Friday, 18 January 2013

MI Fanfiction: The Minister - Ch 5


Jim felt as if he had spent hours trying to resist going to see Liesl Weismuller. Despite Rollin’s suggestion that he should, it just seemed like too great a lapse of his professionalism. But every time he looked out of the window at the rooms across the street he felt like a moth drawn blindly to a flickering light bulb. He should be more than that. He wasn’t a creature who couldn’t control his own impulses. She was out of the mission, right out, as soon as Cinnamon had taken her place. He had no reason to see her.

Her apartment was empty, anyway. He could still see some of her personal possessions strewn about in there, so she hadn’t left for good, but she certainly wasn’t in. He had descended to sitting behind his own nearly-drawn curtains with binoculars, scrutinising what he could see in there. Items of food and crockery, a piece of clothing flung over a chair, a hairbrush left on the table. But no Liesl. Wherever she had gone she was perhaps going to be out all day. It wasn’t just a quick trip out to the shops. She would have been back by now.

He put aside his binoculars in self-disgust. He had no justification for spying on her. None at all. She had nothing to do with Bauer now. Cinnamon had taken over her role. It was up to Cinnamon to report back as needed. Cinnamon was a spy, and a darn good one. Liesl was nothing of that sort – just a woman trapped by circumstances into a hard and sad life.

He stroked a hand down the front of his jacket, considering his next course of action. He wouldn’t have been wearing the jacket indoors, but the heaters weren’t too effective, and it was chilly again in the apartment. Rollin was still out at the club and would tell him anything he’d discovered when he returned. Barney and Willy were out at their faux roadworks. Cinnamon was presumably ensconced in whatever it was that Bauer deemed part of her duties.

He slipped his jacket off and went into the bedroom, shuffling through the clothing in his suitcase until he found something suited to the foreman of a road-working gang. It would be easy enough to slip in through the entrance of Barney and Willy’s works and go see how they were doing. He’d looked at all the plans of the sewers and the cellars of Bauer’s club, but nothing compared to seeing them in the flesh.

He cursed his hair colour silently as he pulled on the workman’s clothes. It was easy enough to change one’s looks with clothing, but his silver-grey hair stood out. Perhaps his looks weren’t so distinctive out here in this Germanic country – his height and blue eyes were more run of the mill than a talking point – but the hair was tougher to manage.

He sighed and underwent the regrettable necessity of rubbing a little dark dye through his hair. It didn’t change it entirely, but it at least made it a little less obvious. If anyone happened to see him leaving these rooms they would hopefully think he was a visiting worker rather than the suited gentleman who had rented this place.

He washed the dark stuff off his hands and went into the bedroom to pick up his radio. A glance through the curtains told him that Liesl’s apartment was probably still empty.

He sighed. So he was thinking of her in first name terms now, was he? That was always an irritating, telling sign. Fraulein Weismuller. That was better. Far better. An anonymous woman with whom he had exchanged no more than one conversation. Nothing more than that.

He flicked his radio on and tuned it in to Barney’s channel and said rather more tersely than he had intended, ‘I’m coming down, Barney.’ He glanced at his watch, taking in the precise position of the minute hand without conscious thought. ‘See you at ten forty-five.’

‘All right, Jim. We’re doing fine,’ was all that Barney said in reply. He was long used to Jim’s manner.

Jim slipped the radio into his pocket and pulled on a navy greatcoat that was of a size that would suit both him and Rollin. It was a little loose on Rollin’s shoulders, but fit well enough, and it was useful being able to swap some of their disguises on a trip like this. It wasn’t like he could just go out and buy a foreman’s worn and tired jacket at the drop of a hat.

Outside the snow was starting to flake from the sky again. The clouds looked so heavy and dark that it seemed there was an entire world of snow up there still waiting to come down. Jim pushed his boot through some of the snow on the sidewalk, hoping it wouldn’t get thick enough that it would interfere with Barney’s and Willy’s operations. They were fine once they were underground, but roadworks might look suspicious in six foot high snow drifts.

Barney had chosen his entry to the sewers well. He and Willy had set up in a back street that was not much more than an alley, and saw very little traffic or even pedestrians. The only drawback was that it wasn’t often cleared of snow, either. They had set up a small workman’s tent over the manhole and a couple of signs either side, leaving just enough room for all but the wider trucks to squeeze through – but few trucks would use this place anyway. It was access to nowhere.

Jim slipped into the tent and down through the open manhole, flicking on his flashlight as he went. His nose wrinkled at the smell. He didn’t know how Barney and Willy stood working in places like this so often. With Barney the elegance and intricacy of the work enticed him, but he wasn’t sure with Willy. Maybe it was enough to know that in this way he was getting a good job done.

At least there were raised walkways in the channels and he didn’t need to wade through the water. He certainly wasn’t equipped for that.

He flashed his light ahead, bringing the sewer plans back to mind. Barney hadn’t marked out his route on the blueprints, not wanting to leave obvious evidence that could be found by a rogue party, but he had traced it out with his finger for Jim to see, and Jim had almost perfect recall for such things. Straight ahead for a hundred yards, then a left down the third side channel. A few other twists and turns, and he would be right where Barney and Willy were tunnelling through the wall and into the rear of Bauer’s safe.

He knew he had reached them before he turned the last corner. He could hear the low rumbling of some kind of power tool, and see a glimmer of light reflecting from the damp walls of the tunnel.

‘Barney, Willy,’ he called, coming round the slow curve.

Willy was holding a drill up against the wall, his entire body shuddering with the vibration as the bit pushed into the bricks. He was having to stoop in the low passage, and it looked a most uncomfortable position.

‘Barney!’ he called again, seeing that neither of them had heard him, and suddenly Barney turned and raised a hand. The man patted Willy on the shoulder and he looked round too, then lowered the drill.

‘Just checking in,’ Jim said in the quiet that fell. He came closer to inspect the ring of holes that Willy had made in the wall. ‘How’s your progress?’

‘It’s fair,’ Barney shrugged. ‘We’re figuring on taking all of today just to get through these bricks. They’re like iron, and we need to take it carefully so we don’t cause structural damage.’

‘Any danger of being heard from the club as you get closer?’ Jim asked.

In one place in his circle of holes Willy had removed a whole brick. He reached a hand through the hole and brought his fist out clenched. He opened it to show Jim a handful of dull, clodding dirt.

‘It’s like that all the way to the foundations of the club, I reckon,’ he said succinctly. ‘They won’t hear anything as we dig through.’

‘We’ve got more subtle tools for the wall of the club basement,’ Barney added. ‘I didn’t bring them today – there’s no need – but we’ll be able to go through their wall almost silently. They won’t be as solidly built as these sewers, I hope.’

‘I hope,’ Jim nodded with a small laugh. He felt better now he was down here doing something, despite the dark and the smell. These smaller channels weren’t so offensively, thankfully. ‘How do you stand the smell down here?’ he asked.

Willy grinned and Barney shrugged.

‘You get used to it,’ Barney told him.

‘Well, I hope you have a good shower in your rooms – or at least a tub,’ Jim grinned back.

‘We have a tub,’ Willy commented, intent on adjusting something on his drill. ‘I wouldn’t call it good, though. I barely fit.’

Jim looked Willy up and down and laughed. He couldn’t imagine that Willy had that much ease fitting into tubs back home, let alone in these little Eastern European bathrooms where plumbing seemed more like a surprise extra than a necessity.

‘How are you planning on getting through all that dirt safely, Barney?’ he asked, serious again.

‘Props and beams to hold up the dirt above,’ Barney told him.

‘And a lot of shovelling,’ Willy added.

‘It’s going to be a long process,’ Barney said seriously. ‘We can throw the spoil out into the sewer, at least, as long as we do it gradually, but we’ll have to be pretty careful the whole lot doesn’t come down on us.’

‘You’ve got – what – fifty yards to cover?’ Jim asked, leaning to shine his flashlight into the one-brick hole that Willy had made. There was nothing in there but a dark wall of earth.

‘Forty-six, to be precise. It’s going to be tough.’

Jim clapped him on the shoulder. ‘You’ll do it,’ he said with a confidence that was completely genuine. He had never known Barney to let him down. ‘You’ve got something to cover the hole?’

Willy nodded towards something covered with a dust-sheet. He raised the cloth to show a thin panel artfully painted with a trompe-l’oeil wall of brick.

‘We’ll fix that to the wall after us. Unless someone knocks against it – and no one comes down here anyway – they won’t know it’s any different from the real wall.’

‘Great, Willy,’ Jim smiled. ‘Anything I can help with while I’m down here?’

Barney shook his head. ‘We’ve got it, Jim. It’s a cramped operating space as it is.’

Jim nodded, suddenly getting the feeling he was holding them up.

‘I’ll get back above ground,’ he said. He turned around to make his way back up the low, circular passage, then looked over his shoulder briefly. ‘Good work,’ he nodded, then flashed his light ahead of him and made his way swiftly out of the sewer.

He couldn’t help but think it was a good thing it was so darn cold above considering the scent that was rising from his clothes after being down in the sewer. If it had been hot outside he would have stank for a radius of six feet. As it was he just put his head down and tightened his coat around him and walked briskly back towards the apartment, intent on a bath as soon as he could get one. The snow was still falling thickly, cold flakes landing on the back of his neck and making him shiver, but at least the walk was warming.

He was getting near the apartment, head down against the snow, when he found himself abruptly barrelling into someone. He recoiled, muttering apologies, fully aware of how he must smell at close quarters. As he raised his head he recognised her – Liesl Weismuller, heading back towards her own rooms, it seemed. In their collision she had dropped two paper bags of groceries and he reached out to help pick them up, then remembered the unhygienic state of his hands and backed off, muttering again, ‘Entschuldigung, entschuldigung.’

She shook her head, her lips moving to say something, but she made no sound. Startled, Jim realised that she was crying, and from the state of her eyes had been for some time. He reached out a hand again, then withdrew it again. It was important that she didn’t recognise him. After all, what excuse would Otto Baum have for being disguised as a works foreman and stinking of the sewers?

‘Entschuldigung,’ he said again, hurrying away from her and not looking back.

Back in the apartment he stood in the window looking down at the street below, the curtains only a crack open so no one would recognise the grubby workman and wonder what he was doing in the grey-haired man’s apartment. He laughed dryly as he stood there. He seemed to be spending half his time here spying on Fraulein Weismuller through the curtains. She had picked up her groceries by now and was hurrying across the street towards her own door. He felt a curious degree of relief at the fact that she was home now, not out wandering the city. He had a latent fear that she would return to Bauer, and might end up in a worse situation than she was now.

He closed the small gap in the curtains. No need to watch for her to appear in her rooms. He shrugged the greatcoat off and dropped it carefully on the floor near the door, then did the same with the rest of his clothes. There was no laundry hamper here anyway, and certainly not one marked for clothes tainted with sewage. He would have to wash them himself later, or maybe persuade Rollin to go out and find a laundromat. The last thing he wanted to do was go and sit in a place like that, but Rollin would enjoy pulling on some disguise and taking the clothes out to wash and studying the patrons for future ideas for disguise.

At least the water heater shuddered obediently into action when he turned on the bath tap, and before long the tub was full of steaming water. He washed the dye out of his hair with a special cleanser in the basin, then sank gratefully into the bathtub, feeling the heat of the water wash all around him and start to ease the cold out of his limbs.

No wonder Willy had such trouble with his own tub. Jim had to keep his knees bent up, and his shoulders bound against the sides – but the water was hot and it felt so good to slowly wash away any taint from the sewers. Probably very little had got on him, since his clothes covered most of his body and he had been very careful of what he touched, but this was as much about feeling clean as being clean.

He closed his eyes and leant his head back, letting the water wash around his neck and ease out the stiffness from keeping his head bent underground. As he lay there he remembered the sight of Liesl in the street, her red eyes and her distracted expression. She had been distracted, he supposed, because she had just collided with a man who stank of sewage and who had made her drop her bags, but he was sure there was more than that. Of course she was distracted. She was broke, jobless, and adrift in the world.

He exhaled a long, slow breath, flexing his fingers under the water. He was going to have to do something about this. If he didn’t he would never be able to focus his mind properly on this job. He’d tried avoiding her today and had ended up walking headlong into her. Best to just come face to face with her and deal in some way with this problem.

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