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Tidal Change

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There was always a danger of assassins. It was something Erich had known ever since he had made the choice—like stepping off a cliff, a strange combination of terror and free-fall and resignation—to come back to Britain with Bigglesworth. He was a fugitive now, a refugee. He had run from Sakhalin and from his former life, a galling loss of face, honour, self that he was only slowly finding a way to live with.

He would be an enemy of the state, of course. Erich knew all too well how easily the Soviets could insert assassins into other countries. He had been one of them.

But it was still somehow unexpected when the steel blade slid under his topcoat and into his side.

 

*

 

He had sensed the tail. For most of his adult life, he had relied on a combination of skill, luck, and a certain sixth sense to survive. England, all in all, had turned out to be safer than a good deal of his life up until this point, for all that he had tended, at first, to see Soviet assassins behind every tree. But that was paranoia, on the whole.

But it wasn't always. There had been a handful of times that his danger sense had gone off on full alert. In the most alarming instance, he had actually glimpsed someone he knew, an experienced Russian killer-for-hire, while he was visiting a grocer's in one of his relatively limited forays from his Kensington flat. There could be no doubt that the man was there because of him. Erich thought he had managed not to be seen, but there was no question of returning to the flat. Instead he had stayed on the move for two days, not sleeping, not pausing, drifting about the city. He had checked a handful of dead drops that he knew of, found nothing to do with himself, and finally unbent enough to call Raymond and ask if new lodgings might be secured.

That was the closest call. The other ones were more ambiguous, shadows and glimpses and the bone-deep suspicion that he was being followed without quite being able to put a name to what was giving him that feeling. He listened to his instincts, took the extra time to walk about the city, and made an effort to keep himself from being followed back to what he was starting to think of as home—let alone (heaven forbid) followed to his initially rare but increasingly regular meetings with Bigglesworth, or to Marie, once she was installed in her new cottage outside the city.

He had a dinner appointment with Bigglesworth tonight, in fact, and was out to run a few errands beforehand when he felt a prickling on the back of his neck. He did not pause, merely paid the clerk for the light shopping he had just conducted (cigarettes, a few household items) and walked out of the store with his parcels, moving casually, his stick held lightly in one hand and the parcels tucked under his arm.

He had meant to return to his flat and leave the things there. Instead he moved down the pavement, matching the flow of pedestrian traffic, on alert for what might have set him off in the shop. It may have been nothing and he knew it: an innocent passerby who echoed vague recognition of someone Erich had known a decade ago in another country, a movement that was too stealthy or too fast, a sound that replicated the hiss of a knife drawn from its sheath or the quiet click of a gun being cocked. Any of these things or a hundred more like them could trip those instincts, never buried far beneath the surface, that had kept him alive and could not easily be left behind.

It was a chill, gray day, with a steady drizzle falling. This worked both for him and against him. The other pedestrians were moving quickly, many of them hidden beneath umbrellas or lowered hats. No one wanted to be out in the rain longer than they had to. Erich moved lightly between them, weaving in and out, never remaining still for long and keeping his senses on high alert.

He might have made himself a target. The stranger came out of nowhere and bumped into him. Erich had already taken a quick step backward at the sudden movement, and perhaps that was what saved him, causing the knife to dance across his ribs rather than plunging into the soft flesh beneath his breastbone.

Erich spun with all of his reflexive speed, dropping his packages and cane. He caught the other man's wrist in a vice grip, and briefly glimpsed the face under the hat. It was completely unfamiliar, wide and plain, with eyes as cold as a snake's. They struggled over the knife, very close together, its bloody blade hidden between them. No one around them seemed aware of anything amiss, perhaps seeing two men in an intense handshake or perhaps two foreign gentlemen in a clinch of greeting. They made no sound, but struggled in silence, with nothing to give them away but soft grunts as air escaped them; their faces were very close together.

Erich could feel blood soaking his shirt, hot and unpleasant, and a terrible weakness spread outward from the burning coal under his ribs. He had to finish it quickly. Knowing this, he pushed forward, catching the other's ankle with his foot. It wrenched his bad leg, but there was no help for it; the other man was bigger and heavier, but Erich had a lot of experience at using his own natural speed and agility to compensate against opponents who outweighed him.

They stumbled together into the mouth of an alley, and Erich finally got the upper hand. He twisted the knife around and drove the blade home, and saw the man's cold eyes widen in shock before Erich pulled upward, twisting the blade and severing the aorta as the assassin had no doubt meant to do to him.

The man collapsed in a heap.

Erich stood for a moment, one hand resting on the side of a building, breathing hard. Water trickled down his neck. He felt cold and hot in waves, and was starting to realise he was in trouble.

After a moment, he went awkwardly down to one knee in the mud of the alley and performed a quick search of the stranger's pockets. He found a billfold and an automatic and, without really thinking about it, pocketed both. There was nothing else of note beyond a plain handkerchief and a handful of hard candies. The other man had lost his hat in the struggle and Erich took off his own, placed it over the man's face and tilted it down. With the hat like so, and the coat arranged like so, the assassin appeared to be sleeping off a fit of drunkenness. It would take a while before anyone noticed him in this dismal weather.

Erich recovered his stick but left the packages where they lay in the roadside puddles. There was nothing in them he needed and nothing likely to reveal his identity. Moving more or less on instinct, he began to walk again, slowly and carefully with each step jarring his side. One hand was tucked under his coat to press against the wet heat saturating his shirt and jacket.

At first there was no plan. He simply had to get away. Going back to his flat was not currently an option; the man might have friends, they might have it watched. It surprised him, a little, to find how much he very badly did not want to die.

He moved with a kind of reckless aimlessness that took him at last to a small park with an iron fence around it. There he found a relatively sheltered place under a tree, sat, and looked at the contents of the billfold.

There was nothing useful to be had there. The driving licence was in the name of Bill Turner and very definitely fake. There were a few cards for clubs and the like, and a department store charge card, also no doubt fake as well; Erich knew how this was done, all the little tricks for building a plausible alternate identity that could pass rough muster if not a close check. The picture of a pretty blonde girl was also fake, he recognised it from the standard set of ones that were kept in the files for that use. Sloppy. He took out the small amount of cash and deposited the billfold in a rubbish bin.

For the increasingly urgent matter of the hole in his side, he dealt with it temporarily by wadding up a clean handkerchief and stuffing it under his shirt. He realised with belated discomfort that there was blood all over his hands. He had very likely left bloody fingerprints on the billfold—with luck it would never be found—and his shirt was soaked through. The head of his cane was sticky. Only the rain was keeping him from leaving a telltale trail.

He didn't know where to go. It was hard to think.

He had two conflicting urges: to get as far away as possible from Bigglesworth and Marie, or to find a way to warn them and then get as far away as possible. The question upon which this decision pivoted was whether "Bill Turner" had friends, and whether either of those two would be targets. Marie more likely than Bigglesworth, Erich thought, because of those aspects of her past that she shared with him. But Bigglesworth would be easier to pass a message to.

Sitting on the bench was draining all the heat out of him. He needed to get up and get moving. The walking stick, somewhat optional in better times, was necessary now; his head swam when he rose, and he stood for a moment, leaning on the stick and trying to think what to do.

There was a telephone box on the corner when he left the park. Erich limped to it and put through a call to Bigglesworth's flat in a sort of fugue. It wasn't until it was picked up and Lacey's voice said warmly, "Hullo?" that Erich found his mind going entirely blank.

He was not prepared to explain any part of this situation to Bigglesworth's entire entourage. He was equally unprepared to lead danger to anyone in Bigglesworth's intimate circle.

He hung up, and leaned against the side of the box. A sharp rap on the glass jolted him, and he looked up to see an elderly woman huddled under an umbrella. She rapped again. Erich waved her off and she shook her fist at him.

If calling wasn't going to work, he could leave a message at the restaurant. It was hours yet before Bigglesworth was due there, but it would be an appropriately neutral location, and one not likely to attract attention unless they were under far more acute surveillance than he knew about, in which case no amount of obfuscation or warning was likely to help.

The woman knocked briskly on the box again.

"Yes, all right," Erich said wearily. He pushed open the door, using his elbow rather than his hand out of concern about leaving bloody handprints on the glass.

The restaurant was within walking distance. Somehow, it had never occurred to him that Bigglesworth had most likely chosen it because it was convenient for him, and Bigglesworth had transportation while Erich didn't. It had simply never come up. That was Bigglesworth, he thought with what he could tell would once have been resentment, but now there was nothing more than a dry amusement tinged with a sort of weary affection.

It was early in the afternoon. The regular evening waitstaff would likely have recognised him, but the afternoon headwaiter very clearly did not, and Erich sensed the disapproval in the politely stiff greeting that he received. With his hatless head streaming rainwater down his collar, hunched over his stick, he likely cut a very poor figure.

"I'd like to leave a message for a gentleman who dines here regularly, please. He will most likely be here tonight. I would like something to write with, if you don't mind."

With pen and paper in hand, he found his hazy mind going blank again. There was a risk the waitstaff would read the message, and an equal risk that—if "Turner" did indeed have associates—the message might fall into enemy hands and give it all away. He was afraid to put Bigglesworth's name on it. Fortunately, they had a regular table, so that gave him a means of addressing his note without being too obvious about it.

The gentleman at Table 12, he wrote on the back of the paper, and creased it.

On the inside, he wrote:

Cannot make tonight's engagement. Old friends in town from previous employment. Please contact the young lady from Chateau Boreau and make sure she knows as well.

He realised too late that he had smudged the paper a bit with bloody fingertips. He tried to wipe it away with his damp sleeve, but it only smudged further. Well, perhaps it would be taken for soot or mud.

There was nothing else he could think to add that wouldn't give too much away. If it was to be a farewell, it was a poor one. But then, he had said goodbye to Bigglesworth a hundred times in a hundred deeply acrimonious ways, often across the barrel of a gun, and it had never seemed to make a difference. If there was one thing he could count on, it was Bigglesworth not holding a grudge.

He passed the paper to the headwaiter with a small bill folded up in his hand.

"This man generally comes in about a quarter of seven. Please see that he receives it."

He could do nothing else. He slipped across the street to watch the restaurant for a while. When no one came who seemed to give off any signal he recognised as a spy tell—no one looking about, no one asking questions, no one enquiring about mysterious notes—he turned away, and started walking.

 

*

 

He didn't know where to go. Somehow he had never planned for the aftermath of this kind of situation. Surviving in the moment, yes. But his plans for where to go afterwards were apparently lacking.

He was very cold. He had a feeling that if he stopped walking, he would likely not get up again. So he kept himself moving.

He found himself at one point in a rather affluent part of town, where he got looks that made him think he was attracting unwise attention. He redirected himself toward less conspicuous areas.

He had some money. He might secure a room. But the idea of stopping concerned him. The last time he had reason to think himself cornered, he had not dared to stop for two days, and it had worked out all right—but he hadn't been hurt that time. He had a bad feeling he had lost an unwise amount of blood.

He found himself, at one point, shockingly close to Bigglesworth's flat, as if drawn by the pull of ... something, perhaps just the awareness of a warm place to dry out by the fire. This wasn't good. He retreated quickly and sought a new direction.

It was raining steadily now. Erich leaned against a wall—where, he wasn't sure—and found his last, slightly damp and crumpled cigarette in his pocket. He lit and smoked it, with a hand cupped over it to keep the rain off.

This was as good a place as any to rest, he decided. He was very cold and very tired.

He settled down against the wall. It was sheltered and he didn't think anyone had followed him for some time now. At least not that he had noticed. Resting for a while seemed more important now anyway.

He closed his eyes.

 

*

 

"—Erich, are you ... don't shut your eyes again, I'm not going to carry you, you have to get up."

The voice faded in and out, but somehow there was some part of Erich that was completely unsurprised to open his eyes and see Bigglesworth's worried and upset hazel gaze glowering down at him. There were hands pressed to his side and some kind of bustle around him that he couldn't quite understand.

"Restaurant," he whispered. It came out rasping and dry, even though there were cold beads of rainwater on his lips.

"Oh yes, I got your message." There was a blanket being wrapped around him, and he was lifted to his feet, with Bigglesworth on one side, and someone else—Hepplethwaite?—on the other. "Stained with blood for that extra authentic touch. Do you know how much trouble I've had tracking you around the city? It was you who rang Algy this afternoon, wasn't it?"

"I was trying to ring you," Erich said, and then realised that he hadn't meant to admit that.

He was moving now, stumbling in an attempt to do as much as possible, and then he was somewhere dry and warm, two feelings he hadn't experienced in a while. The back of a car, he thought. He was sideways on a leather seat with his torso bundled into someone's lap. Bigglesworth, probably—and then he felt the slight, strong fingers gripping his upper arm, and was sure of it.

 

*

 

He floated awake to the awareness that he was warm and dry and buried under a duvet.

The pillow smelled faintly of Bigglesworth's aftershave.

Erich opened his eyes.

"Oh, you're back with us," said a voice from beside the bed.

Erich turned his head carefully. Every part of him ached, and it seemed that his torso was wrapped in a mummy-case of bandages, which he confirmed by touching himself very carefully beneath the duvet.

"Hey, be careful there." Bigglesworth, who was of course sitting at the bedside, laid a hand lightly on his chest on top of the duvet.

"Where," Erich murmured. As if it wasn't obvious.

"We took you back to the flat rather than to hospital just in case there were other Soviets out there looking for you," Bigglesworth said matter-of-factly, as if this wasn't objectively insane. "Had a doctor come in and look at you. Honestly, you're extremely lucky. The wound itself isn't so bad. Blood loss, shock, and exposure is the worst of it, he said, and the treatment is simply to keep you warm and dry, and make sure you drink a lot of fluids. And on that note ..."

He lifted Erich's shoulders and held a cup to his lips. Erich drank a little of what turned out to be some kind of salty beef broth, and then managed to push himself up on his elbow and took the mug himself, although his hand trembled.

Bigglesworth sat back and watched him, elbows resting on his knees with his slim, clever hands resting between them. "We have people out looking for the assassin," he said, his gaze clear and concerned. "That is, Raymond does, and some of his Home Office contacts."

"No need," Erich said. He drained the cup and carefully reached out for the nightstand, his hand wobbling. Bigglesworth quickly took it from his fingers and set it beside the bed. "You can find him in an alley in Kensington. I can give you the approximate location."

Bigglesworth made a faint sound, almost a laugh. "Yes, I'll give it to him. Where?"

He took the address and went off for a bit. Erich drowsed, only to be roused when Bigglesworth came back into the room. "Drink this," was the unsympathetic command, and Erich wearily allowed himself to be lifted and have more broth poured into him. "You know," Bigglesworth said, as he let Erich back down, "you warned me, and you even found a way to get me to warn Marie—she's fine, by the way—but you forgot something along the line."

"I tried not to," Erich murmured, searching his memory. He didn't like the feeling that so many things were dropping out of it.

"You," Bigglesworth said sternly, with a firm, strong grasp on his arm. "You forgot you. Get some rest; you're safe here. We'll talk about it later."

Erich's eyes drooped closed, in part because it was a convenient way to escape the heat of the angry-concerned hazel gaze on his, but also because he was genuinely very tired. Worn to exhaustion, even. He had felt like this before, and he had escaped from worse situations, recovered from greater wounds.

But he had never before had that guarantee.

You're safe here.

The strange thing was that, delivered with Bigglesworth's air of quiet command, he couldn't help but believe it.