The Engelhardt Encounters
By The Inimitable E. Cypher
Chapter One: Human Nature
8:27 pm, Kharkiv, Ukraine; 18 February, 2013...
"Ms. Lukashenko, could you report to my office at once?"
Natalya Lukashenko looked up at the intercom at this, curious as to what would be urgent enough to pull her out of the middle of her usual combat training routine. She was always in the gym this time of day, and usually she was uninterrupted.
He must have my next assignment, she thought, abandoning the heavy bag she had been practicing on, and headed out the door and down the corridor.
At twenty-seven years of age, she was a rather new agent of the Foreign Intelligence Service. Standing at a little under six feet, she was a formidable agent for someone who had been in the service less than five years.
As she walked down the corridor that led to her handler's office, she ran a hand through her reddish-brown hair, wondering where she was headed now.
I hope it's my next assignment, she thought. It's been almost a month since my last one.
Finally she reached her handler's office. She knocked once and only after hearing the muffled, "Come in," did she enter the room.
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Yes, I do," her handler, a man known to her only as Fedorchak, answered, gesturing for her to take a seat, his face giving away nothing as he did so.
She took a seat on the other side of the desk, her hands coming to rest on one crossed knee. Her eyes flicked down to the file sitting on the desk in front of her but said nothing.
"You've done well on every assignment I've sent you on," Fedorchak started, without preamble. "You've yet to fail a mission and I must admit, I'm impressed."
Natalya did not respond. She was waiting to hear the next part. Judging by the file sitting on her handler's desk, she was about to be sent off once more on another mission.
"This next job I'm sending you on will be relatively simple, but this is someone that I feel needs to be investigated immediately."
"One man in particular?" asked Natalya, eyebrow raised. "Not an entire organization?"
"No. Just one man. I've been following him for quite some time and I don't know if he could someday be a threat to this nation."
"What does he do, to make him such a threat?"
Fedorchak opened the file on his desk and turned it towards her.
"He's an assassin. And one I've often seen involved right during or before a country is in a time of crisis with their leadership."
Natalya looked at the picture attached to the file and was surprised at how big the man was. He looked like he could snap a man in half if he so desired. Other than that, he could have been anybody.
"Admittedly, most of the times we've seen him, he's taken out somebody who was a threat to a country's national security," Fedorchak continued. "He's never taken out the man doing the right thing; only the ones who were a threat."
"Then what makes you think he's a potential threat to us?" she asked, not taking her eyes off the picture.
"At this time, I don't think that," admitted her commanding officer, as he twisted the file back around to take a look at it, himself. "But if any country can buy his services, who's to say someone with the right amount of money who's got it out for us couldn't convince him to come after someone in our leadership?"
"So, what do you want me to do?" Natalya asked, head slightly cocked to one side. "You want me to take him down, even though he's never been a threat to us before now?"
"Nothing of the sort," Fedorchak assured her, shaking his head in the negative. "I want you to go to his home country and investigate him. Set up surveillance in his apartment, put a tap on his phoneline. Take a look through his apartment and see if you can find anything to indicate that he could be a threat to us."
"Like I said, this is a simple mission. I just want to keep an eye on him, not hurt the man."
"What happens if I'm in the apartment and he comes home?"
A heavy silence hung over the room until Fedorchak broke it.
"If you are in the apartment and he returns, you incapacitate him," he replied, matter-of-factly. "You are not to kill him, though. You're not there for that." He closed the file, sliding it to one side of his desk. "Judging by what we do know of him, that's as far as he himself would go if the other did not try to kill him. He would probably try to knock you out, but not kill you. We believe that he's not a brutal man, but he is still a dangerous one."
"So, basically I go in, gather intel, set up surveillance. If he catches me, incapacitate but do not kill," she said, summarizing the basic points of the conversation. "Anything else?"
"Yes," Fedorchak said as he opened his top desk drawer and grabbed a small envelope. Handing it and the target's file to her, he said, "Your papers. You will, of course, be using an alias on this job. And you leave immediately; our sources tell us he's in another country right now, on another job, and we don't know how long he's expected to be gone. I recommend you memorize the details of your false identity on your way to the airport. And the file, so you know a bit about the man."
She opened the envelope, taking a look at the false identity papers inside. She knew it wouldn't take her long to memorize the details of these papers, so she looked at the ticket to see where she'd be going.
So, not too far from here, she thought, vaguely surprised but not showing it. Looking back up at Fedorchak, she asked, "Is that all?"
"That's it, yes," he replied. "You'll find a fully equipped surveillance kit in your usual locker at the airport. You will be going unarmed, so no need to bring a gun. Good luck."
Natalya did not respond as she got to her feet and walked towards the door, papers and file tucked under one arm. Closing the door behind her, she looked at the picture in the man's file again.
I do hope he doesn't come home early, she couldn't help but think. He really does look like a hard man to take down.
That was not to say she was afraid to fight him. She feared nothing. But she really had no desire to get in a fight with a man who was easily twice her size.
Closing the file once more, she walked down the corridor.
Stuttgart, Germany; eight hours later...
Natalya stepped off the airplane, as alert as she was when she'd stepped on it. She found it impossible to fall asleep on an airplane, and so had spent the trip memorizing not only her false identity but most of the file on her target.
She had to say, this man had her intrigued.
Looking around the airport, taking stock of the people around her, she'd almost missed him entirely.
There he was. Standing not thirty meters from her, backpack slung over one shoulder, looking like he was half-asleep.
Inwardly stupefied, she had to resist the urge to duck behind a nearby object at the sight of him. What was he doing here now?
She looked at him again. There was no mistaking it. That was the man she had been sent to spy on.
Not showing any outward emotion, she turned her back on the man and walked towards the exit. She was still safe, after all. This man had no way of knowing she was here to keep an eye on him. He probably hadn't even noticed her, or if he did, only for a moment, before turning his attention elsewhere.
As soon as she got outside, she pulled out her phone and sent a simple message to Fedorchak.
Target returned early. Spotted him at airport. Mission will take longer than anticipated.
The reply was simple.
Understood. Take as much time as you need.
Pocketing the phone, she flagged down someone who could drive her the thirteen kilometers into the city proper, and set off.
In order to find a time to successfully raid the man's apartment, she'd had to wait three days for him to leave. She'd read that the man hardly ever went anywhere, but three days with no human contact? She'd hadn't had the chance to put a wiretap on his phone, but it wouldn't have mattered, because as far as she could tell, he hadn't gotten so much as a single phone call while she'd been watching him.
Does this man keep in contact with anybody? she thought, lying on the roof of the building across the street, peering into the apartment through a pair of binoculars. I've heard of people who like to keep to themselves, but...
She was caught off-guard by the sight of the man getting to his feet, heading towards the door of his apartment.
Is he finally leaving?
That appeared to be the case as she watched him leave the apartment. A minute later, she saw him exit the building and walk around the side of the building, reemerging a minute later behind the wheel of a black BMW. Before long, he'd disappeared down another street, and she seized the opportunity.
I have to get in there, she thought as she ran for the building's stairwell. I may not get another chance anytime soon.
Several minutes later, she was at the man's door. It took less than a minute for her to pick the lock, and she'd entered the apartment, quietly shutting the door behind her.
The apartment was surprisingly modest for a man of his means. She'd read that he got paid upwards of fifty thousand Euros a job, but the apartment was simple, almost bare. A beat-up couch on one side, with a German flag hanging behind it. No TV, but a rather impressive stereo system on the opposite wall from the couch. And probably the most surprising object, at least for a man like him.
A piano? she thought, looking at the instrument curiously. He doesn't seem the type.
Shaking such thoughts from her head, she started to set up her equipment. Several listening devices. A wiretap on his phone. A transmitting device in the ceiling fan.
When all this was set up, she began searching the apartment for anything that could shed some more light on him. Papers, records, anything tying him to the deals he'd made with those who had asked him to take on their jobs.
This man keeps no kind of records at all! she realized two hours into her search. If he does, they're not here.
So lost was she in her job that she hadn't heard the BMW pull back up behind the building, nor the sound of footsteps approaching, then stopping right outside the apartment door.
It was harder to ignore, however, when the front door flew open and a booming bass voice shouted, "Wer bist du?"
Natalya turned around to catch sight of Ludwig Engelhardt standing in the doorway to the apartment, fists clenched at his sides, looking at her, bewildered.
Oh, my God, she thought, frustrated with herself. I've been at this for how many years now?
"Was machst du denn hier?" he continued, entering the apartment now. He looked even bigger in person, and Natalya found herself shifting into a defensive stance before he'd even made a hostile move. "Das ist mein Haus!"
She really had no way to justify her presence here. She couldn't very well tell him that she was here to set up surveillance, and she had no alibi. She could try to reason with him, but she couldn't speak German very well, and it was likely that this man could not speak Ukrainian.
That left her with one option.
Looking past him to the door, she calculated her chances of making it to the door before the big man could get ahold of her. Without further indication of what she was about to do, she sprinted for the door, but as she ran past him, she felt something snag hold of her collar and stop her dead in her tracks. Before she knew it, she had been lifted, literally off her feet, to look him in the eye.
"Was machst du in meinem Haus?" he growled, not taking his grey eyes off her blue-green ones. So far, he had shown no signs of wanting to hurt her, which made her regret what she had to do next.
Sorry about this, big guy.
With one quick move, she curled her left hand into a fist and threw it into his side. She doubted the move had any real effect, but it stunned him into releasing her. She dropped back to her feet and threw a kick; one that he'd anticipated, catching hold of her leg and upending her so that she'd landed flat on her back on the carpet. Without hesitation, she was back on her feet, just in time to dodge an attempted right hook.
Great. Now I've angered him, she thought as she knocked aside a left-handed blow, only to be hit with another right-handed shot. Clutching momentarily where she'd been hit, she thought, How do I communicate to him that I mean no real harm? The man's an assassin; he probably thinks I'm here to kill him.
Shifting back into a defensive stance, she'd blocked another attempted blow before throwing one of her own; a left-handed strike to the jaw that he'd merely shaken off like a particularly stubborn bear. While she still had a little momentum, she threw another kick, this one hitting him in the chest. It knocked him back a step but appeared to have no real effect.
There's no fazing this guy! she thought, trying to think on what she was going to do. She had been ordered merely to incapacitate, but how was she to do that when this man appeared to have no weaknesses?
Every fighter's got a weakness, she thought, throwing another punch. This time, he caught hold of her fist in mid-air before throwing a punch of his own, one that she twisted away from before it hit. I know this man has to have one. What is it?
Knocking aside another attempted blow, she countered, throwing all her weight into a right hook to her opponent's side. To her great surprise, this seemed to have gotten through to him, making him drop his guard and grab at his side where she'd hit.
He can't take a hit there, she realized. I hit him there earlier and it stunned him. I've got him, now.
He seemed to realize that she'd stumbled on to his weak spot and made more of an effort to guard there, but everytime he would take a swing at her, she would block it or knock it aside, only to land a blow that would stun him, that would wear away at him just a little more.
This went on for several minutes, him fending off her attacks and her repeatedly wearing him down. She was surprised, really. While he was a tough opponent, his weak spot was such an easy one to take advantage of.
With one final surge of energy, she threw a powerful kick. She felt something snap under her foot as she did so, and he dropped like a rock, falling flat on his back. His eyes were closed, and his face was contorted in pain.
She stood there a moment, looking down at him, shocked. She hadn't meant to actually hurt the man. Not like this. She was positive she'd just broken something, possibly several somethings, in him.
Now what? she thought, not daring to approach him. Felled or not, he was still potentially dangerous. How am I going to explain this to Fedorchak? How is he going to explain this to the authorities?
She couldn't just leave him here. Maybe if he'd just been knocked out, she could have. But this man was now injured, potentially seriously, because of her. Common sense told her to turn tail and run. After all, he was as incapacitated now as he was ever likely to be.
But human nature told her that she just couldn't do that.
Fedorchak's going to kill me.
She approached him tentatively, not making any sort of hostile move. When she was a few steps from him, his eyes flew open and he tried to take a swing at her, but fell back down, agony written across his face.
"Geh weg von mir!" he said, his eyes clenched shut once more. Even with her next-to-nonexistent knowledge of the German language, his meaning was clear: Get away from me!
Once more she wondered if there was any way she could communicate with him.
It took her a second to realize something. If this man took jobs all over the world, surely he could speak more than one language. It seemed to her English would be most likely.
I've got enough grasp on English to give it a try, at least.
Kneeling beside him, out of arm's reach, she asked, "Do you speak English, Herr Engelhardt?"
At this, Ludwig's eyes flew open once more and he stared at her momentarily before asking, "How do you know my name?"
There we go, she thought triumphantly. Maybe now we'll get somewhere.
"The man at the front desk told me when he let me in," she answered back, shrugging one shoulder.
It took Ludwig a moment to answer, but when he did, he said, "Don't lie to me. This building has no man at the front desk. There hasn't been for years. What do you want with me?"
O.K, that didn't work, she thought, in disbelief that she had come up with such a sorry reply. Why didn't she come up with a better one than that? Now what am I supposed to tell him?
After a moment, she answered, "Now? Only to help."
"I don't need your help." he said, trying, and failing, to get up. He glared at her and said, "After all, you put me in this situation in the first place. Why on Earth would I believe that you're now here to help me?"
"Because I had no intention of actually injuring you," she answered, truthfully. "I was only here to find something."
At this last admission, she mentally kicked herself. A flicker of fear flashed in Ludwig's eyes as he asked, "Who sent you? What are you here for?"
He thinks I'm law enforcement who found out about his occupation, she realized. I suppose there's no harm in at least debunking that belief.
"I can assure you, I'm not law enforcement," she said, inching closer to him, knowing as she did that this could be a potentially fatal mistake. "If I was, I simply would have arrested you and been done with it."
To his credit, he did not try to attack her as she got closer, but he did look wary at her approach. He held up one hand and said, "Don't you get any closer to me! I mean it!"
"Or you'll do what?" she asked. "I told you, I just want to help. I can't leave you here like this."
"You certainly had no issue with doing this to me in the first place!" was the reply as he tried once more to back up.
"I told you, this was an accident," she insisted. "I only meant to incapacitate you, not break something in you. Now, look. You can either let me try to help, or I'm calling an ambulance and you can explain to them why you're like this."
Ludwig muttered something in German that Natalya could only guess was profane, before thinking it over. After a minute, he said, "I can't have an ambulance called. I'd have a hard time explaining this. Do what you can."
"I thought you'd see it my way," was her reply. She sat there a moment before she said, "I'm going to need you to get up, though, so I can move you to the couch. You're way too big for me to move by myself."
She got to her feet and extended a hand towards him. He looked at it a moment before grabbing hold of it. Natalya couldn't help but notice how much his hand dwarfed hers. Her entire hand fit into just his palm. With some effort, she pulled him to his feet, and almost fell over as he slung his arm around her shoulder to support himself.
"You're not from around here, are you?" asked Ludwig as he took a seat on the couch, one hand held to his side as he looked up at her. Something about the way he said it... he knew. Probably her unfamiliar accent. She supposed there was no use denying it.
"You're right. I'm not from around here," she admitted. She thought for a moment, before asking, "Do you have anything for this kind of injury?"
He blinked, once, as if the answer was obvious. "I take these kind of injuries all the time. Of course I have supplies to take care of them." A beat. "They're in the bedroom." he went on, indicating a nearby door with his head. "They're in a box atop the dresser."
Without another word spoken, she entered the bedroom, which was, if anything, even emptier than the living room. Quickly locating the box, she walked back out into the living room, where Ludwig was staring out the window at the snow that had started to fall. As she approached, he said, "You never did answer my question before. What are you here for?"
Great. This question again, she thought, opening the box and taking a look at the contents. I don't even have a solid alibi.
"I'm sorry, I can't really answer that," she said, pulling out a wrap bandage.
"Of course not," Ludwig said with a sigh. "Every time I want an answer out of someone, I never get a straight answer."
Not entirely sure what he meant by that, she said, "I'm going to need you to sit up and remove your shirt so I can assess the damage."
He was hesitant, she could see it in his eyes as he looked up at her. He stared a moment longer before sitting upright and carefully pulling off his black t-shirt, tossing it onto the seat cushion beside him. For a moment, she found herself staring; he was well-built underneath that shirt. Looking at him now, she could see why none of her blows had made a dent in him. He was built like a brick wall. The areas she had gone to work on, however, were staring to bruise, heavily. Had she really done that?
He noticed her staring and said, with a twinge of self-consciousness, "Can we get on with this?"
She shook herself out of her thoughts and sat down beside him, saying, "I have to see if there's anything broken. Chances are there is."
"I know there is," was the German's emotionless reply. "I know what a broken rib feels like."
For a fleeting moment, she couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt at what she'd done. The moment passed as she carefully ran her fingers along his side, noticing him try not to flinch as, several times, bone shifted under her touch. One... two... three...
"Three," she ascertained. "Other than that, I don't think anything else is wrong."
"Scheiß," he swore under his breath. She didn't need to understand German to know what he'd just said. "This is going to set me back weeks."
"Didn't you just get back from a job?" she asked, unrolling the bandage. "You could probably use the break."
What he said in reply surprised her.
"My family can't afford for me to take a break. They need the money more than I do."
"You have a family?" she asked, unaware of this fact. Nowhere in his file did it make mention of any surviving family.
"My parents, yes," He answered, resentment in his eyes. At her?
Most likely, she thought. I'm the one who did this to him.
"They can't take care of themselves financially," he went on, not looking up at her. "The only reason they're able to remain in their home is because I've made sure of it. I won't let them wind up with no roof over their heads."
"Is that the only reason you're in this business?" she couldn't help but ask as she leaned in closer and started to wrap the bandage around him. "You don't seem to me like a typical assassin. You could have killed me earlier when you found me, but you didn't. Why?"
"I don't kill innocents," he said, still refusing to look her in the eyes. "I don't like killing. I never have."
Another surprising answer. One, because he considered her an "innocent" despite the fact that he walked in on her raiding his apartment, and two, because of his last few words. An assassin who derived no joy from the kill?
"Then how did you wind up doing this?"
There was a long pause before he answered.
"I was desperate," he said, looking her in the eyes. His face was unreadable, but in his eyes she could see a twinge of an emotion she couldn't place. "My parents were facing eviction. I was offered a job overseas to take out a man. I refused initially, but what I was offered... it was enough to pay a year's rent for them. So I took the job."
"And now you feel you're stuck in it," she said, as she finished with the bandaging. She got back to her feet, noticing, as she looked down at him, the pained look on his face. She picked up the box, looking for a painkiller of some sort. This would serve a dual purpose, as well, if she could slip something in his drink to knock him out...
While she did feel somewhat guilty for what she'd done to him, she still had a job to do. That would be easier with him unconscious. And if he didn't know that she had slipped something in his drink to knock him out, all the better. She could search the rest of the apartment while he was out and be gone before he awoke.
Finding a small white bottle in the bottom of the box, she checked the label.
It's all in German, she noticed. I can't read this.
"Here, can you tell me if this is the right bottle?" she asked, holding it out to him. He took one look at it and said, "Yes, that's the right one."
Nodding once, she opened the bottle and handed it to him, saying, "Can I get you a drink?"
"Please?" he asked, nodding once. "There's a pot of coffee in the kitchen. If you could just get me a mug..."
Without a word spoken, she walked into the kitchen area, grabbing a mug off the top of his fridge as she did so. Pouring the coffee into the mug, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a small white tablet. Dropping it in the mug, she watched as it quickly dissolved, before walking back to him.
"I presume you drink yours black," she said, handing him the mug. "I couldn't find any sugar or cream anywhere."
"You presume correctly," he confirmed with a nod, taking two of the painkillers with a swig of the coffee. He looked down at his coffee mug, then back at her.
He knew, she realized. He knew what she'd just done. She could see it in his eyes. And she had five minutes to wait before he dropped off.
"I'm sorry," she said before she could stop herself. "I had no choice."
The look on his face never faltered. He didn't even seem angered.
"I know you're a spy," he finally said, his tone of voice even, giving nothing away. There was no uncertainty as he said it.
This statement stunned her, but she was determined that she would not let it show.
"What gives you that idea?" she replied, neither confirming nor denying his statement.
"I've been watching you as closely as you've been watching me," he went on, never taking his eyes off her. "Your fighting skills are consistent with those taught to field agents by intelligence agencies around the world. Your refusal to tell me why you are here is another indicator. The fact that, when I entered the apartment, you were not going through what few valuables I own. You were going through some old papers of mine, like there was information in there you had to know."
She had to give him credit for his deductions. Was she that obvious?
"My guess?" he went on, placing his mug of coffee on the end table beside him. "You work for the intelligence service of one of the Slavic nations. Most likely either Russia or Ukraine, judging by your accent. You were probably sent to set up surveillance on me, in the event I ever decided to become a threat to the national security of your nation, whichever one it may be." A beat. "I don't know if you'll believe me, but let me tell you that I pose no threat to whatever nation you are from. I don't assasssinate people who are doing their job correctly. The only people I will ever agree to take out are those who are a legitimate threat to a country's national security or to human lives. That is how I operate. The only way I operate." She could see he was starting to get drowsy, now; he'd be out within a minute. "You spiked my drink. I realized that as soon as I took the first sip." Natalya went to say something, but she was cut off. "No, let me finish. You probably intend to finish raiding my apartment as soon as I'm out."
"I have to finish my job," she said, not looking him in the eyes. "If it's any consolation, I have no intention of doing anything to you while you're out, and if anything, if you're truly no threat to us, than this will help clear your case. You'll wake up eight hours from now and I'll be long gone."
"As long as you don't take anything of mine. I've really got nothing worth stealing, anyways," was the slurred reply. He was fighting to stay awake now. He shook his head to clear the fog and said, "If you'd just told me your intentions in the first place, I probably would have just..." In mid-sentence, his voice cut off. He'd fallen asleep, mid-sentence, sitting upright.
She just looked at him for a second, before walking over to the couch. Carefully turning him over so he was lying on his back, she whispered, "I'm sorry, Herr Engelhardt. That was a risk I can't afford to take."
Was he really about to suggest that he would have let her go through his files? Or was that just half-conscious rambling? Either way, she knew leaving him awake while she went about her business would have been too dangerous. Last time she'd let her guard down while looking for information, he'd returned to catch her in the act. And while he seemed trustworthy enough, she couldn't be certain.
I haven't survived five years in this business by trusting complete strangers, she thought, taking a step back, looking around, trying to find somewhere she hadn't searched yet.
Four hours later...
"I'm sorry, Mr. Fedorchak. I can't find anything in this man's files," she said, standing in the living room after completing her search. The apartment's occupant was still unconscious, and likely would be for another four hours, so she knew she was in no danger of being overheard. "I don't even think he keeps any. But the surveillance equipment is all set up, like you requested."
"I'm glad to hear it, Ms. Lukashenko. Is that all?"
"For now, yes. I'll stay here another week to gather intel, and I'll be back in the office by next Friday."
"I'll be expecting your reports, then," was all Fedorchak said, before severing the connection. Natalya stood there a moment more before gathering what she'd brought with her, minus the surveillance equipment, and left the apartment.
As soon as the door had clicked shut, Ludwig's eyes flew open, and he looked around the room. In truth, whatever she had spiked his drink with had worn off an hour ago. He had decided not to reveal this, so that way he could gather a little bit of information of his own. He'd heard the entire conversation; both what she'd said, and what her employer had said. So, was she really gone, or just hiding elsewhere in the apartment?
After getting to his feet, which was no easy task for him at that moment, he inspected the entire apartment, finding, not the spy who had surprised him with her presence in his apartment, but several of the surveillance devices she had left behind.
Typical, he thought, looking at the wiretap on his phone. They think people are actually fooled by these things.
Grabbing the mug of now-cold coffee off of his end table, he walked into the kitchen to dump it and make himself a fresh cup.
She drugged my coffee, he thought. If he was anyone else, he would have been indignant. My coffee.
He sighed and took a sip of his cup, walking over to the window, peering out into the night, seeing the lights of his city shining in the darkness.
And on the street below, a familiar figure lurking across the street.
At least now I've got her name, he thought, watching her. Maybe with that I can learn more about her.