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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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Sunday
Sep022012

Week 6

John, The Insurance Clerk

I checked my watch again. Only fifteen minutes until the plane for Piraeus was due to be wheels-up out of London Croydon airport. And instead of sipping a gin and tonic on board, I was stuck in a windowless room in some dingy airport sub-basement.

There was a scratched wooden table, a rickety wooden chair, a mirror and a buzzing light fitting. I’d seen no one for half an hour. And I was about to miss my flight.

I banged on the door. Harder this time than before.

"My flight's about to leave!" I shouted, "will someone please answer this door!"

No answer. I stared at the two tiny pinpricks, one on each thumb. The light fitting buzzed.

The whole thing had been very ordinary. After going through the usual security checks, I had lined up with the other passengers for my routine blood test. I generally book my holidays early enough that I can be pre-cleared by my doctor - but the business is no great fuss. A pinprick to the thumb, a bead of blood on a slide, 20 minutes' wait while they check to see if you have the Constantan Plague or Texan Influenza, and you're on your way. But not for me.

One by one, the other passengers were given back their passports with a smile. Eventually, I was the only one left in the waiting area, very far from any supplier of gin-and-tonic.

An unsmiling female security officer in her sixties came out at last.

"Follow me, sir," she said.

She led me through an unmarked door, down several winding corridors to this basement room. She motioned me to sit.

"Is there some problem, officer?" I spoke mildly.

She frowned.

"We're going to run the test again."

She took another bead of blood – rather roughly – locked the door behind her, and left me to wait. And wait. And wait.

I stared at my watch again. Ten minutes until the plane was due to leave. I banged on the door.

"Let me out! I have to catch my plane! I've done nothing wrong! Let me out!"

Nothing happened. I found I was beginning to sweat. The minutes ticked over. The plane’s departure time came and went. Were they going to leave me here forever? I felt faint, suddenly, remembering something. Not remembering. The corner of something, like a dream. A scrabbling noise. The thought: “Were they going to leave me here forever?” I began to breathe faster.

“Let me out!” I shouted, pounding on the door, “let me out!”

Half fainting, I leaned on the door when it suddenly opened, inward. I stumbled back, almost fell.

"Now, now," said a different officer, a young man with a pleasant, open face, "don't upset yourself, sir. We've held the plane for you. It'll wait for, oh, another 20 minutes or so."

“But what have I done? What’s happened?”

"Come with me, sir," he said.

I followed him out of the windowless room, glad beyond rational thought to leave it behind. We passed through two doors and out into the open air: a tiny walled garden with planes passing low overhead.

"Have to do this in the open air," he said. "It's the only way to be certain."

"What is? What are you talking about?"

"Turn around, sir."

I was suddenly afraid.

"I will not turn around. I have my rights. I demand to see a lawyer. What is going on here?"

The open-faced young man bit his lower lip.

"Have you had your blood cleaned, sir?"

"What?"

The young man smiled.

"Oh yes, I’m sure you don’t know what I mean, sir. What was I thinking of?"

I frowned at him. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

"If that’s the way you want to play it, sir. Of course, I do have the right to do one final test. So turn around."

"What if I don't want to turn around?"

"Then I will be forced to arrest you for resisting the routine blood tests."

The man was obviously either a sadist or an imbecile. Either way, humouring him seemed the best plan. I smiled, raised my hands in mock 'surrender', and turned around.

From behind me, there was a cracking sound, like a piece of glass being snapped. There was a low hum. There was a sudden sharp pain in the back of my neck, as if a bee had stung me, but it faded away as soon as it arrived, except... except that I thought again of that name, "Lasserre," and I do not know why.

"Just a couple more readings, sir."

I stared at the wall in front of me as he took his 'readings'. I didn’t feel anything but a faint dizziness. The little garden was some kind of memorial shrine. Various airmen remembered with a small brass plaque. I began to read them to distract myself. The first Prussian war had taken a heavy toll. One sign, a little larger than the rest caught my eye: "In memory of Winston Churchill, 1874-1919, first Lord of the Admiralty, tragically killed in an accident at Croydon aerodrome."

"Well, sir," said the young officer, "you're absolutely clean. I suppose you're free to go."

Without bothering to thank him, I grabbed my suitcase and sprinted for the plane.


The officer hadn’t lied, at least. The plane was waiting for me. A pretty young stewardess in one of those attractive caps was waiting at the gate, talking to an elderly man in thick spectacles with an enormous black beard.

I was about to hand her my ticket, when I remembered I hadn’t yet phoned Elizabeth.

“Blast it,” I said, “I need to telephone my fiancée. She’ll be out of her mind with worry if she doesn’t hear from me.”

She directed me to the telephone kiosk on the wall, told me I had three minutes, and went back to her conversation with the bearded gentleman. They were speaking Bulgarian, which I could never get far with at school. All I heard was the word “delay”.

“Now darling, you mustn’t worry.”

When distressed, Elizabeth has a tendency to become rather shrill.

“No, darling, I swear, it’ll be just one night. And then, yes, I’ll be there to look at the flowers on Wednesday.”

She was panicking a little. The constant presence of her mother tends to bring this out in her.

“My darling, it’s just a tiny piece of work. Form-filling, really. Talking to the coastguard, making a copy of the original report. Routine. Nothing more. It can’t possibly take more than a few hours.”

My attention was diverted for a second. The bearded Bulgarian was pointing to the suitcase at my feet.

“Yes,” I said absently, “yes, I love you too, my darling, and I will see you tomorrow evening, I promise.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the stewardess, as she took my ticket, “but your suitcase is too large for our overhead compartments.”

“Oh but, at the desk they said that because the plane was half-full it would be alright to…”

“We’ll stow it safely in the baggage compartment for you until we land, sir. Is there anything you want to take out of it?”

I couldn’t be bothered to argue. I unzipped the case and pulled out my newspaper, fountain pen and the Laserre case notes. My hand hovered for a moment over my pills. No. I wouldn’t need one until 10pm, and by that time I’d be in the hotel in Piraeus. I handed over the case and boarded the plane.