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 17

Slade, The Officer

She has three hours left in Midway. Once a job's done and the report is filed, they rarely let you hang around for sightseeing. They have her booked on the midnight train to London, there to compose her letter to the Bulgarian Prime Minister and cause the whole matter to fade away. And when she's back in London she'll be watched. Only three hours left in the free city of Midway. Still. Three hours should be long enough.

She takes the under-road – the loose connection of platforms and walkways slung between the pipes and scaffolds holding up the city-on-stilts. Here you can see the water washing under your feet as you pass along the nailed wooden boards. In places the under-roads are boxed in, but in places there's only a rail, and in other places not even that. A man could die here on a dark night with an unlucky step or an intentional trip. Several have.

She climbs up a concrete staircase slimy with seaweed and corroded by salt-spray, and up onto the eastern viewing deck. On Midway, the bad areas of town are very rarely more than a few paces from the best areas. At the end of the viewing deck are the roped-off tables of the Blue-Glass Lamp. She shows her badge discreetly and the attendant waves her through.

The maitre d' seems unhappy to see her.

"Commander," he whispers, "this is not a good night for…"

"No," she says, "I'm not here for anyone. I'll take a curtained table."

He smiles, smoothly.

"Of course."

She orders the Kingdom of Texas oysters in hot sauce. The waiter nods. It's a popular dish, especially with military and diplomatic personnel, perhaps because of the way it's served: on a vegetable platter spiked with cocktail flags representing the seven major world powers.

The dish arrives quickly – that is also part of its charm – and she asks the waiter to draw the thick velvet curtains around her table. In the candlelight, she selects a flag – that of Britain – and pins it to the outside of the curtain.

She waits. She eats the oysters. Her mind wanders, briefly, to the last time she was in the Kingdom of Texas – a short but memorable visit.

After perhaps 20 minutes, a short, scrawny woman in her late 40s insinuates herself through the curtain and sits down opposite Slade. She's beady-eyed, with a long sharp nose. She says nothing, just toys with the little cocktail flag.

"I have a job," mutters Slade, "for Mr Scrivener."

The train from Midway to London is delayed. A young man misplaced his documents and performed the ritual so incorrectly that the mirror shattered into lacerating shards. He had to be taken back to the infirmary on Midway and from there, she imagines, to the Easter Hotel. He was either an idiot or a saboteur. Probably both.

The treaty still holds, but it's shaky and there are parties on both sides who'd like to see it broken. That, of course, is what she'll write in her report about the incident in the stables. It was perfectly clear, she'll say. An attempt at sabotage by a splinter group. Swiftly dealt with. A new ambassador will be sent from Constanta within the month.

She flicks through the pages of her briefing documents, leafing the stray sheets too quickly to take in their contents. She looks out of the train window. This carriage is far more municipal than the one she'd taken out – no gold inlaid wood panelling, no crimson velvet seat cushions. The view remains the same. The Channel. The only few miles of unencumbered territory between here and Alexandria.

She thinks of how it will be, meeting the new ambassador, organising his or her security detail. She finds, as she thinks, that her hands are folding one of her briefing documents. Corner to corner. Corners to centre. Pull out one fold. Reverse. She's making a bear. The way that Toma taught her. She didn't know she still remembered how to do it.

She finishes the bear, places it roaring on the table in front of her. The train starts up again, a juddering tremor passing through it. She unfolds the bear and smooths out the document again.

He is not happy about the burned uniform. He brandishes it at her as soon as she arrives.

“Look,” he says, “look. The whole building could have burned down. Look.” She fingers the blackened edges of the crisp triangular hole in the back of her uniform.

“The smell would have alerted someone,” she says, and sounds to herself like an officer making a report.

“We’re lucky I happened to come home,” he says.

She looks at the row of origami paper animals along the window ledge. She feels lucky.

“I’ll have one of the men from the base come tomorrow,” she says, “fit extra locks. We should have had bars on those windows months ago. Too close to the drainpipe. It’ll be done by the evening.”

“We’re not safe here, that’s what they’re saying by this. Not even here.”

“We’re safe,” she says it firmly.

He crumbles, suddenly, as he sometimes does. He holds out just long enough to exhaust her and then without warning sinks into a chair, head in his hands, unable or unwilling to argue anymore. It stirs up something in her, the sudden dropped defences.

She takes off her jacket, puts it over a chair-back. She stands in front of him, reaches out her hand, touches the top of his ear where the hair curls over it. After a moment, he encircles her waist with his arm, pulls her close, rests his face on her midriff. She strokes the hair at the nape of his neck. He breathes into her, the breath warm and moist in the centre of her body and she starts to undo the buttons of her shirt. She is breathing deeply and fast. His hands fumble urgently with the buckle of her trousers as he rises and pulls her towards him. And it is good, because it was always good between them. And afterwards, they still know none of the most important things about each other, and he cannot tell that for a time she was still thinking about Toma.

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