Chapter Two: Taken By Surprise
February 22nd, Stuttgart, Germany; 7:20 pm...
"Oh, come on, what is wrong with this thing?"
This coming from Natalya as she tried to get her equipment up and running in her hotel room. So far she had encountered nothing but problems. The surveillance devices she set up yesterday should have been transmitting data by now. She ought to 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 in the room, 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...
As if there's nothing on the other end, she realized. It's as if the recording devices all stopped working at the same time. But that should be impossible, unless...
It hit her a second later.
...unless all the devices were found and dismantled.
She did not even want to consider this. But something told her that was exactly what had happened.
And the only way to find out if that's what happened is to visually inspect them.
She had to break back into the apartment, she knew.
Might as well do that now, she thought. I have to get these machines recording, and soon.
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. Because as hard as this job was, it would be harder if she was discovered.
An hour later...
The apartment was completely silent, save for the sounds of Natalya picking the lock to the front door once more.
She was almost positive the big man was asleep. She knew he would still be recovering from her run-in with him yesterday. A run-in that had ended with her accidentally breaking three of his ribs and putting him out of action, probably for several weeks.
He'll be less of a threat to me this time, at least, she thought as she finally succeeded in popping the lock and silently made her way into the apartment.
Not that she thought he would try to fight her again. She strongly suspected that the only reason he had fought her yesterday is because he thought she was there to kill him.
The man's an assassin, she thought, looking around the darkened apartment, finding no trace of her target. He was probably asleep in his bed, unlike yesterday, when she'd left him on the couch. He's probably paranoid because of it.
Shaking such thoughts out of her head, she set to work, checking the locations she'd hid the devices. It only took her a few minutes to confirm what she already knew, subconsciously: none of them were in the places she'd left them.
He found them all! she thought, stupefied. How did he even know where to look?
Sighing inaudibly, she missed the silent footsteps that had come from the bedroom. It was harder to ignore the words that pierced the silence, however.
"This again, Ms. Lukashenko?"
Natalya turned, stunned, to catch sight of Ludwig Engelhardt standing in the doorway to his bedroom, staring at her, bemused, a cup of coffee clutched in one hand. The way he was standing there like that reminded her of the way he had found her yesterday. Except that time, he'd been enraged. Now, he seemed almost amused about finding her here.
Absorbed in this thought, it took her a second to realize something: he'd called her by name.
"How do you know my name?" she asked, not even bothering to deny it.
"Your conversation yesterday with your employer," Ludwig replied, taking a sip of his coffee before continuing. She couldn't help but notice as she kept her eyes on him 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."
"But... how did you-"
"Whatever you slipped in my drink wore off in three hours. Not eight," he said, shrugging one shoulder. "I decided not to reveal this yesterday, but you were there for almost an hour with me still awake." A beat. "So, your employer's name is Fedorchak, is it? Long suspected of being the leader of a shadow division of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine."
This sentence nearly floored her. How did he know that? How could he have even found that out?
"You're not supposed to know that," she said, her voice 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 simply wanted to find out more about you, personally."
"Curiosity," he replied, simply. "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, especially since you more than likely knew I was still home."
"You removed my surveillance devices," she said, matter-of-factly, still trying to fight off the shock at her cover having been blown so wide open.
"You invaded my home," he countered, before his voice turned hard as the realization of why she was here hit him. "You're not putting those devices back in here, either. I told you before you knocked me out that I'd let you go through my records, to prove I was not a threat. I said nothing about letting you watch me twenty-four seven."
Natalya sighed and said, "You know you've just made my job harder, right? 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 countered, taking a step closer to him. She could see the anger in his eyes as she said this. "It seems neither of us has the upper hand here. Both of us have information that could destroy the other." Setting her features into a no-nonsense mask, she said, "I'm not afraid to use that information if I have to. I have a job to do, and believe it or not, Herr 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 four inches on her. She could see it in the way he stood there now; he was mad. His fists were clenched at his sides and he was tense all over. He knew 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 your parents 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 doorframe as he thought over what she'd just said.
"I don't want to do that to you," Natalya went on, not moving any closer. "I have no desire to destroy someone's life. But I will complete my mission, one way or another."
For a moment, neither of them spoke. Neither of them even 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'd 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 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."
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, "...I will only allow them to remain there for two weeks. I'm not going to live my life under surveillance, especially when I know I'm not a threat to your nation."
She thought this over for a moment. It was probably as good of a deal as she'd get out of him.
"I can agree to that," she finally 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 for a minute, and she headed into the kitchen to retrieve her devices. She had just begun to set up the first device when he'd 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 follow football?"
He looked down at his jersey absently and nodded once, walking towards the kitchen.
"National or local?" Natalya asked, in hopes of engaging him in conversation. She really didn't want to be here for probably several more hours with this awkwardness between the two of them.
"Both," came the reply. She couldn't see what he was doing, but judging from the sound of a spoon clanging around, she presumed he was probably making a fresh cup of coffee.
"Then whose jersey is that you're wearing now?" she asked, cursing under her breath as she realized one of the wires on this particular device was broken.
"VfB Stuttgart. That's the major team around here," he answered back, re-emerging from the kitchen. Sure enough, there was a steaming mug of coffee in his hand. "Not having the best season, but it could be worse." 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 split the room; something classical, she noticed. Again, an unexpected revelation.
As she worked at trying to fix the device, she watched him out of the corner of her eye. Watched as he took a seat on the couch, 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 really am sorry about what I did to you. I had no intention or desire to cause real harm."
He did not reply. Probably still angry about her practically forcing him to accept the devices in his home.
"I wouldn't have attacked you at all. I was running for the door, but you caught me and kept me in here. I was simply trying to defend myself," she went on, finishing with the repairs. Slipping the device back where it had been when she left yesterday, she said, "You didn't give me the impression of trying to seriously injure me. I hate that I accidentally did so to you."
Again, no answer. She presumed that he was simply not going to answer her, so she gave up trying to talk to him. Over the next two hours she reassembled and reinstalled 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; and a rather long one, judging by the fact that, through the entire two hours that she'd 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'd started. It was immediately apparent that he wasn't angry, so that's not 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 momentarily. Is that why he hadn't answered 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," Ludwig replied, setting his cup down, reaching for the remote to his stereo. Turning the volume down a few notches, he said, "I'm not angry at you for what happened yesterday. God knows 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 Ludwig's reply. "It clouds one's judgment. And why would I want such an emotion held inside?"
That made sense, she supposed.
"Well, 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. I didn't mean anything by it," she said, looking away now, biting her lip, hoping, once more, that he didn't take offense.
"My size and skills don't mean anything," he said, his voice neutral, now. "Never judge someone by how they look or their particular skill set." He was quiet a moment. "You know my combat skills. You probably know I'm also a skilled marksman. That was probably in my file somewhere, wasn't it?"
She nodded. That was, indeed, in the file she read on him.
"You know of the skills that make me dangerous. But do you know what my true passion in life is?" he asked, his eyebrows raised as he looked at her. The look on his face was implacable.
"No, I don't," she admitted, scratching the back of her neck nervously. "What is it?"
Wordlessly, he gestured towards the piano that sat across the room.
She was surprised. His true passion was playing piano?
"Yes, that is what I truly love to do," he said, as if reading her mind. "I've been playing since I was a child." A moment. "I also sing. I've been singing bass for years now. If I wasn't stuck in my current occupation, I could make a career as a pianist, or perhaps a singer in operas. That is what I've always, truly wanted to do."
Natalya could not reply to that. She never would have guessed that a man such as him would have such a desire.
"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, and it took her a moment to realize he was playing 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 admitted, getting to his feet. "That is one of my pieces."
Again, she found herself at a loss for words. This was a man whom she knew had a dangerous occupation. She had seen how dangerous he was. Yet 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 found that she wanted to know more about this man.
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?" he asked, puzzlement obvious behind the words.
She thought over this a moment. Now what was she supposed to say? Finally, she answered, "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."
Now he looked downright bewildered.
She took a moment to think on what to say next, before she said, "I know this confuses you. It's just that I've only known you for a day and already you've surprised me more than almost 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?" he asked.
"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.
And if she learned something that could be used in her mission, well, that was a bonus.
He stood there a moment, just looking down at her. Finally, he answered, "I suppose I don't have anything going on tomorrow night. As you yourself said earlier, I never have company over. What time do you think is appropriate?"
She was surprised that he'd actually agreed to this. She thought on that a moment, before she said, "How about eight? That's the time I can get away with shutting down all my recording equipment. We can talk, then."
"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 himself had said, earlier, that he'd wanted to know more about her.
Is that why he agreed to talk with me? she wondered as 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.