The sound is what captivates him. The ringing of a blade being honed in the next room. The dangerous edge to the sound knots some peoples' stomachs, but Hicox has never been squeamish. It doesn't conjure chalkboards or floggings for him, but a kind of sorcery, a sideshow trickster hurling a knife, the swish, the breathless whistle thrilling inside his chest, waiting and waiting for the thud into the wall, miraculously shy of the maiden's throat. The sound doesn't repel him, but winnows under his skin with a diamond tip flicking every hair on his arms, along his neck to attention.
The sharpener grunts at the end of the stroke, drawing the knife silently through the air to begin again.
A circus knifeman would reach for another knife to throw, to strike the wall in the mirror image of the blade that just sailed. A spot barely clear of the soft curve where neck meets chest, close by shoulder, breast and clavicle. Where there's so small a margin for error, so many swift and bloody ways to die.
Hicox knows who it is without stepping into the room. The German. The rough-hewn blond, built of rigid lines, with eyes the fascinating hollow of a death mask. The man's a brute, a staple of propaganda, a Home Office phantasm, the wedge of his jaw, the coiled violence of his muscled arms - Hicox has seen it a thousand times before in lurid three-toned ink and newsprint. Ink that sweats from his brow and cheeks and biceps, from the back bulging as he strains to bear the weight of an oversize bayonet loaded with French schoolgirls, or a dripping shishkebab of Czech and Polish babies. But he steps into the doorway, he lingers, his arm against the frame, body slanted in the manner that conveys a nonchalant authority. The German glances up with eyes that pin him, like a gasping, paralysed moth, through his throat.
Their gaze holds as Stiglitz lifts the knife, repositions it and drags it without haste to the end of the strop. A trace of sound remains when the knife lifts again, an aftershock of white noise that rakes his spine. In the twitch of silence that follows they watch one another. The German's eyes are not so flinty, not so dead at all.
Archie feels flayed, pink and nude, the skin held clear of his body on the cold of Stiglitz's dagger. Stiglitz inspects the underlying tissues with mild interest, tilting the blade for better light.
He smiles and Archie returns it, clipped and courteous and as Stiglitz continues, as he smiles right through the boundaries of polite greeting, as the menace in the tight arrangement of his mouth, his chin, unfurls into something promising, something insinuating, something heavy with warmth and weight - a mirage, doubtless, teasing like the point of light at the tip of a sword - as he smiles, Archie recognises it all. The rattle of a blade's descent on his ribs. The crack of opening. The spill.
Archie grins, helpless, and stays leant across the door. The German sees the flush begin to fleck his skin, the flames at his throat.
Later, given time and space and the absence of voices and foot-scuffs outside, given a wall at his back and a door that locks, Archie will. He will walk the short passageway to the sound again. He will surrender to the blade at his chest, at his hip. To the rough thumb tracing the course of his jugular, circling beside his windpipe, the fingers reaching across to flick at the pulse fluttering in the far side of his neck. The blade follows everywhere. It's an ice-burn, a magnet, he longs to arch against it and he writhes to pull away.
Stiglitz's viper-tongue wets his lips, then there would be the flash of his razor grin. Archie longs to stretch forwards, to lift his head to him, to push through the sting of the blade into his mouth.
Stiglitz must know this. His weight shifts in warning, he grinds his thigh up and Archie's spine collapses, his neck and hips bow away from the wall, fleshy and exposed. The bricks claw his scalp as he shuts his eyes, panting. And in the dark, in the coarse breath at his cheek, the deepening pressure of the wrist against his breastbone, he can see Stiglitz's expression. He aches with the waiting.
The echo hangs, a tightening of the air between them, and Archie doesn't move, doesn't exhale until the last of it clears the room and the two of them relax into silence. Then he turns and goes to find Raine, moving softly, each foot-fall steady and deliberate and in the stutter, the slightest give he feels above his knees, he has the promise of his return.