Slade, The Officer
He had not looked like she'd expected, the English agent Hausmann. She'd expected someone weasley, living like a rat in his little den, scuttling from place to place, leaving burned signs in people's houses like a creature gnawing at wood.
But he'd been pleasant-looking enough. Open-faced. She'd have said guileless, if she hadn't known anything about him. Not handsome and square-jawed like Slade's father, but another kind of sandy-haired fair-skinned Englishness. The sort of man one would expect to see watching a cricket match, eating a cucumber sandwich, reading the Times. The sort of slightly silly-looking man she tried to avoid.
There were several things she hadn't asked him. Some because she didn't want to let him know she didn't understand, some because she thought she knew already.
She didn't understand, not quite, why he'd come to her. Why her, out of all the officers in London? Because she'd found Toma's body? But he'd seemed surprised to hear it. He'd said something about the Midway signing, about nasty work that looked Prussian to him. If she could have pulled the information from his brain with a pin dipped in blood, she would have done. But it would have taken more skill than she possessed. The Prussian army rarely trains its officers in more esoteric arts than those needed to cause pain, and to kill. She would have to find out.
And then there was the thievery. What had been stolen. She'd found out easily enough that there'd been a break-in. No one would say what had gone, but it wasn't too hard to put the pieces together sufficiently to know it was intelligence. Interesting. Something that had spooked this Hausmann enough to cause him to make one foolish error after another. Doubly interesting.
It is, of course, strictly forbidden for officers to keep 'souvenirs' from military campaigns. Medals, says the army, are souvenir enough. And the nightmares, say the soldiers and officers, which come at dusk and will not leave from November through to February. Nonetheless, many of those who served in active duty have kept the odd reminder of those days. Or something which might come in handy.
Slade walks into the embassy just after 1pm, as several young secretaries and clerks are bustling out of the building, brown bags in hand, heading for the park to enjoy a few minutes of sunshine. Inside, the building is impressive – marble floor, vaulted ceiling, double staircase leading to the ambassadorial offices, half-glazed doors to the right and left of the front desk etched in gold indicating the basements and sub-basements where the records are stored. Slade smiles at the woman behind the desk, a pretty girl with bright lipstick and a cheerful scarf tied at her throat. She shows her identification. The girl waves her down. That is the easy part.
Slade touches the insignia pin in her right pocket. It is cool as a pebble to the touch. She rubs her thumb over the sigil engraved into its metal surface. She hopes she remembers how to do this – she didn't think it would be wise to practise on anyone. Her husband doesn't know she kept it, she's not sure why she never mentioned it.
At the desk in the records office, one woman sits alone, eating her sandwich – some kind of meat paste. She is over 50, wearing a brown sweater and a tweed skirt with sensible brown court shoes. Slade has seen her once or twice around the building. She's never given the impression of being particularly nervy. This is good.
"Hello," says Slade.
"Mfff," says the woman, her mouth full of meat-paste sandwich.
Slade jabs the pin of the insignia into her thumb, inside her pocket. She smears the blood onto the sigil. She feels it begin to glow, hotter and hotter.
"I've got something I need to show you," says Slade, and already she feels her own heartbeat slowing down, her mind moving more quickly. "It's very important, come here please."
The woman, frowning, but noting Slade's uniform, puts down her sandwich and stands up. Walks the couple of paces to the desk.
"Give me your hand," says Slade.
And the woman does, because they always do, because a few seconds of the voice of command is a part of the power of this sigil.
She stretches out her hand, palm up. Slade grabs her wrist, wrenches her forward, and before she can scream or cry out, she jabs her palm quickly with the pin, allowing the blood to mingle with hers already on the sigil.
"Now," says Slade, and her voice is very calm, "You will do precisely what I tell you."
The woman, eyes glassy, nods.
"Tell me," says Slade, "About the files that were stolen from the Embassy last week."
This is a dangerous game. If they had been interrupted, if Slade had not been able to give her the instruction to forget all that had happened, the consequences would have been serious for Slade's career, at least, if not her life. But she was lucky. She spent a full half hour rifling through the woman's mind and her files. And now she thinks she begins to understand. The files that were stolen, it seems, relate to a ship – the Laserre. She has carbon copies in her pocket now of its manifest and specifications. And as for the business at Midway – she begins to understand that too. And she was able to retreat from the woman's mind calmly – she will now have a good story to tell her colleagues about the giant hornet which stung her during lunch.
Upstairs, she rushes for the door a little too quickly. The receptionist tries to stop her and she almost bolts, but calms herself and turns slowly, smiling.
"Sofia?" says the charming woman behind the desk, "Sofia Slade?"
"Yes?" says Slade.
"Ah, good, I thought it was you. We've been holding two letters for you. Sign here, please."
She waits until she's alone in her apartment to open the envelopes. She recognises the writing on one, but not the other. But the one she recognises is enough for her to know she can't open them in public. It is Toma's neutral, even hand.
At home, she takes off her boots slowly, places the two letters on the table. Sits down in front of them. She checks the time. Her husband won't be home for two hours yet. Her hands are shaking, she notices.
She stands up, pours herself three fingers of whiskey from the bottle on the mantelshelf, drinks it back quickly, is tempted to smash the glass in the grate as they did before they went into battle. This was why Toma was a bad idea, this was why none of it could ever have worked, even if he hadn't been married. He was a danger to her, she knew it herself, and he told her so too. No one else had ever made her hands shake.
Her right hand hovers over the letter with Toma's handwriting on the envelope. She pulls the hand back. The other letter first. Something innocuous, surely, probably notification of a new posting, out of London, she can hardly wait to leave this stinking city. She rips the envelope open hurriedly, and pulls out the light carbon-copied sheets inside.
"Long-term marital adjunct", she reads. "21st June." "The agent has rapidly gained Timberwolf's trust." "As we suspected, she was extremely open to this avenue of approach."
There are several other dates and times. First meeting. First date. First kiss. They match, and match, and match again. And she feels sick as the history of her life rewrites itself in her head. And she feels disgusted with her own treacherous body and her ridiculous pride that made her marry a man she barely knew, just to prove that the only man who ever made her hands shake meant nothing to her.
She doesn't even have to wonder who sent her these carbon copies or if they're real. He, too, has done her a special kind of favour.
She opens the second envelope now almost unthinkingly. What can it be? Only a declaration of love sent too late, or a request for an assignation she won't even have the satisfaction of turning down. Nothing that can change anything, not like that first envelope, she thinks.
But she is wrong.
She slits the envelope carefully and tips the contents out into her hand. It is an origami figure of a bear, rearing up, face roaring. There is writing all over the figure, tiny neutral handwriting. She pulls one flap open gently, then another and another - she will be able to refold it afterwards along the same lines. She reads a few words. "If you are reading this, darling," it says, "I am dead. And you are in terrible danger."
The phone begins to ring. She knows, before she picks it up, that it is her husband.