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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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Monday
Jun242013

Week 24

Hausmann, The Thief

Hausmann could still remember the first time he came to London. It was on the way to a winter cadet camp, and his cadre had to switch trains at St Pancras station. Before that day, Hausmann had never seen a conurbation larger than a few thousand people, and the sight of all the chimneys and factories and motorcars filled him with a strange sense of pleasure. This was no Caledonian hillside, carpeted with gorse. This was a maze. This was a place to hide in.

The next time he saw London was five years later when he was seconded to the Intelligence Service. He was in barracks for the first six months, but on deliveries or during his weekends on leave he did get the chance to see some of the city. He enjoyed the warrens of Soho and mapping out the alleyways and cut-throughs that could help him evade detection. He also charted the rooftops around Whitehall and, whenever the opportunity presented itself, explored the honeycomb of sewers and basements beneath the streets.

While Hausmann knew certain aspects of London extremely well, he was not a Londoner, nor was he a tourist. He had disdain for tourists. They came from the outer reaches of the nation and then plodded about in clusters, blocking walkways or gazing up at the sky at unexpected moments. Somebody from Norwich had once asked him for directions. Only once.

So Hausmann was feeling uneasy as he tagged along at the back of a tour group walking round Westminster Abbey, a sun-hat shading his features. The guide had given them each a mimeographed pamphlet with a diagram of who was buried where. She walked backwards as she talked, and Hausmann feigned interest in her as he scanned the walls for hatches and noted which members of the laity he recognised from his previous visit here. That gentleman stacking the prayer books looked familiar. And that cleaner, who we was sure had been mopping the same corner of the apse last time.

The tour took 20 minutes, after which some of the group – including Hausmann – chose to stay and pay their respects in whatever way their religion dictated. Near the apse, there was a table bearing a stand full of tea lights and a tin for coins. Hausmann knelt behind a pew and watched as two of his tourist companions dropped some change into the slot, took a candle, and lit it from the banks of candles already burning.

Once they had settled back into their pews, Hausmann stood, crossed himself, and made for the candles. He fumbled in his pocket for a coin, dropped it in the slot and lit a candle. With one hand he put the candle gently in its rack among the other votive flames; with the other, he propped the tourist pamphlet against the edge of his candle and solemnly returned to a pew at the front, behind a pillar, where he could watch the cleaner as she mopped the same patch of floor over and over again.

It didn’t take long. Hausmann could smell the smoke before anyone actually raised the alarm, and then it was all hooting and echoes and the clop of hard shoes on the marble floor. The gent with the prayer books signalled for the cleaner to hurry over to the fire with her bucket, and as she moved, Hausmann slipped across from behind the pillar and over to where she had been mopping.

There was a tapestry along one side of the dais and Hausmann headed straight for it, checking to make sure he was unobserved. With barely a ripple in the fabric, he stole behind the canvas and felt the wall behind for any hidden handles or mechanisms. He didn’t need to search hard – there was a wooden panel with a handle that could be pushed aside. It glided silently sideways until it bounced against a felt buffer. Hausmann stepped into the darkness beyond and pulled the door across behind him.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. He was in a passageway lit by dim yellow electric lights, leading straight ahead – north, Hausmann calculated, parallel to the river. He could see fifty feet of corridor before it began curving away to the right. The path was only wide enough for one person, and fortunately, he was the only person there.

Stepping softly on the concrete floor, he made his way around the curve until the passage straightened out again, but now it was sloping downwards. He could see a brighter light towards the end and he began picking up the pace.

Just as Hausmann was able to make out the shape of a door at the far end, he stepped on a cast iron manhole cover secured by two heavy bolts. He crouched to examine it. The bolts were screwed tight and painted shut but they were of conventional design. He continued onward.

He lightened his tread even further as he approached the bright white bulb and the featureless door it illuminated. He could hear activity behind it, a metallic chattering that took him a moment to identify: typing. More than one machine. Three. And voices, though not nearby.

This door was also mounted on a sliding track, and the handle was little more than a groove traced into one side. Steadying his breathing, Hausmann put the tips of his fingers into the groove and pulled, increasing the pressure ounce by ounce until he had the slimmest of gaps to peer through.

It appeared that his presence was undetected. He could see two of the typewriters now: a pair of clerks with their backs to him were clattering away at the keys, headsets covering their ears. Transcribing? Decoding? Unclear.

In front of them was a tabletop map of northern seas, twenty feet wide, with flags of various colours positioned across its surface. Hausmann has too far away to see precisely where on the map they were located.

Beyond the map, a long, broad hallway stretched away out of sight, and uniformed staff crossed back and forth from unseen rooms, carrying files and cardboard tubes that may have contained more maps and charts.

Hausmann’s breath quickened. He had been here before – not in this passageway, but in this hall, this bunker deep below the city. He had couriered messages here from the Intelligence Service years before, coordinating strategy, sharing information. All the staff were wearing the dark blue serge trousers of maritime officers. This was Naval Intelligence.

The nearest clerk reached his arms high above his head and laced his fingers together, cracking his knuckles. He removed his headset and Hausmann stepped back from the door, applying gentle pressure to slide it closed once more.

Skimming across the concrete, he made his way quickly back to the manhole cover and took out one of his smaller steel clamps. A flick of the wrist and it was attached to the first bolt; a twist of his shoulders and it was loose. Thirty seconds later, Hausmann was jogging the length of a London sewer, sure he would be able to find his way.

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