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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 27

Hausmann, The Thief

This apartment suited Hausmann. He had paid for the place in cash, buying it from an East End gentleman who didn’t bother to check his credentials, and it had everything he needed. If it had ever come on the open market, it would have been described as a studio flat: one room that combined the kitchen, bed and living area, with a small bathroom – toilet and a bath with a shower attachment – to one side.

The staircase leading up to the apartment had its own front door including a letterbox which had rusted shut. There was a chain across the latch, but no military-grade security. Hausmann preferred to blend in with the city, not mark himself out by installing heavy locks. Anonymity was the best defence, and here, he had remained anonymous for over a year. He knew his neighbours by sight, but they were unlikely to recognise him. He stayed within his walls. He had made a home.

While it wasn’t the most secure harbour, it did have some useful features. The outer door was built solidly and the staircase inadequately so it squeaked at every footstep, even with the lightest of treads. The back window faced out onto a brick wall, and being one floor up (with another two floors above him), he would hear if anyone attempted an exterior approach.

So when Hausmann heard a scratching at the bottom of his staircase followed by a series of slight but unmistakable creaks, he had plenty of time to take the old service issue sidearm from under his pillow and seat himself diagonally across from his door.

She turned the handle softly and eased the door open with care. Good technique. But he had to stop her there.

He told her to come in and she hesitated for only a moment before putting her hands on her head and stepping into the room. He walked her into the bathroom and said she should sit in the bathtub with her legs over the side, facing him. She didn’t seem pleased, but acquiesced.

He turned the chair to face her and rested the pistol on his thigh. Her feet dangled – soft black shoes, designed for stealth. Grey flannel trousers, loose but formal. A grey shirt and black jacket with shoulder pads which, while civilian, did betray a military styling. Her hair was similarly squared off: silver at the temples, combed straight up and chopped in a rigid, uniform cut.

Hausmann cleared his throat.

“How did you find my apartment?”

“How did you find mine?”

She had no accent. Her voice was deep and surprisingly calm – perhaps she had been in this situation before. Hausmann had heard that snipers in the Prussian Special Forces were trained by shooting at targets half a mile away while their own commanding officer held a gun to their temple, waiting for them to miss.

They bred some excellent snipers.

“You served in Persia,” Hausmann continued. “Did you enjoy that?”

She didn’t rise to it.

“Did you enjoy Tallinn?” she replied. Perhaps he was not as composed. She smiled. “Yes, I thought that would have been you. Don’t tell me, it was ‘justified’.”

“I was a scout. I made my report and command made a tactical decision.”

“Yes, you keep telling yourself that. Who cares about civilians anyway?”

“And you were in Midway during the treaty signing. There was some very ugly handiwork there too. Very Prussian.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Her voice didn’t waver. There was no pause, perhaps a touch of disgust at the accusation. But no sign of guilt.

“Of course not.”

“And you, last week." She leaned forward as far as she could. "There was a break-in at the Prussian embassy the night the Bulgarian ambassador was killed.”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“Some sensitive information was stolen. Only a few operatives in London would be trusted with that type of job. Even fewer could succeed. Did you kill Bojilov as a diversion?”

“No. Did you?”

“I was on protection detail. Bojilov was... I was the first person to find him.”

“Convenient.”

“Be careful what you accuse me of, Hausmann. Toma was a friend.”

“Do you look after all of your friends like that?”

“I... Whoever or whatever killed him, they will pay.”

Hausmann tilted his head to one side. Was this a false trail to lead him away from the truth? Perhaps. But he had time to pursue this and retrace his steps.

“'Whatever...?'”

“Don’t pretend you don’t understand.”

“Let’s both pretend I don’t. Enlighten me.”

Slade tilted her head back and gazed at him levelly.

"All right," she said at last, "I'll play." She gestured at him with her chin. “You joined the service, what, 17 years ago?”

“18.”

“So they gave you the tattoo of the... drum and bones? With a mark under it, letters and numbers. Did they tell you why?”

“Identification. Sometimes the Prussians would decapitate victims or remove the face, chop off the hands for fun. A tattoo between the shoulder blades helps identify the body.”

“That’s what they told you.”

“That’s the truth.”

“Those letters and numbers mean nothing?”

“Not while I’m alive.”

“Then tell me what they are.”

“Why would I do that?”

Slade frowned.

"You really don't know? Let me give you something you can understand."

Hausmann shook his head. This path was a cul-de-sac.

But then Slade raised her eyebrows and straightened her fingers, making sure he could see exactly what she was doing. She edged her hands apart inch by inch, then pointed at her cuff with her right hand. It was a request. Hausmann wasn’t sure where this was leading, but he twitched the muzzle of the gun and allowed her to continue.

She plucked a fine shirt-pin from the cuff of her jacket. It was just a pin, an ordinary pin, and she let Hausmann see precisely that.

“This may sting,” she said, and jabbed herself in the thumb with the point of the pin. A berry of blood swelled and she tilted her hand to prevent it from dripping. Hausmann kept watching, curious now.

Slade lowered her hand a wiped the blood on the white rim of the bath. She smeared it into a circle then, with the pin, traced a red sigil on the enamel that arced like a dancing spider.

From nowhere, Hausmann felt his spine sear like it was electrified. As if a tangle of white-hot razor-sharp wires had hooked into the flesh between his shoulder blades and were tugging, scrabbling for the spine, snapping cords and ligaments, slicing slowly through cartilage and scraping at bone. Something was alive back there, under his flesh, inside his spine, something squirming and burrowing with its million pin-hooked claws. His head snapped back and he scrabbled at his neck and his shoulders to try and find the source of this invisible agony. The gun was clumsy in his hand and the white bathroom tiles blazed into his retinas.

And just as suddenly, it stopped. Slade rubbed out the sigil with a finger and Hausmann slumped and gasped on the chair, waving the gun in wild circles around where he sat.

“What was – ?”

“They do it so they can kill you. If they need to. Your death won’t help me.”

Hausmann shook his head, shook it hard, like he was trying to get his eyeballs back in their sockets. His spine thrummed with jangled electricity. Slade went on.

“The fact that you’re alive means you’re still of use to them. Even so, I’d advise you to get that tattoo removed.”

She gripped the edge of the bath with both hands and hauled herself upright. Hausmann thought about stopping her, but there seemed little point. His strength had left him.

Slade straightened her jacket.

“You’ve been used, Hausmann. This game is bigger than cops and robbers. Stay out of my way and you might survive to see the end of it.”

The door was still unlocked so she let herself out.

Hausmann stood with the gun hanging from his fingers. He threw it on the mattress and sat next to it.

After a few moments of catching his breath, he reached under the bed for his holdall and started packing. He needed to find a new apartment.

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