Search
About

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.

Contents
Kitty
Navigation
Thursday
Sep272012

Week 8

Hausmann, The Thief

Hausmann didn’t sleep. He ran through his morning exercises, showered, changed his clothes, and sat on the wooden corner chair for an hour, staring at the cardboard box and its wax seal.

He had examined the contents again and re-glued the cardboard flap so that it appeared pristine. Any minor damage could have been sustained during the break-in. If Bartholamew suspected for a moment that Hausmann had looked inside, it would be the end of more than just his career. Bartholamew was the kind of man who kept a loaded shotgun taped to the underside of his desk, pointed at the groin of his visitors.

As he sat on the unforgiving wooden seat, the sky outside went from black to dim grey. There was traffic noise, the clatter of high-heeled shoes on the pavement below and a dog barking in the parkland behind the terrace. It was time to move.

He packed the box in the bottom of a sagging holdall and donned a coat and hat, despite the clement weather. The air was crisp and the sun was low enough for one side of the street to be in shadow, the morning dew glistening on the cars. Checking the reflection of the street behind him in each windscreen, Hausmann set off towards the Underway station.

At the bottom of the staircase, he went to the ticket machine and studied the map until anyone who might have entered with him should have passed through the barriers. He bought two open singles with cash and went through to the Southbound platform, where he perched on a bench and glanced at the three other commuters already waiting. They seemed innocent enough.

When he heard a Northbound train arrive on the platform behind him, Hausmann picked up the bag and crossed over, stepping into the carriage just as the doors closed. None of the others had followed his lead, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t part of a surveillance team with people on both platforms. He’d been part of teams like that himself, back in the beginning.

By the time the train reached Strand station, he had moved along six carriages using connecting doors and, once, stepping off the train at Aldwych before getting back on further along. These were mere formalities. With each manoeuvre, he was at once drawing attention to himself and also trying to provoke a reaction from anyone trailing him. Just because he hadn’t noticed anybody didn’t mean that he was in the clear. It simply meant that he wasn’t being trailed by amateurs.

The real test would be at Charing Cross. He left the train and headed down the long connecting tunnel to Embankment, all the time listening for footsteps behind him. This route was rarely used by commuters, who preferred to avoid the time-consuming interchange. More importantly, the straight, bright tunnel left nowhere to hide.

At Embankment, he began climbing the spiral staircase to street level, and as he turned the tight clockwise corners, certain he could not be observed, he swiftly removed his hat and coat, stuffed them in the holdall and passed through the ticket barriers.

The entrance to Temple station was only a minute away, and when he arrived there and used his other single ticket, he boarded the train with one last backward glance. His old training remained true. He was on his own.

Bartholamew’s office was only three stops away. The lights were on and the blinds were down behind heavy steel grilles. Hausmann noted with distaste how grimy the inside of the windows had become, thick with ash and the empty husks of insects.

Pressing the buzzer, he looked straight into the lens of the spy hole in the door. He heard the scrape of latches and chains, then the door was pulled open. Bartholamew was a wiry man in his fifties, wearing a waistcoat that hung off his shoulders like a butcher’s apron. A cigarette jutted out of his mouth and he squinted against the smoke.

Hausmann nodded as he crossed the threshold and followed the trail of smoke back into the office, while his host locked and bolted the door behind them.

It was a modest room. A calendar from the Racing Post hung on the far wall, still set to January. Two dented grey filing cabinets stood either side of it, with Bartholamew’s leather chair between them. In front of that, covered in untidy piles of paper, was the desk. It was brand new. Hausmann had a strong suspicion of what might have damaged the old one.

Bartholamew took his seat and Hausmann sidestepped out of the firing line, supposedly to inspect an ailing yukka. The plant pot was overflowing with cigarette ends.

“Any problems?”

Hausmann refrained from comment. Instead he opened the holdall and dug out the slim box with its wax seal and its secrets. He passed it across the desk. Bartholamew turned it over, checking the seal, feeling the weight. His hands were shaking. He put the box away in a drawer and turned to one of the filing cabinets, unlocked it at the third attempt, and produced a manila parcel. It was a brick of paper secured with a rubber band. He threw it onto the desk.

“Twenty-five, as agreed.”

There was no need to count it. Hausmann put the parcel in his bag and waited as Bartholamew unbolted the front door. Their business was concluded, at least for another few weeks. Hausmann headed back towards the Underway.

At the corner of the street, he turned and stopped. There was a café. It gave him a clear view of Bartholamew’s office, so he ordered a glass of water, took a seat by the window, and settled in for a long wait.

It was only then that he realised he hadn’t eaten since breakfast the previous day and the smell of fried food made his stomach growl. He asked the cook behind the counter for a boiled egg and toast. Somebody had left a newspaper on their table and Hausmann appropriated it, though he barely saw the headlines. His attention was focused on the heavy, bolted door fifty yards up the street.

The egg and toast arrived just as Bartholamew left the office. Hausmann had to drop a handful of coins on the counter and jam his hat down on his head, putting the coat on as he nudged the door open. He stuffed the holdall up his shirt to change his profile further.

Bartholamew was still in sight. He was walking quickly and Hausmann had to raise his pace uncomfortably. Anyone watching this street would soon spot the two people on opposite sides of the street moving unusually fast.

Hausmann wanted to keep his distance but the streets here were shorter and increasingly crowded. Bartholamew didn’t seem aware of him in any case. There were no evasive manoeuvres, no stopping, no checking. He looked like a man in a hurry.

Then Bartholamew stopped. It was, to Hausmann’s mind, an unlikely location: Trafalgar Square. For a man who liked to do his business in private, this seemed like a very public place for a meeting – if this was a meeting. Hausmann wondered for a moment if this could be a tactic directed at him, a way of bringing him out into the open. He scanned the square, trying to spot anybody who might be in the trade. There were hundreds of people out here. Any one of them could be watching, and that’s before he even considered the dozens of windows overlooking the vast open area. Hausmann hung back under the colonnades of a gift shop while Bartholamew bought a bag of breadcrumbs from a street vendor. Hausmann scrutinised the exchange. He didn’t notice anything peculiar, and he felt sure he’d seen the same man selling breadcrumbs in the same place for years, but his senses were heightened and sought significance in every movement. Had he handed over a message? Were the breadcrumbs a signal?

For a full five minutes, Bartholamew wandered around Nelson’s Column scattering breadcrumbs and looking anywhere but at the pigeons. He was waiting for someone, expecting something. But why here? Perhaps Bartholamew had been persuaded to meet in public by a more powerful but nervous counterpart. Or maybe he chose a public place himself, scared for his own safety.

Either way, Hausmann was surprised when Bartholamew was approached by a grey-haired lady hauling a tartan shopping trolley. She ambled towards him, craned her neck to look at the statue of Nelson, and absently let the trolley slip from her grip. Bartholamew hurried to assist her and Hausmann was sure he saw the box being slipped into the trolley and an envelope pressed into the man’s hand before the old woman continued on her stately way.

Bartholamew dropped the bag of crumbs and stalked back towards the spot where Hausmann was standing. Hausmann ducked behind a column and watched him pass. When he looked back at the square, the old lady in her purple overcoat had only moved on a little way. Hausmann decided to track her by following the perimeter of the square.

She was a slow-moving target – awkwardly slow, and twice Hausmann found himself stopping to tie his shoelace or check a shop window simply to stay behind her. She didn’t seem too aware of her surroundings, stooped as she was, but Hausmann knew he had to stay sharp.

Gradually, tectonically, the old lady trundled across the square before working her way back along one side towards the top of the Strand. That’s where she turned off. Soon after, she was edging her trolley one step at a time down the stairs of Charing Cross station. A cheerful young chap in a polo neck sweater helped her carry the trolley down the second flight to the lower level. Hausmann frowned at him. Probably innocent. In the station, Hausmann’s target passed through the ticket barriers with the assistance of the station staff. But then, instead of walking towards the platforms, she made for the pedestrian tunnel to Embankment. Hausmann stopped short. He couldn’t follow her down there without risking exposure, especially at her pace.

With no other option, he decided to test a theory.

He doubled back up the stairs and walked overland to Temple. If his quarry was using the same tactics as he had, she’d arrive there in the next few minutes. And if she used those tactics, he would know exactly who had trained her.

Hausmann bought another two single tickets and a newspaper, then sat on a bench on the Westbound platform, flipping through the international affairs section. Before long, he heard the squeak of trolley wheels on the platform behind him. When a Westbound train arrived, he stood and put the newspaper under his arm and was only slightly surprised to see the tartan shopping cart dragged into the next carriage just as he stepped on board.

He stayed standing, holding onto a rail and watching her in the next carriage over the top of his newspaper. So she was government. Presumably senior. But why would a government agency use a broker like Bartholamew to conduct their dirty work? They had plenty of specialists in-house. Perhaps they wanted deniability – particularly with regard to an embassy break-in. Or maybe this agent had gone freelance, like him. There was no telling who the real client might be yet.

At the next stop, she left the train. A handful of other passengers also left, so Hausmann was able to keep a few bodies between himself and the target. She called the disability elevator. Hausmann chose to take the stairs and wait up there, even if it meant losing sight of her again. He could always check the elevator later in case she tried to make a drop there.

She emerged from the elevator, was waved through the barriers by the stationmaster, and turned left into the sunshine.

Westminster. Hausmann was becoming even more curious about her eventual destination. She skirted round Parliament Square, politely edging through the crowds of tourists gawping at Big Ben and past the Commons. Then she headed west towards the ministries. The Foreign Office, thought Hausmann. Or the Intelligence Service.

But she carried on westwards along Broad Sanctuary until she turned off the street and into a courtyard – the precincts of Westminster Abbey.

Through the great arched entrance went the old woman with the tartan trolley, looking like any other parishioner stopping by to light a candle.

Was this another handover? A dead drop? Hausmann closed the distance between them as the she disappeared inside.

It was darker in here and colder. He recognised the smell of incense, almost menthol in its coolness. The pale stone and white daylight drained the building of colour, and pallid volunteers collected hymnbooks from pew after pew.

His eyes adjusted. There was no sign of the purple overcoat or the tartan trolley or the old woman who had walked in moments before.

He picked up speed, treading as lightly as he could down one side of the atrium. None of the volunteers looked familiar. He was sure she’d been wearing black buckled shoes, but he couldn’t see any here. There were no tour parties to mingle with, no cubbyholes or confessionals to hide in. He checked behind the tombs. He looked for an upper level or a way into the crypt. All the exits were locked or securely guarded.

Hausmann thought about asking one of the volunteers if they’d seen the lady come in, but he couldn’t run the risk. Nor could he stay and conduct a more thorough search. Any of these people – or all of them – could be working with his target. He didn’t know how large this operation was.

So with no options left, Hausmann went back to the chancel and the rows of candles, lit one in memory of the absent, and wished, hoped and prayed for any kind of guidance.

« Week 7 | Main | Week 9 »