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 3

Hausmann, The Thief

It was always best to know what one was dealing with. Or dealing in.

Hausmann stood across the road from Kingsmead Hospital with a hip flask full of whisky. He unscrewed the cap and dabbed it onto his wrists and neck like a fine perfume, though the scent made him think of granite and the bitter cold of Caledonian winters.

He slipped the flask in the inside pocket of his jacket and felt the pressure of the slim, cardboard package in the opposite pocket, small enough to be invisible to all but the most observant onlooker.

He removed his watch. 4:10am. He could safely assume that the peak shift had been relieved now.

Taking care to scuff his trouser leg against the brickwork, he limped across the tarmac to the entrance, cradling his arm.

Accident & Emergency was at its quietest. There were only a handful of staff on duty, outnumbering the patients dotted about the waiting room. Hausmann lurched over to the nurse at reception and explained how he had been attacked nearby and all his jewellery and money and papers stolen. He gave his name as John Garner, and when the nurse asked for his ID number, he slurred through a few digits before stopping and correcting himself and then correcting himself again until the exasperated nurse told him to take a seat. She could smell him from across the desk.

The wooden benches were narrow and scrubbed grey by repeated washes with bleach and disinfectant. Two benches away, a child wearing pyjamas and a duffel coat leaned into her mother’s side, grumbling and sniffing. The girl’s hand was wrapped in a crimson tea towel. The mother glanced up at Hausmann in his grubby suit and pulled the child closer.

Gently prodding at his elbow, Hausmann took care to hiss and wince. After a few minutes of this, a second nurse with a clipboard summoned him over to a curtained area. He didn’t recognise her. With her white, pointed features and crisp uniform, she could have been made of cartridge paper.

The examination was brief. He said as little as possible, flinching when she touched his elbow and painfully failing when she asked him to straighten his arm. She nodded and scribbled a note on her clipboard.

“Take this form and follow the blue line to Radiology 3. Did you get that? The blue line.”

He nodded and stumbled past the curtain, the form crumpled in his fist.

The corridors were empty and his shoes squeaked on the antiseptic linoleum. Though he was sure he was unobserved, he swayed along the blue line and bumped along the wall, barging through the swing-doors with his good shoulder.

He passed the sign for Radiology but stopped short when he saw the feet of another patient sitting outside a door marked with a large number 3. He would have to be quiet. Removing his shoes, he stole across to the door of Radiology 2. Locked. Hausmann flicked the lock pick from inside his belt and worked deftly. 15 seconds passed before he heard the telltale click. He was slipping.

He closed the door behind himself and turned the lock before switching on the lights. The room was as he remembered it. Stepping behind the screen, he threw the power switch and started warming up the ray tube. That gave him one minute to centre the cardboard box on the target plate and adjust the focus.

A sheet of film was already loaded, so all he needed to do was get behind the shielding and take the shot. He pushed the button. The dull tock of the shutter always felt like an anticlimax.

It would be another minute or so before the image was ready. Hausmann paced over to the target plate and leaned close to the slim, brown box, wondering what might be inside. The Prussian eagle on the wax seal stared sidelong at him. Its talons looked unnaturally broad and curved, like scimitars.

He flexed his toes in his socks.

That was 60 seconds. He unclipped the film from its frame and switched on the lightbox on the wall, slotting the image into place and stepping back to examine the picture.

Hausmann frowned. Perhaps the film was faulty. It was the one thing he hadn’t checked, and it might explain the lack of clarity. He couldn’t even see the outline of the box, let alone its contents, the whole film being filled with solid darkness. Obviously there had been a technical error.

He was reaching for the film to try again when he noticed that the corner of the image was not entirely black. In fact, there was a definite difference in shading, the corners of the picture all being slightly lighter than the centre. The rectangular box had created a perfect oval that almost filled the film with a different quality of blackness even denser than the blank plate behind it.

Hausmann looked at the film again, then over to the box still sitting on the plate. There was nothing wrong with the image. Something in the box was radiating darkness.

The ray tube hummed with energy as Hausmann’s mind whirred. Was this a new security measure? What could be small yet powerful enough to blind the imaging equipment completely? What was it concealing?

Hausmann knew he shouldn’t pursue this line any further. He should hand over the package to Bartholamew as planned and take his fee, no questions asked. Anything else was bad for business and, most likely, bad for his health. He really had no fondness for hospitals.

But if there was one thing that made Hausmann nervous, it was being kept in the dark. This is why he made a habit of these trips to Radiology after each job. Knowledge was power. But it could also get you killed.

There was a trolley of surgical instruments in the far corner. He donned a pair of surgical gloves, chose the scalpel with the sharpest, narrowest blade and approached the box as if it were an anaesthetised patient waiting for the first incision. If he sliced along the glued seam of the box, he could leave the seal untouched and re-glue the box after examining the contents. That’s assuming there were no other extraordinary security measures inside.

Hausmann steadied his hand and slid the blade behind the flap at the end of the box. It wasn’t a clean cut. The glue was tough and he could tell that he was cutting through a layer of the thick brown card. He stopped. He couldn’t leave it like that. The damage was done. He’d have to re-glue the box anyway, so he may as well continue with the incision and find out what was in there.

Turning the box around, he completed the cut from the other side, until he could lever the flap upwards with the flat of the blade. The box seemed to sigh as the pressure was released. Hausmann squatted down on his haunches so that the box was at eye level. He lifted one end to tip out the contents.

A grey piece of metal clattered onto the x-ray plate. It was flat and roughly triangular, perhaps the size of an ID card, but the edges were warped and sharp as though it had been torn from a larger sheet. He flipped the piece over with the point of the scalpel. No obvious markings. Perhaps half the indentation of a rivet. It certainly had no evident value to Hausmann.

He looked inside the box. There was still something in there. Photographs. He shook them out and held them by the edges. Four pictures, all monochrome, but taken with different cameras at different times. A derailed train. A grandiose bedroom with a great dark stain across the floor. A ship at sea. Trees in a forest with the bark shredded by munitions.

A memory stirred in Hausmann, like a seismic crack opening up in ocean floor of his mind with gouts of black smoke and lava rushing out into the deep, cold water.

“Mr Garner? John Garner?”

It was a nurse’s voice from along the corridor. Hausmann shovelled the photographs back into the box and pushed the metal shard after them.

“Mr Garner?”

Footsteps. The voice was outside the door now. He cursed himself as he realised that the thrum of the x-ray device was probably loud enough to be heard in the sterile corridor. The door handle flexed.

“Mr Garner?”

Now another voice approached, this one male. While the two discussed who had locked up and at what time and who had the full set of Radiology keys, Hausmann put on his shoes and pressed himself against the wall, listening. This was the only way out. If the staff came in and found him on the wrong side of a locked door, it was unlikely that he would get away with the drunk act again. The scalpel was slippery in his hand.

The two voices reached an agreement, with the woman heading back to Radiology 3 while the man went to fetch the keys from the Registrar. Hausmann allowed himself a deep breath as the voices went their separate ways. He heard the woman call a new patient and into her examination room, and as soon as the way seemed clear, he unlocked the door and scurried for the service exit, his mind full of black and white and grey.