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.


Week 15

Hausmann, The Thief

The next morning, Hausmann was up with the dog walkers. He took a turn around Highgate Woods, jogging three laps and sprinting one. As he warmed down, he ducked off the gravel track that formed an oval round the woods’ perimeter and cut through into the forested heart.

The light was grey. A pair of wrens sang to the sun, as if hoping it would show itself given enough encouragement.

Before long, birdsong and the scuff of his feet were the only noises Hausmann could hear. There was an oak tree by the path, one he knew well. He looked over his shoulder and crouched by the trunk of the oak. It was hollow – dry as kindling and sheared at head height by a winter storm, yet still sporting a sprig of leaves from the edge of its crown.

Hausmann reached through a knot into the trunk. There it was. A brown fold of sackcloth, with a plastic bag slithering inside it. He unzipped his tracksuit jacket, concealed the sack, and jogged off towards the edge of the woods and the long run home.

After he had showered, Hausmann unwrapped the package and studied the manilla folder inside. There were photostats of manifests, duty rosters, travel permits, bills of lading, accommodation orders, diplomatic waivers, boarding passes, weapons licences, telegrams marked MINISTERIAL EYES ONLY and intelligence reports that should never really be seen outside the Service building itself. Scrivener had done well.

The paperwork was in two halves. The first section referred to the recent conference in London and the Bulgarian, British, French, American and Prussian delegations. The second section detailed the personnel present at the Midway signing 12 years ago.

Hausmann picked through the Midway papers slowly, each sheet growing heavier in his hands. The British entourage first. All the names belonging to men he had known once but had striven to forget. Scrivener at the top. Levine. Hausmann. Then there were the case notes.

He was only glad there were no pictures.

He cleared his throat and picked up a pencil. He laid out the documents in two piles on the table and went through them systematically, skimming not reading, just noting down the names of any personnel until he had two lists.

It was dispiriting to see how few names there were in common. One or two of the senior diplomats remained in place – the obvious ones like Hilton and Bogdanev – but on the intelligence side, the turnover was almost complete. Service to one’s country is not a long-term career.

Scrivener had once told him that their business was like a giant game of Risk, but the objective wasn’t global domination; it was simply about how you would exit the game. Retired. Insane. Suicide. Killed.

The Midway list read like a war memorial. Hausmann checked off the names he recognised, seeing how they had fared in the grand Risk game. Not many had retired.

There was one name common to both lists and it wasn’t familiar to him. Sofia Slade. She was part of the Prussian delegation from the military side, only a sergeant at Midway but a Commander by the time last week’s conference came around. She must be around his age. Hausmann couldn’t remember her face, but he pictured her as a typical Prussian military type: severe, rather too well muscled, inflexible, fond of violent solutions.

He would soon find out. There was a London address listed for her private quarters.

Like their British counterparts, senior Prussian officers were given an allowance to find their own accommodation outside the compound. Commander Slade had chosen a second-floor apartment in Chelsea on the edge of the diplomatic district. Hausmann wondered what the salary of a Prussian Commander must be. Even with overseas weighting, she couldn’t afford a place in this neighbourhood. Perhaps she had an alternative source of income. The private intelligence industry could be very lucrative for someone with flexible morals.

The brickwork of the apartment building was mottled and the drainpipes sturdy, giving Hausmann enough purchase to reach the ledge outside her window without attracting attention. The lights were out, but it was only dusk. He peaked over the sill and let his eyes adjust to the darkness long enough to be sure there was no movement.

Bracing himself with one arm, he pressed the head of a stethoscope against the glass and listened. There were voices, but faint. The neighbours downstairs. Nothing else.

It was a civilian building but Hausmann checked for sensors around the window frame. Clear. But there were a series of Constantan papercraft figures interlinked very precisely and deliberately along the sill. He would need to be careful.

Thankfully, it was not a breezy evening. Hausmann hooked a wire around the latch inside, yanked it across and hoisted himself through the narrow top section. With gymnastic grace, he lowered himself onto the carpet and pulled the window shut.

He squatted to inspect the paper ornaments. Definitely Constantan, some years old, with a layer of dust. They looked like the kind made out of newspaper by street traders, sold to tourists for pennies. He didn’t dare unfold one to check the date. Still, it was odd for someone to keep them for so long. He wondered if Slade kept them as souvenirs of her kills. When he was a young officer, he’d met a handful of the Prussian Special Forces troops who had been operating behind Persian lines in the last incursion. They were drinkers, as so many soldiers are, and young Hausmann had found them distasteful. He decided not to associate with them, but after they had moved on, echoes of their stories were whispered round the corps. He heard tales of mutilation and the execution of civilians. He heard about wagers made and won regarding the deaths of children. He was told that the Prussians kept the ears of their victims – for identification, they claimed, but it smacked to him of bloodlust. That was the Prussian army.

The rest of the room was free of adornment. No paintings, no photographs. This would be the lounge. A couch, a fireplace, a small dining table, a wireless with a record player built in. Hausmann picked through the vinyl discs and raised an eyebrow. Not just the Prussian folk songs he had expected – there was some modern British music too. Perhaps she was studying local culture to help her blend in.

Off the lounge was an office. A converted second bedroom, Hausmann surmised, never likely to be needed for a child. It was neat and largely free of documents. Commander Slade was wise enough not to bring her work home with her.

Under the base of an angle-poise lamp, Hausmann noticed a business card. He leaned closer and wrote the details in his notebook: John Noon, Ludgate & Smythe; and an address on Lime Street. Something for later.

Back through the lounge was the hallway and a door leading to the bedroom. A double bed. Two wardrobes. A man’s discarded shoes were half under the counterpane and a pair of suit trousers strewn over the pillows.

So Commander Slade did not live alone. A double income might explain the expensive location.

On the dressing table was a photograph, a colourised wedding portrait of the bride and groom. He wore a plain lounge suit and a dark tie, she wore a simple summer dress and clutched a bouquet of wild flowers. Something behind the camera had caught her attention as the shutter closed. The photograph was framed by an ornate card border with a title at the bottom: 'Summer Solstice '53. Our Happy Day.' Neither of them were smiling.

Hausmann checked the wardrobes for concealed compartments. The man’s wardrobe was simple, businesslike, pinstriped. The woman’s was serge and khaki and epaulettes. There was a weapons chest next to her boots containing a range of handguns and knives. Military issue. Nothing that, on its own, could have caused the unnatural carnage Hausmann had witnessed in Midway.

There was a kitchen across the hall. It was scrupulously clean, and a pile of folded white shirts sat on an ironing board against the far wall. The jacket from a Prussian dress uniform hung next to the door, square-shouldered and gleaming with medals. Hausmann analysed the insignias. The silver fist for distinguished service. A Bulgarian eight-pointed star - she must have fought in a joint operation with them, and done well. A bronze oak leaf for injury in the field. The iron fox.

Hausmann looked again. The iron fox, for desert operations. The only desert campaign Prussia had been involved with since the turn of the century was in Persia. He hated to imagine what would have been considered 'deserving service' out there.

He took the jacket off its hanger and laid it face-down on the ironing board so that its broad back was stretched flat. Then he switched on the electric iron, positioned it in the centre of the jacket sizzling between the shoulder blades, and let himself out through the front door.

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