

The pilot asked us to fasten our seatbelts for the descent into Athens and the other passengers shuffled in their seats. I must have missed the in-flight meal. My newspaper lay on the fold-down table over my lap with the Lasserre dossier on top of it. I’d completely failed to do any work. I took the papers, folded my table back to its original position, put the paperwork into the elasticated net in front of my knees, and braced myself for landing.

I was actually quite a good flyer, when occasion allowed. In my early days, I was often assessing ships and fleets around Scandinavia, hopping between the Nordics, the Baltics and the Iberian peninsula. But this was my first time to the Greco-Roman Empire.

The plane bounced and rumbled to a halt outside the terminal and we were escorted across the tarmac to the arrivals area. I watched our luggage being loaded onto a trailer which was then hauled across to the terminal buildings by a small tractor.

Even this late in the afternoon, the sun was startlingly bright. When I turned back to see the baggage conveyor belt starting up, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the shade. The suitcases began tumbling through a rubberized curtain, behind which I caught glimpses of the baggage handlers casually lobbing our bags onto the belt.

I say ‘our bags’. After 20 minutes, it was clear that my bag wasn’t among them. The aircrew checked the plane and the groundcrew checked the cargo zones, but my suitcase was nowhere to be found. It must have been left behind in Croydon.

Not for the first time, I found myself shaking my head in resignation and filling in a form. In my enthusiasm for foreign travel, I’d forgotten how such bureaucratic errors could so often blight a business trip. I was assured the bag would be forwarded on to me ‘within a day or two’.

As I had no luggage to drop off, rather than go to the hotel I decided to take a taxi straight to the coastguard station. Piraeus was half an hour across town and the driver took an erratic, bad-tempered route through the city centre. By the time we arrived at the harbour, I was glad to hand him a bunch of crumpled drachmas and wave him off, making a mental note to find a car hire company.

My Greek language skills were somewhat rusty – my most modern experience of Greek was Sophocles – but I was lucky enough to find the stationmaster spoke reasonable English. I explained that I was there on behalf of Ludgate & Smythe regarding the Lasserre and he nodded and beckoned me over to a wooden-topped counter on which were a scattering of charts and logbooks.

“I did not make the report myself,” he explained, flipping through one of the hefty hardbacks, “I was at home with my family on Sunday. It was one of the junior guards, Hristos. It should be...”

...But it wasn’t. Search as he might, the stationmaster couldn’t locate the report. I took the logbook out of his hands and flipped through the handwritten pages. The informality of the documentation was dismaying, but even so, it was plain that the book had been tampered with. The records for much of Sunday were simply absent, and on closer inspection, I could see that a page had been sliced out of the book, tight to the spine.

“Is this Hristos on duty today?”

The stationmaster shook his head, still trying to comprehend how and why someone would have tampered with the logs.

“No, most of the guards work only part of the time, in shifts. He is here again on Wednesday.”

“Where can I find him today?”

“I don’t know... He lives down near the docks, above the Fork of Poseidon.” He registered my look of confusion. “It is a bar. Perhaps he is there.”

I couldn’t leave the matter until Wednesday, so I shook the stationmaster’s hand and followed his directions down to the docks. I noted, rather unhappily, that the sun was setting and the tangled fishing nets and lobster pots were casting long, grasping shadows across the slipways.

My overcoat had been in my suitcase, along with my pills. I shuddered.

The harbour was calm but the sound of the water sloshing against the moored trawlers and trade vessels felt closer than it should have. The narrow alleyways between the wharves were full of silhouetted movement and I wondered if I was being followed. I didn’t stop to find out.

An empty oil drum toppled over and rolled across my path followed by a pair of cats, screeching and swiping at each other. Dockside cats, skinny and thin-furred. My suit and tie felt increasingly out of place. It was a relief when I heard music and saw a sign in the shape of an iron trident hanging outside a tavern up ahead. The Fork of Poseidon. The building was on two floors, built from clapboard, with a wooden staircase leading up the outside to the second storey. I took the stairs. At the top was a single door with a buzzer, which rattled when I pressed it. The curtains were drawn and the windows were dark. I buzzed again. Nobody home.

I trotted down the stairs. From the music and shouting inside, it sounded as though the bar was open for business.

As it turned out, it was impossible to make an inconspicuous entrance. There were only four men in the bar, including the landlord, and they hadn’t been expecting anyone else. One customer, a young man with overalls unbuttoned and the sleeves tied around his waist, was leaning on the bar with a cup of wine in his hand. The other two were across the room playing some kind of game that involved a hook on the wall and a metal ring tied attached to the ceiling by a length of string. My arrival had interrupted their conversation.

I smiled and pretended not to notice the latent hostility.

“Kalispera,” I said to the barman and nodded at the cup of wine, indicating that I’d like one too, sliding a ten drachma note across the counter. I hoped that this transaction would buy me some goodwill. The barman poured me a cup, but the other three continued to stare, the metal ring held in the air, the string taut. I raised my cup in a quiet toast and sipped the acrid wine, waiting for the atmosphere to return to normal.

“Hristos – is he here?” I asked the man behind the bar, pointing at the floor above.

The barman glanced at the game-players and they looked at each other. The young man next to me pushed himself away from the bar and stood upright.

“Look, gentlemen, I only want to talk to him about work for a few – “

“English?” said the man holding the metal ring. His moustache had grown long and low, covering his mouth almost entirely.

“Yes – do you speak English?”

“You police?”

“No, no. Insurance.”

This was evidently beyond his vocabulary. I tried to think of the Greek for ‘insurance’ but suspected we were never going to bridge this particular gap. He leaned across and muttered something to his friend. It looked like they were talking about more than linguistic issues.

“You with the others?”

“I – no, I’m on my own. Here.”

I handed him my business card, which he and his friend examined together. Then he walked over to the barman and handed it to him. He shared it with the man in the overalls. I was being scrutinized even more closely than before.

“Last night, there were others. A woman and a man. Like you.” He mimicked the knotting of a tie and picked imaginary lint off a jacket sleeve.

“From Ludgate & Smythe?”

“No. Greeks. They search for Hristos also. He runs away.”

“Where did he go?”

There was another exchange of glances and mutterings. Hristos’s name came up again and again and their tone was serious, even concerned.

“His girlfriend, Lydia. He goes to her. She works at café in railway station. ”

“Thank you.” I took another mouthful of wine. I had intended to drain the cup and leave, but I couldn’t stomach the taste. Besides, I might still be able to find out more here. “Why did Hristos run?”

“Heh... he is a good boy, but... they look powerful. Not police, but like.”

“Who were they?”

“He knows.”

He was staring straight at the youngster by the bar. The lad spoke rapidly in Greek and gesticulated some kind of protest, but the barman shouted him down and waved his hands in my direction. They wanted him to tell me something. I gathered he couldn’t speak English, so the mustachioed man acted as interpreter while the young man stumbled through what he knew.

“He says he found a wallet, from the man last night.”

“Found?”

“He finds many wallets. He is lucky.”

The young man shrugged and swaggered on the balls of his feet with a kind of defiant bravado. I checked my own pockets just to be safe.

“Carry on.”

“He takes money from the wallet. Is nice wallet so he keeps it, next to his bed. He sleeps. This morning, it is gone.”

“Was there anything else in the wallet? Identification?”

“Only a piece of paper. Small paper. With words and red drawing.”

“What did it say? What was in the drawing?”

The young man was struggling to explain now, and his interpreter went back and forth with him, increasingly agitated, trying to get an answer. After a minute of debate, neither of them seemed satisfied. The translator rubbed his forehead and smoothed down his hair before presenting his conclusions.

“He says... He cannot remember all. And I do not know. I do not understand what he says. It is difficult, I think. It is something about a woman... A woman and a sea monster.”

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