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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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Sunday
Sep302012

Week 9

Slade, The Officer

Slade boards the night train to Midway Island at 1am. St Pancras Station is quiet. The dull thud of the heels of her boots echoes around the vaulted space. She nods to the guard at the gate, shows the identification on a chain in her pocket. He nods back and points to the gunmetal-grey train on platform three. He didn’t need to indicate it – there’s only one government train leaving at this time of night – but it’s as well to be polite to Bureau officials.

She finds the correct compartment and checks her paperwork one more time. She’s carrying a leather satchel containing the documents, a small black leather valise on wheels and the wooden crate with the pigeon. She turns the doorhandle. Inside the carriage is a young woman in dress uniform with shiny epaulettes and a smart brimmed cap – someone special must be travelling tonight, perhaps the Prime Minister or another member of the Cabinet.

The young woman helps her to her berth. It’s only 90 miles to Midway, but the journey can sometimes take six or seven hours, depending on the prevailing conditions and whether anyone onboard has failed to prepare themselves properly. Slade is always properly prepared, all military personnel are. But she’s been on trains that have had to wait for hours at the coast for some junior minister to complete the rituals. If there’s a delay, it’s usually because someone’s been stupid. Or, occasionally, because they’re a traitor.

The berth is comfortably furnished, upholstered with the emblems of England intertwined with those of France – very sensible and even-handed. There’s a washbasin, a banquette that folds into a bed, a place for suitcases and a door to a little cubicle, shared with the next berth along. It’s a nicer train than the usual military transports. Must be someone really special. Perhaps a delegation.

On the platform, the guard blows his whistle. The train begins to judder, then slowly moves out of the station, heading south towards the coast. Slade turns on the reading lamp by the banquette, and settles down with her briefing notes.

After a few minutes, there’s a knock at the door. It’s the young woman in dress uniform. “Is it time?” says Slade. The young woman smiles, nods. She’s eager. “Have you done it before? Do you need me to show you how?” Slade shakes her head. She’s been doing it since this girl was in primary school. “I’ll be fine,” she says, “how long have I got?” The young woman looks at her watch. “A window of about 20 minutes. Is that OK?” Plenty of time.

Slade picks up the crate and opens the door to the little shared cubicle. There’s a bronze bowl set into a wood bench on the left, with a mirror above it and a large ornate black-metal knife on a chain attached to the wall. This is a bit over-dramatic, but better than the municipal facilities on most trains. She’s had to do this with a blunt half-scissor into a cracked bucket before now.

The pigeon doesn’t struggle. They’re bred in cages and fed a special mixture to keep them docile. Slade holds the bird in her left hand, feeling the weight of the blade in her right. She looks at the pigeon’s eyes, beady and unafraid. She plunges the blade into its stomach and up through the neck, severing the head. It doesn’t have time to utter a sound. She allows it to bleed into the bowl. There’s a useful receptacle for the carcass to the left of the bowl.

She dips her right forefinger into the blood. There’s a printed sign above the mirror reminding her of the words, but she doesn’t need it. “I humbly supplicate for passage,” she says, “from the domain of Albion. My heart is Albion’s. My body is Albion’s. My blood is Albion’s.” She draws the sigil on the mirror with the blood. “I shall return, but until I return, I belong to you, Lords of Albion.” The lights flicker. The sigil drawn on the mirror vanishes. The train rattles on through the night. Good.

At the basin, Slade washes the blood off her hands. She’s already back reading her briefing notes before the young woman returns to collect the rubbish.

Interview room 49 Easter Hotel, Midway Island 9.16am

She puts the gloves on slowly. She watches him watching her. She fits each finger snugly into the leather.

She dips a finger into the basin of red liquid. It’s not blood. If it were blood, if she were doing it with a naked hand, this would be dangerous. But it looks like blood. That’s the point.

She draws the symbol on the table between them and watches the man’s face. This is crucial. A totally innocent man will look puzzled, confused, perhaps a little alarmed. A practised guilty man will look bored. A knowledgeable man will look afraid, will know what she could be bringing down. If it were blood.

The man with the scraggy beard watches her impassively. It’s as if he doesn’t care what she’s doing, doesn’t care even for his own safety.

His hands are cuffed behind his back. She draws the symbol slowly. Waiting to see if his eyes widen. She knows he knows what it might be. The important thing is to see if he knows for certain what it is. He doesn’t become alarmed, although there’s no way for him to erase the mark when it’s done.

She begins the final line, tracing its curve slowly. He looks at her with pure loathing. As she finishes, he gathers spit in his mouth and hawks a glob onto the table.

It’s enough to erase a vital portion of the symbol and make it invalid. Very clever.

Good.

She hits him hard across the face. Once, twice, three times. This is also something the gloves are useful for. His nose is probably broken, certainly bleeding profusely.

“Now,” she says, “now Mr Vasilev, let’s talk about summoning.”

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