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 29

Hausmann, The Thief

Farmers have learned a lesson that the intelligence community has not. When a fox is flushed out of its earth, it will never return to the area. Instead, it sets out across country, hunting more voraciously than ever, never sure of where its next meal will come from. It becomes twice the problem.

Hausmann had left his apartment with a holdall and a renewed sense of focus. He couldn’t trust the Service. He could be executed at any moment thanks to the design on his back, and the demonstration Slade had given him still made his vertebrae cramp together. Removing that tattoo was priority one.

But more than that, he didn’t know what or whom he could trust anymore. Not one for forming easy alliances, he was troubled that a Prussian officer should offer him such help unbidden. Was she trying to draw attention away from her own activities? Perhaps. He knew liars and he knew tactics, and unless Slade was in a category above his experience, he knew she was telling the truth.

And the truth was what disturbed Hausmann the most. Blood rites. Sigils. Methods of assassination that defied logic. There was another colour in the world and the fact that he had never noticed it – he, Hausmann, the most watchful of observers – unspooled the timeline of his life. He was disgusted by his own ignorance.

He was fortunate in that it was Saturday, so he knew that many of the nearby factories and workshops would be unoccupied. Under the railway arches in Bermondsey he found a garage that had been shuttered for the weekend. The padlock was a standard model.

Inside, a green Austin was raised to head height on a platform for inspection. The grille had been removed and rested against one of the hydraulic props bearing the car’s weight. Tyres were piled in stacks according to their degree of wear, spare parts were sorted into crates, and a rack of tools ran the length of one wall. At the back of the room, deep in the tunnel arch, was an office area with glass walls. All the small square panes were smeared with grease except one, which was missing altogether.

Hausmann rummaged around under the tool rack and found what he was looking for. He wheeled the oxyacetylene canister into the middle of the room, by the front of the Austin, and removed his coat and shirt. Looking over his shoulder, he could see his back reflected in the dark glass of the office. The ornate tattoo squatted between his shoulder blades: the drum and bones. In his younger days, he had been proud of that emblem and the danger it represented. The skull bearing its teeth in the face of death. The drum beaten as they force-marched across country. When he had been branded with it alongside his brethren, they had drunk whisky to celebrate and, if they were honest, to take away the sting and allow them to sleep through that first night. The pain was part of what bonded them together. Only now did he realise that it also bonded them to something much darker. Under the design was a row of letters and numbers. Hausmann reached back. With the fingernails of his left hand, he was able to scratch at the lettering – not enough to draw blood, but enough to raise some redness and leave a tingling twinge.

Then he found the controls for the hydraulic platform: a console hanging from the ceiling with three buttons. Standing with his back to the platform, he pressed the buttons until it was roughly level with his shoulders. The end of a long steel bar protruded a few inches from the side of the platform. It was two inches across and half an inch thick with a cold, flat, rectangular end. He lowered the platform a little, then a little more, until he could stand straight and press his back against the end of the metal bar and feel it soothing the raw patch of skin he had just scratched.

Looped round the top of the oxyacetylene canister was a pair of tinted goggles. Hausmann put them on before lighting the torch. It burned blue then white as he applied the flame to the end of the metal bar, careful to heat it, not cut it or melt it. He needed the steel to retain its shape. After a minute of brushing the torch against the bar, heating and cooling, the metal began to glow orange. It was ready. Hausmann switched off the torch and quickly set himself in position, squarely in front of the metal, facing away, standing to attention for one last time. He could feel the heat behind him and used it to guide himself. When he could feel the fine hairs on his spine frazzle against the metal, he leaned back and counted.

One, and the epidermis shrivelled with the heat, going red then black then melting away.

Two, and the dermis bubbled with the heat, the nerve endings burning through, pain receptors overloaded.

Three, and the flesh began to char, liquid turned to solid and the wound caked into a crater.

Hausmann removed himself from the heat and dropped onto one knee. He was breathing heavily, but he had not screamed. He listened to the metal ping and creak as it cooled. He flexed his shoulders and his skin crackled.

Standing, staggering, he checked the reflection of his back in the glass. Good enough. As well as the code under the design, he had also burned away the jaw of the skull, leaving a blackened hole where its grin had once been. There was very little blood.

Hausmann picked up his shirt with his fingertips and buttoned it up gingerly. He couldn’t afford to stay here.

When the Underway reached Bermondsey, it emerged from underground so that it could cross Rotherhithe Bridge. There was a stretch of around fifty yards of track between the tunnel exit and the start of the bridge. At this time of day on a weekend, trains ran along here every four or five minutes. Hausmann had never intended to come here at this time of day.

He lay on the embankment outside the tunnel entrance and waited until a train trundled by. As soon as the last carriage was past him, he sprinted onto the track and ran along behind it into the square-sided tunnel, counting the oak sleepers as he went. 37, 38, 39... the daylight was fading behind him.

When he reached 50, he recognised a faint blue daub of paint on the wood, just visible in the available light. He knelt and began scrabbling at the limestone gravel between the rails.

The tunnel’s engineers had been perilously efficient; the passage was barely wide enough for two trains to pass, shaving the walls on either side and leaving the slimmest margin down the middle. The train ahead of him kicked up sparks as it caught on the concrete walls, then disappeared deep into the earth. The next service would not be far behind.

Hausmann continued to dig with his hands. The stones were large and sharp, and trying to scoop them away left him with cuts on his fingers and grazes on his knuckles. It should be here. Was he mistaken?

He had mined a small hole clear under the left-hand rail when he felt the steel vibrating. He estimated that gave him another minute before he would have to sidestep across the narrow tunnel onto the opposite line and let the train pass before he could continue his excavations.

That gave him just enough time to start digging under the other rail. It had been more than five years ago – he might have misremembered the exact spot.

After a few moments, the rocks revealed a swatch of blue cloth covered in dust. He exhaled with a measure of relief and checked behind him as the vibrations grew stronger. There was more digging to do, but he could pause now in his work and wait for the train to pass. He stood upright (feeling that fresh crackle between his shoulders as he straightened) and stepped aside onto the other track.

He could see the oncoming train on the bridge, out in the light. The driver’s compartment caught the sun and glimmered. A part of his brain fizzed with the impossible thought of what would happen if for some reason, the train jumped the rail or switched onto the opposite track and came straight for him. He knew he was safe where he stood, but he was only one stride away from obliteration. It would be quick. He would go unmourned – indeed, he would be cursed by the weekend travellers as they suffered the inevitable delay in their journey as his crumpled corpse was scraped from the sleepers and between the grooves of the train wheels. The driver would be taken for counselling. He or she would receive more sympathy and attention than dead, forgotten Hausmann, scooped up and buried without ceremony.

These thoughts of mortality may have been what distracted him for so long. Under his foot, he felt the other rail vibrating – the rail on which he stood. When he looked back into the black tunnel, he saw that it was far from black: a pair of yellow headlights were rattling towards him at terrifying velocity.

His shoes slipped on the gravel as he began to run, stumbling and scrambling back to his feet, pushing off the sleepers and racing towards the tunnel exit. The train behind him was closing fast, but the other engine was still on the bridge. With the yellow lamps lighting his way, Hausmann switched to the opposite track again. He was now sprinting directly at an oncoming train. His mind raced with calculations and estimates. If he was quick – supremely quick – he might squeeze out of the tunnel before the train hurtling at him blocked the exit.

Pumping with his arms as much as his legs, Hausmann clawed at the air for purchase, trying to carry every atom of momentum. A horn screeched and echoed off the walls. The sound of the train and its grinding wheels bounced against his back, and now the yellow lights came alongside him, overtaking him, nudging his shoulder as it rocked from side to side.

But Hausmann was focused on the closing distance between him and the train in front. His path was uphill. He was 15 paces from daylight. The train was 20 yards away from blocking him in, and it was rolling downhill, its driver leaning forward and squinting at the lunatic whirl of raincoat rushing at him from the shadows. There was no point braking.

The train sounded its horn, like an answering call to its twin, and Hausmann realised he was going to come up short. He was too slow. He was too weak. The gap between the train and the tunnel arch was an impossible distance away and shrinking to nothing.

That was it. The train blocked the exit and Hausmann was boxed in, a moving barricade of carriages clattering past on one side, concrete on the other, and a diesel engine a second away from impact.

With no options left, Hausmann span on his axis and leapt into what he hoped was the perfect middle point between the tracks. A door handle caught him in the back as it sped by but he whipped his head sideways and splayed his hands, standing on tiptoe and waiting for the second train to crush the life out of him.

The tunnel seemed to take an inward breath. Hausmann closed his eyes tight and felt the train rip at his coat, pulling him forward and dashing his cheekbone against a metal plate, bouncing him back against the other set of carriages. If there had been more space, he would have been sent spinning but instead his shoulders were twisted backwards and forwards as he tried to keep his balance. To lose his footing would be fatal.

His clothes were snatched at and snagged and his body batted against one set of speeding coachworks then the other.

Hausmann opened his eyes and saw a zoetrope of gawping passengers flicker past. Then his sleeve yanked him sideways, clean off his feet, launching him towards the tunnel exit. The sleeve tore away and Hausmann was now falling, full-length, arms raised, buffeted on either side, in a slow-motion dive as the passengers disappeared from view, frame by frame. He was pitched into the sharp stones on the ground and skidded to a halt. The wind was knocked out of him and his instinct was to curl up, covering his chest, but the heavy rims of the train wheels were inches from his face. He had to remain straight, stretched out, balanced like a knife on its edge.

And then the trains were gone. The noise faded. Hausmann coughed and let himself roll onto his back, his arms stretched across the rails. His coughs were muted – a broken rib or two jabbed into his lung. Still he couldn't afford the luxury of self-pity. He drew himself up onto his knees and leaned on the wall, heading back into the tunnel again. He would not be so slow a second time.

The blue bundle was nearly uncovered and it was only a moment’s work to unearth it. Hausmann tucked it inside his tattered coat and hobbled out of the tunnel before the next train was even on the bridge.

He slid down the embankment and finally allowed himself to relax. He recognised the shiver of adrenaline and the numbness that it lends to injury. He checked himself over to ensure his limbs were intact. While his face didn’t hurt yet, he could feel his left eye swelling shut.

He had been lucky. More to the point, he had been careless and distracted and luckier than he deserved. He’d had close shaves in his time with the Service and in the decade since, but this last week had been different. Something was closing in on him and it was only a matter of time until his luck ran out. Whatever he had got himself into, he needed to get to the bottom of it quickly. Who knew what other curses could be hanging over him?

This bundle offered some protection, at least. He unfolded the blue cloth and checked the contents. Three wads of cash in mixed denominations. Two sets of ID cards and transport papers with his portrait and someone else’s name. A small hipflask of whisky. And a sheaf of carbon copies and photographs from previous jobs – his insurance policy.

In his freelance career, Hausmann had dug up dirt on dignitaries from all the major powers. Some of it was sexual, some political, some financial. All nations were equally corrupt, he had found. He tended not to study the details – if someone had hired him to get this information, he knew that it was valuable and that was reason enough to keep a copy. Maybe he should have studied it all more closely.

He leafed through the paperwork, looking for any mention of tattoos or blood or sigils. There would be nothing in the bank statements. The freight records were too vague to be helpful. There were transcripts from interviews and phone calls, mostly in English, mostly between diplomats or military officials. There were references to ‘alternative methods’ and ‘tracking techniques’ which could be what he was looking for, but there wasn’t anything definitive. His new awareness revealed nothing that his previous, ignorant self might have missed.

Something caught his eye, though. It was in a conversation between two senior Prussian officials. While they used codenames, as was standard practice, they were clearly talking about how to deal with a suspected mole:

JA: Timberwolf’s status remains uncertain. I don’t trust her. Since Kayak made contact he has found nothing suspicious but I’ve ordered that he install himself as a long-term marital adjunct."

BG: Does she suspect?

JA: (Laughs) Love is blind. She’s already set a date: June 21st.

The summer solstice. Hausmann wondered if Slade was aware that her wedding day marked the installation of a ‘marital adjunct’ or that her superiors suspected that she was disloyal. He set the transcript aside and made a mental note to post it to her, care of the Prussian embassy, before he left the country.

Because that was his next move. He would head to Dover and see if he could buy his way onto an unregistered boat. He’d need to change into his spare set of clothes before he travelled. There was nothing he could do to cover up his bruised face. That was bound to add a few hundred pounds to his fare.

Hausmann wasn’t much of a sailor but he would need to get acquainted with the ocean waves. Both Slade and Naval Intelligence were looking for a ship. If he wanted to find out what all this had to do with Midway and Bojilov, he only had one lead to follow: the runaway groom they called John Noon.