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 19

John, The Insurance Clerk

Everything was white: the ceiling and the tops of the walls, which I could see over the top of the white canvas screen that had been drawn around the white linen bed which rested on white-walled wheels on the white linoleum floor. There was nothing in the pure whiteness to give any sense of scale. I couldn’t be sure if the screen was ten feet away or a hundred feet away and enormous, rising above me like the cascades of a huge waterfall on three sides, with me lying in the bed as if on a raft rucketting in the white water.

The sheets of the bed billowed of their own accord, the waves coming over my chest and up to my neck. I fought with my arms to keep my head above them, kicking against the water, feeling it rising up around my ears, struggling to breathe, the whiteness erasing everything. Something was wrapped around my leg, pulling me under, a force harsher than gravity, clammy and cold. My chest was constricted and I heard myself cry out as the tops of the waterfalls closed in, toppling over and shutting out everything else, the iris of the ceiling drawing shut until there was nothing but rolling white above me, crashing down.

Then the waters parted. A hand pulled the cataract in two and a divine apparition, an angel in a grey uniform, stepped through the cascade and placed a hand on my forehead, soothing me. I felt all my sins forgiven. I was at rest. The deluge was over and I was drifting downstream, looking up into the bright sun. I remembered that sun. I’d seen it before, when I was lying on a dirt road by the sea. Why had I been lying on a road? It was in Greece, I remembered that much. The sound of the ocean. And the pain, I remembered that now too. There was still an echo of it at the back of my skull, pulsing against the pillow.

I’d lain there a long time before... before what? Now I was here. In a hospital, in a bed that seemed to be swimming under me.

The woman took her hand away from my forehead and I saw that she was a nurse, her dark hair pinned up under a square white cap. She poured some water into a glass and offered me two tablets. She said something I didn’t understand as she proffered them to me.

The pills were round and white and I found myself shaking my head.

“No,” I said, “No, those aren’t mine.” And I pushed her hand away, and when she insisted, I pushed away harder, sending the tablets skittering across the floor.

I tried to find the word for what I wanted. I could see the label on the bottle in my mind’s eye, written out in Dr Ryman’s bold blue script.

“Cordulin. Cordulin...” Just saying the word brought a sense of relief. As I repeated the word over and over, my eyes closed and I felt my legs relaxing, tangled as they were with the sheets. The nurse was further away now – everything was further away, except the Cordulin, Cordulin, Cordulin...

There were voices this time, far beyond the canvas frontier, but their whispers were clear to me even at this incalculable distance. They seemed to be speaking English but the words were jumbled like the answers in a crossword: wolf, lass, timber, air, tumbling and overlapping, two voices in opposed directions, neither of them making sense.

Inside my eyelids I saw a girl running through a forest, tripping over branches as she looked over her shoulder with the breath of a wild animal warm on the back of her neck. Perhaps the words were part of this dream, if it was a dream. Perhaps I was asleep all this time. Air, lass, wolf, timber.

When I opened my eyes, a doctor was standing over me. He was dark skinned and slick haired, with the kind of stubble that would always show the outline of a beard even immediately after a shave.

“Ah good. You are awake.” His accent was Greek and his manner was affable – positively bedside. He grinned and continued. “You have questions. You were in an accident. A car hit you, on a road by the coast. You were lucky somebody found you. You were also lucky that you have no serious injury. Your ribs will hurt for a few weeks, and your head also. But your head is tough, eh?”

An accident. A car. Yes. I remembered these things now. The road by the sea. Hristos’s cabin. Hristos.

“I was – there was a man in the cabin,” I mumbled.

“Don’t worry. It’s normal to be a little confused. You had a big bang. But you said...” And here he checked some notes written on a clipboard, “You said something to the nurse that sounded important. You take prescription medication?”

“Yes! Yes, I do. Cordulin – for my nerves.”

He showed me the name written in his notes.

“Cordulin – like this?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

His smile gave way to a sideways twist of the mouth.

“We do not know Cordulin. There is no medication with that name. You are sure?”

I nodded and my scalp stretched. A dressing had been taped to the back of my head and it tugged at my hair.

“It is British, maybe. I will look again.” He hooked the clipboard over the rail at the foot of the bed. “You are very sure?”

He frowned, walked away, and returned a few moments later with a modern directory of drug names.

"Maybe it has a different name in Greek," he said, "what colour is the pill?"

I drew him a picture. The slight bulge at one end. The white letters QQ on the other side. The green colouring. It's a distinctive tablet.

His frown deepened.

"There is no medication like this. This shape is not a... it is not a shape allowed for a pill. It's probably... you took a big bump to the head, yes? Sometimes we imagine things in a dream and then think they're real... after a bump like that."

"No," I shook my head. My spine hurt, my temples hurt. "No, Cordulin, it's real, I... I need it for my nerves. My nerves."

Something was crawling again at the corners of my eyes, something white and wriggling, something like tentacles or like threads of fungus waving, fronds of underwater tendrils white and feeling out and I shouted out, "No!"

"Calm down now," a nurse was saying, "calm down, be still."

But I knew that something was wrong here all wrong and I needed my pills, and the window was just there and if I jumped now, I was on the ground floor I could get away.

I pulled the drip out of my arm in one movement and hauled myself out of bed. Although my head was ringing like a telephone and my feet were bare I found I could move quickly, over to the window, and maybe I was still saying it, "No no no."

I got as far as hoisting both feet over the window frame, touching gravel with the soles before strong arms pulled me back in.

Two orderlies, big men, Greek, each with bristling shoulders, one holding my left arm and left leg, the other holding down my right side, down onto the bed.

"Don't worry now," said the nurse, "you've just had a nasty dream. All this nonsense about finding a body, this made-up drug."

I was still shouting no, but it might only have been in my head and I was struggling against them but I couldn't move.

The nurse had a syringe full of clear golden liquid. She flicked on it with her index finger. Depressed the plunger slightly so that a bright arc of liquid squirted upward.

"This will make you feel much better."

No. No no no.

The place where the needle entered my arm was a hot spreading blossom of pain, like something angry spreading its feelers through me, clutching at me from the inside, wanting me dead and gone and silent. I struggled and fought to stay awake but the golden liquid took me under.

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