Chapter Two: Taken By Surprise
February 22nd, Stuttgart, Germany; 09:20...
"Oh, come on, what is wrong with this thing?"
This coming from Natalya as she tried to get her equipment set up in her hotel room. She had been working at this for almost three hours, and so far she had encountered nothing but problems. The surveillance devices she set up yesterday should have been transmitting data by now. She should have had both audio and video data waiting for her analysis.
So far, there was nothing. Not a single shred of data to show for yesterday's work.
She was sitting at the desk where she had set up the receiving equipment, trying everything she knew to get the recording devices to do something other than just sit there.
I've never had this problem before, she thought, irritated. They better not have set me up with faulty equipment, or heads are going to roll when I get back.
She had thought extensively about what the problem might be. She noticed that all the equipment did appear to be running. It was almost as if...
It's as if there's nothing on the other end; like all the recording devices stopped working at the same time. But that should be impossible, unless...
It hit her a second later, and the thought stunned her.
...unless all the devices were found and dismantled.
She did not want to consider this. The very idea made her want to put her fist through the wall. But something told her that was exactly what had happened.
And the only way to find out if that's what happened is to break back in and check.
Shaking her head in disbelief, she grabbed her coat and headed out, making sure the "Do Not Disturb" sign was prominently displayed on the door.
The apartment was completely silent, except for the almost imperceptible sounds coming from the other side of the door.
As Natalya worked at picking the lock, she thought on what she was doing. She knew he was still in there. His car was still parked behind the building. The big man was asleep, though, a fact she had made note of as she looked through his window from the opposite roof. She knew he wouldn't be doing much of anything after her fight with him yesterday.
He'll be less of a threat to me this time, at least, she thought as she finally succeeded in popping the lock. Silently, she made her way into the apartment.
Not that she thought he would try to fight her again. She knew that the only reason he fought her yesterday is because he thought she was there to kill him.
Can't blame him. The man's an assassin, she thought, looking around the darkened apartment. He's probably paranoid because of it.
Shaking such thoughts from her head, she set to work checking the spots where her devices had been. It only took her a few minutes to confirm what she already knew, subconsciously: none of them were still in place.
He found them all! She was stupefied. Nobody had ever discovered even one of her devices, let alone every single one. How did he know where to look?
Sighing inaudibly, she almost missed the silent footsteps that had come from the bedroom. However, it was impossible to miss the words that pierced the silence.
"This again, Ms. Lukashenko?"
She turned around to catch sight of Ludwig Engelhardt standing in the doorway to his bedroom, a cup of coffee clutched in one hand. The way he was standing there like that reminded her of the way he found her yesterday. Except that time, he'd been bewildered. Now, he seemed almost amused about finding her here.
Absorbed in this thought, it took her a second to realize that he had just called her by name.
"How do you know my name?"
"Your conversation yesterday with your employer," Ludwig replied, taking a sip of his coffee before continuing. As she kept her eyes on him, she couldn't help but notice that he was clad in nothing other than a pair of black athletic shorts and socks. His chest was still heavily bandaged, and once more she found herself staring. It took her a moment to realize he was still speaking. "I heard the whole thing."
"How did you-"
"The sedative you put in my drink wore off in an hour and half, not six," he said, one eyebrow raised. "You were here for almost a half hour with me still awake." A beat. "So, your employer's name is Fedorchak, is it? A man long suspected of being the leader of a so-called 'shadow division' of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine."
How does he know that? How could he have found that out?
"You're not supposed to know that." Her voice was significantly more composed than she felt. "That's classified information."
"I have no intention of using this information, if that's what you're worried about," Ludwig said, not moving from the doorway. "All that would do is make my life more difficult. No, my main purpose of listening to your conversation was because I wanted to find out more about you, personally."
"Curiosity," he replied. "I find someone in my apartment who has been sent to spy on me? Natural curiosity makes me want to know more about that person. I couldn't make out everything said, because I don't speak Ukrainian, but I picked out the names, at least." A moment of silence. "But what I want to know right now is why you returned at a time when you knew I was still home."
"You removed my surveillance devices," she said, matter-of-factly.
"You invaded my home," he countered, before his voice turned hard. He must have realized why she was there. "You're not putting those devices back in here, either. I have no intention of letting you watch me around the clock."
Natalya sighed and said, "Hate to tell you, but I'm here to gather information on you, and I can't do that if I can't hear and see what you're doing."
"Technically, you're not supposed to be here in the first place," Ludwig said to that, his voice still stern. "I could call the police right now and blow your identity, and thus your entire mission, wide open. You have no choice other than to concede defeat. I have the upper hand."
"And if I was to tell the police that you're an assassin?" she asked, taking a step closer to him. She could see the anger in his eyes as she said this. "Neither of us has the upper hand here. Both of us have information that could destroy the other. You have my surveillance devices, but I've got an entire file on you and your extralegal activities. And unlike you, I can prove that you are what you are. Those devices could belong to anybody, but this file is pretty specific. It couldn't be anyone else's but yours." That wasn't entirely true. There actually wasn't much in the file about his 'extralegal activities', otherwise she wouldn't be here. He didn't need to know that the file was more or less a rundown of him personally, something that really only served to let her know what she was up against. As long as he thought she had an entire file on his assassinations, one that she could turn over to any law enforcement agency she wanted, she could force him to cooperate. Setting her features into a no-nonsense mask, she said, "You had better believe that I'm not afraid to use that information. I have a job to do, and believe it or not, Engelhardt, blowing your cover would make it so much easier on me. Because then me and my people wouldn't have to worry about you becoming a threat to Ukraine's national security, would we?" She was practically right on top of him now, looking him in the eyes, even though he had about ten centimeters of height on her. She could see it in the way he stood there now; he was mad. He was trying to hide it, but his fists were clenched at his sides and he was visibly tense. She knew that he understood exactly what she meant by the last sentence, but she clarified anyways. "We wouldn't have to worry about it, because you'd be thrown into prison for the rest of your life. You wouldn't be helping anyone from in there, would you?"
He looked stricken at her last sentence, and he took a step back, trying to regain control of his composure. He turned away from her a moment, his hand resting against the door frame as he appeared to be thinking over what she said.
"I don't want to do that to you," she went on. "I don't wish to destroy your life. But I will complete my mission, one way or another."
For a moment, neither of them spoke. Neither of them made a move. A dangerous silence settled over the apartment.
How am I going to get him to agree to this? she thought, racking her brains, thinking through everything she learned about him before her mission. Finally an idea sprung into her head.
"Look..." she said, deciding to try to reason with him. "I've been watching you. I've studied files on you. You're a loner. You never have company over. I bet I'm the only person besides yourself to enter this apartment in months. You never talk on the phone, at least not your land line. Why do you take such an issue with me keeping an eye on you for a few weeks? This could clear your name with my people. If they don't suspect you of being a threat, then that will be the end of it. The mission will be ended and your case will be closed."
He still had not turned around to face her. Had she been able to see his face, she would have seen the conflict written there. What was he to do in this situation? He thought it over a minute before turning to face her.
"Fine," he said, his voice noticeably tense as he told her, "You may put the devices back where they were before. But..." here, he took a step closer to her, leaning down to look her in the eye, "...if the devices are not removed within three months, I will remove them myself and turn them over to the authorities. I'm not going to live my life under surveillance, especially when I know I'm not a threat to your nation."
She knew he wouldn't give those devices to the police. He was trying to play her at her own game. To turn those devices in to the police would be to invite questions about why he had been put under surveillance in the first place. But she knew that this was probably as good of a deal as she would get out of him.
"I can agree to that," she said, extending a hand to shake.
He shook her hand and said, "The devices are in the bottom drawer in the kitchen. If you'll excuse me..."
He retreated into the bedroom, and she headed into the kitchen to retrieve her devices. She had just started reinstalling the first device when he returned, now clad in a pair of jeans and what looked like a football jersey. She gestured towards the jersey and, in an attempt to defuse the tension, asked, "You're a football fan?"
He looked down at his jersey and nodded once, walking towards the kitchen.
"National or local?" she asked, in hopes of engaging him in conversation. She really didn't want to be here for several more hours with this awkwardness between the two of them.
"Both," came the reply. She couldn't see what he was doing; probably making a fresh cup of coffee.
"Then whose jersey is that you're wearing now?" she said, cursing under her breath as she realized one of the wires on this device was broken.
"VfB Stuttgart. That's the major team around here," he answered as he re-emerged from the kitchen. Sure enough, there was a steaming mug of coffee in his hand. "Having a rough season, unfortunately." He did not say anything more about it as he walked over to the stereo, pressing a few buttons on it. Moments later, the sounds of music reached her ears; classical music, she noticed. Again, she was surprised.
As she worked at fixing the device, she watched him out of the corner of her eye. Watched as he took a seat on the couch, picked up a book from the coffee table in front of him. He was being ever careful, she noted, not to aggravate his injury. Even so, she could see a flicker, there, across his face, for about half a second.
"You know..." she said, not looking straight at him, "...I'm truly sorry about what I did to you. I had no intention or desire to hurt you like that."
He did not reply as he turned his attention to his book, probably still angry about her practically forcing him to accept the devices in his home.
"I wasn't going to attack you at all. I was running for the door, but you kept me in here. I was simply trying to defend myself." Slipping the now repaired device back in its place, she went on, "You didn't give me the impression of trying to seriously injure me. I hate that I did so to you."
Again, no answer. She presumed that he simply wasn't going to answer her, so she gave up trying to talk to him. Over the next two hours she re-assembled and re-installed her devices throughout the apartment, neither of them speaking. The stereo remained on the entire time. He was listening to an opera, she had realized shortly after he'd turned it on. A rather long one, for that matter; through the entire two hours that she spent working, it had been the same one.
"I'm finished," she said as she installed the last device. She got to her feet and looked over at him for the first time since she started. It was immediately apparent that he wasn't angry, so that wasn't why he had refused to answer her. She was about to say something, but before she could, he asked, "Have you ever listened to Wagner, Ms. Lukashenko?"
The question confused her. Is that why he wouldn't talk to her? Because he had gotten lost in what he was listening to?
Better than him being angry at me.
"No, I haven't," she finally answered. "I don't really listen to opera."
"Most people don't. I just thought I'd ask if you did." He closed his book, reaching for the remote to his stereo. Turning the volume down, he said, "I'm not angry at you for what happened yesterday. I've taken worse injuries in my life. I can't say I'm impressed with having to have these devices placed back in my home, but if they clear my name, I suppose I'll put up with them. For now."
"You're not angry?" she asked. "I would have thought you were."
"I don't hold anger inside. It's a waste of energy," was the reply. "It clouds one's judgment. Why would I want such an emotion held inside?"
That made sense, she supposed.
"Well, that's good. I'd hate to have a guy like you mad at me for too long," she said, a half-smile crossing her face.
"What do you mean by that?"
I hope he didn't take that wrong, she thought, mentally kicking herself.
"I just meant that a man of your size and fighting skills would be a dangerous man to have angry at you," she said, shrugging her shoulders, trying to appear casual about it. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"My size and skills don't mean anything," he said, his voice neutral, now. "You should never judge someone by how they look, or by what their particular skill set happens to be." He was quiet a moment. "You've seen my combat skills firsthand. You probably know I'm also a skilled marksman. That was probably in this file you have, wasn't it?"
She nodded. That was, indeed, noted quite prominently in his file.
"You know the skills that make me dangerous. But really, you know next to nothing about me. You know nothing about what makes me tick, what makes me who I am." The look on his face was implacable as he spoke. "For instance, do you know what my passion in life is?"
"No, I don't. What is it?"
Wordlessly, he gestured towards the piano that sat across the room.
His true passion was playing piano? That intrigued her.
"I've been playing since I was a boy, and I think I'm pretty good at it," he went on. A moment. "I also sing. I've been singing bass for years now. I would love to try to make a career as a pianist, or perhaps a singer in operas. It would be a lot better than what I'm doing now."
She would have never guessed that a man such as him would have such a desire. At first glance, he just looked like a no-nonsense, hulking beast of a man. The type of man most people would fear even being in the same room with. But what she was learning about him continued to surprise her, and she wasn't a woman who was surprised by much.
"Can I hear you play?" she asked before she could stop herself.
A look of surprise crossed his features, momentarily, before he pressed the 'pause' button on his stereo remote, got to his feet and strode over to the piano. Taking a seat on the bench, he sat there for a few seconds before beginning to play. She couldn't help but watch over his shoulder; watch as his fingers flew expertly over the keyboard, never missing a note or hitting the wrong key. As she watched, she soon realized that he was playing this long, complex piece with no sheet music. She didn't know what he was playing, but whatever it was, it was all from memory.
He really has been at this for years.
When he finished his piece, he looked up at her and asked, "Well, what do you think?"
"That was beautiful," she said. "Who wrote that?"
"I did," he said as he got to his feet. "That is one of my pieces."
She found herself at a loss for words. This was a man whom she knew was dangerous; the man took lives for a living. But what she had just heard... before today, she would never have imagined such a man capable of writing such a piece. She could hear the emotion in the notes as he played them, like he had written his own feelings and experiences into the music.
He probably did, she realized.
Obviously there was more to Ludwig Engelhardt than could be said with one file. She wanted to know more about him.
So, once more, before she could stop herself, she asked, "May I come back tomorrow?"
This time, there was definitely surprise across his face.
"Why would you want to do that?"
Now what was she supposed to say? She took a moment to consider her answer before she said, "I was going to say something along the lines of me being able to observe you more closely. But the truth is, I just want to be able to talk to you more in-depth."
She could tell he was downright bewildered now, but was trying to not let it show.
"I know this sounds like an odd request," she said. "It's just that I've only known you for a day and you've surprised me more than anyone I've ever met. I just want to talk to you."
For a moment, there was silence on his end, before he asked, "Wouldn't your employer be upset about you fraternizing with someone you are supposed to be keeping under surveillance? Can't he hear all of this right now, anyways?"
"Fedorchak can't hear anything until I set these devices to recording," she countered, holding one finger up in emphasis. "Right now they are not."
"And tomorrow night?"
"They can be deactivated," she said. "I could claim technical difficulties."
Why don't you just get out of this while you can? she thought, before realizing that she didn't want to. She didn't want to miss the opportunity to learn more about him. He was an interesting subject, and after all, she had been sent to gather information about him. If she could get him talking, maybe learn something about him that could be used in her mission... well, that would make this a worthwhile venture.
He stood there a moment, thinking over her proposition. Finally, he answered, "I suppose I don't have anything going on tomorrow night. As you said earlier, I never have company over."
"I'll probably show up later in the evening," she said, a bit surprised that he agreed to this. That's generally the time I can get away with shutting down my recording equipment.
"That will work," he agreed, nodding. "So, I'll see you then, I suppose?"
"I'll see you, then," she said, heading towards the door. "Goodnight, Herr Engelhardt."
"Goodnight, Ms. Lukashenko," he said, watching her go. She couldn't quite make out his expression, but it occurred to her then that she was not the only one who'd wanted to find out more about the other. He did say, earlier, that he wanted to know more about her.
Is that why he agreed to talk with me? She closed the door behind her, ignoring her heart pounding as she walked down the hall. Because he sees this as an opportunity to learn more about me?
She shook her head to clear the thought. That, she supposed, was something she'd find out tomorrow.