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 25

Slade, The Officer

It's not a sensible thing she's doing. It wouldn't be sensible in any circumstances, but especially not now, and not for this reason. She couldn't even say quite why she's doing it, except that she knows, on a bone-deep level, that something bad is happening. She might not have the talent of a magister, but she's not totally dead in those esoteric senses.

She has a string of letters and numbers. Identification, for one man, or woman. Probably a man. The British army, unlike the Prussian, tends to reserve the more unsavoury tasks for its male officers. A curiosity which makes her glad she was born in Hanover. Having the letters and numbers is not enough, however. She needs to find the man they identify. And for that she needs a magister with special talents.

She could ask one of the pool in the barracks in London – a group of mostly silent, pale young men and women who keep to themselves and seem to mate in odd, constantly changing groupings. But she would have to produce a requisition form. And that would be kept on file. And someone would ask – maybe not immediately, but eventually – why she had done it, and what she had found. She could ask one of them for a favour. There's a young male magister who smiles at her, and flirts, and asks little questions and remembers her answers. But he might expect something in return. And, worse, he would remember. He's not the kind to stand up under questioning. She could find a street magister, but her connections here are soggy, and she's as likely to run into a charlatan who'll give her a false reading and blood poisoning as a true practitioner.

So she does the only thing she can do. She places a trunk call to Prussia.

"Hello," answers the crisp voice on the other end of the phone.

"Hello Mama," says Slade. "I need your help."

It is not just dangerous but humiliating to ask for what she is about to ask for.

She knows her mother had hoped she'd inherit the talent. Slade's mother gave up a great deal to marry her husband. They had met during one of the endless Prusso-English peace summits that characterised the hopeful decade between the great wars. Karolina was a young magister on the Prussian delegation. Luke was an officer with the English. For a few brief months, as their romance blossomed, it seemed that they might represent a new peaceful generation. But the scuffles over Cologne meant they had to pick a side. Luke was of more value to the Prussians than Karolina was to the English, so he was the one to defect. The information he brought won him the trust of his adopted homeland but Karolina was forever seen as somewhat... tainted by the relationship. When she fell pregnant, she hoped to give Prussia a person of real value, with the military skills of her father and the esoteric knowledge of her mother. But Slade had failed on the second count. She had minor gifts, but nothing to mark her out as specially talented.

"Anything I can do, of course," says her mother. Slade knows she doesn't quite mean it. Not quite.

"I need to find someone," she says, "a British officer. I have his mark."

There, in her parents' neat, clean apartment in Hanover, her mother draws in a breath. Slade's shoulders crawl and wriggle. She knows exactly the face her mother will be making, a sharp-eyed, suspicious frown.

"You should ask one of the magisters assigned to you," she says at last.

"I can't," she says. And waits. She could tell her everything now. Bojilov's death. What Bojilov meant to her. Her suspicions about the cover-up. That this man, whoever he is, is being sacrificed to convince her that the thing was done by the British.

Her mother is silent.

"I think they are making me into the big fish," says Slade at last, "the big fish of Chelmusk. Do you remember?"

It was a story her mother had read her as a child. She will remember.

"Yes," says her mother.

"Please," says Slade, "please help me."

Her mother sighs.

"What is the number?" she says at last.

Slade reads it out to her. Her mother puts the phone down without a word. Slade can see her now, taking the copper basin from the windowed cabinet above the sink, rinsing it, taking three of the small vials from the topmost drawer, the one Slade was never allowed to open as a child, pricking her own finger with the long pin. There will be a little bit of brown smoke, and her mother's thin hands with their blue veins holding steady over the bowl no matter what lightning flashes within it. And far away, a man neither of them have met yet will feel a certain unpleasant tension between his shoulder blades for a moment, and then it will pass away. Just a muscle spasm, he will think.

The telephone rings. Her mother gives her an address and a surname. No first name, Slade asks? He never uses it, her mother says. Do you need it? No, says Slade. That's enough. Thank you Mama. She does not know how to say "I wish I were there, and you could give me apple compote with yogurt, and I could tell you my secrets," so she says "thank you," again, and hangs up the phone.

There is one more thing she needs to do, before she pays her visit. She calls up 300 records of various British officers, past and present, all those who have been on active service at peace conferences and summits. If asked, she will say she was merely being thorough, establishing that none of the staff at Bojilov's residence had attended previous conferences. In fact, she only reads one file, that of Mr Hausmann. She is surprised to find a first name listed. She's not surprised he doesn't use it. It doesn't suit him at all.

She skims the file, then reads the relevant portions more slowly. A good officer. Various expurgated sections – the files were photographed in haste by an operative at GCHQ, there are often missing portions they weren't able to track down. But she can take a good guess at the kind of operations Mr Hausmann was involved in while he was on active duty. Not a man, as far as she can tell, with a great many scruples. And not a man to leave tracks.

Why then the iron on the coat? Why tell her he'd been there at all? Why indulge in such a foolish piece of intimidation? It can only have been anger. A rush of blood to the head. It looked calculated, that small burned threat, but it wasn't. Mr Hausmann had been a little unwise. He might be the kind of person she was looking for.

She has an idea about what is going on. A long time ago Toma told her something. Not much, but something. He didn't want to endanger her, he said. But there were people working together, on different sides. For peace, she'd asked? A bigger peace than you know, he'd said, and kissed her on the forehead gently, between the eyes. But peace always has enemies, he'd said. She'd nodded, but not understood. And then he'd said, very low and very urgently: "I can't risk you. But if... if something happens to me, friends will find you. They could come from either side, that's not important. If something happens to me, you'll be in danger."

And now that Toma is gone, she needs an ally. The British agent may not want to be her ally. So she intends to do him a very special kind of favour.

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