Table of Contents
Chapter 14 appeared
in issue 133.
Chapter 15: Prague, Czech Republic
Carla was now back on unseen duty. She watched as Toni made straight for the station bookstall, chose a city guidebook with a map, and then calmly pretended to consult it as he expertly took his final pair of GPS fixes. He then emerged from the station into yet another sunny spring day, and walked off southwards down Washingtonova, arriving a few minutes later opposite the huge bulk of the Národní Museum. He sat down on a low wall to study his guidebook, and Carla returned unseen to the station.
* * *
At eleven-thirty, a well-dressed, middle-aged businessman emerged from the shadows in a corner of the concourse, walked towards the bookstall, and spent a couple of minutes simply staring up at the covers of the magazines on display all over its interior walls. The woman behind the counter eventually approached him.
‘Čím vám mohu pomoci?’
Ignoring this polite offer of help, he pulled out his mobile phone, and made a rapid call in a very low voice. Popping the phone back in his inside pocket, he smiled pleasantly at the assistant who had spoken to him, and swiftly departed through the main entrance. Within two minutes he had found a narrow alleyway and disappeared into it ...
Shortly afterwards, Carla emerged from behind a small brick building by the roadside and sauntered up to Toni with a bright smile on her face.
He felt a deep sense of relief that she was back with him, but at the same time he could not dismiss his concerns about what might happen next. This fixing business now seriously unnerved him, though he had not admitted as much to her on the train. Thank goodness this was the very last one ... he hoped!
He had already written the co-ordinates onto his sheet of paper. He held it up, Carla read it, and the Mater received it.
‘Excellent, Toni. Our Chief Surveyor informs me that this data matches very accurately with the estimate which they have just made, based on the fix I sent a few moments ago. The triangulation task is complete!
‘We now know exactly where your longitude reference base, at Greenwich in London, is physically situated — and as we expected, you do indeed measure your surface elevations based on mean sea levels. So our first-level model of the whole Earth, based on all the major location co-ordinates we captured in Venice, is fully in place. Our Finders can now go anywhere the Handlers may wish. We are very grateful. Thank you, Toni.’
And she very nearly kissed him again.
The grin on Toni’s face lasted three seconds. Then he heard the sirens.
A tiny white Smart car with Městská Policie inscribed on its side came hurrying up Wenceslas Square, heading straight towards them. He froze. The car reached the end of the long square and, as it slowed to take the left turn immediately in front of them, Toni could have sworn that the driver took her eyes off the road for a split second and stared straight into his ...
And then the little car was gone, careering down Washingtonova towards the station. But other approaching sirens could be heard, further out to the north.
* * *
A large number of police officers had converged on the station concourse. But it took them some time to establish that at least eight people had been seen using mobile phones there in the previous ten minutes. The senior officer pressed his control room for the precise time of the huge burst of energy. Then they questioned again, and the bookstall assistant’s report seemed the most promising.
So although the descriptions of several different individuals were included in the general search orders which were then issued and pursued for the rest of the day, the strongest suspect was a smartly-dressed businessman carrying a small attaché case.
When the detectives arrived, hoping to firm up this identification, they went straight to the station security office and demanded to view the recent videotape footage. Rewinding to a point two minutes before the logged time of the signal, they watched impatiently for the moment to arrive.
In fact, they only had to wait a few seconds before something very strange happened. A vague, blurred shape moved into view, hovering directly in front of the bookstall. It stayed there until just after the precise moment of the signal, then rapidly moved away, and the image of the bookstall behind it went back to its normal quality.
For weeks afterwards, many security agencies around the world would puzzle over how a suspected terrorist, in no way matching the description of the temporarily notorious Spaniard named Antonio Murano, but obviously part of a large Europe-wide cell which was inexplicably not wreaking any actual havoc despite its strange signalling habits, was able to radiate a remarkable, continuous interference pattern which prevented the camera from observing him as intended.
And the definitive timing of the signal, and the fascination of the mystery of the fuzzy man, meant that nobody ever thought to search back a further thirty minutes on the videotape. Not that a short-haired, smart young tourist buying a map and checking some sort of handheld computer would have attracted any particular attention. Especially since the driver of a local city police Smart car would probably not have been the officer doing that extended search.
* * *
Responding to Carla’s reassuring smiles, Toni pulled himself together, and they set off. As they walked down the full length of Wenceslas Square, he admired out loud the expansiveness of the space and its already apparent contrasts, and she simply watched and listened carefully.
Keen to rid himself of his suitcase, but already fascinated by the charms of the city and delighted to have Carla strolling beside him, Toni wandered happily around the relatively quiet streets surrounding the Old Town Square for some time, until he eventually spotted a likely-looking hotel.
Agreeing to join him later for lunch, Carla discreetly un-made and followed him inside.
It will be English again, he thought as he approached the desk. He was right.
‘Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to Prague!’
The charming receptionist confirmed that there were indeed some single rooms available — and at very reasonable rates, Toni thought.
‘Yes, I’ll take one. For at least two nights, please.’
‘Certainly, sir. Your name, please?’
A loud noise to his right drowned out the rest of his words. The receptionist looked up from her computer screen in surprise, but decided it must have been her new guest coughing, despite the fact that the sound seemed to have come from just behind him.
‘Oh, please excuse me,’ said Toni quickly. ‘I have a rather sore throat. And I nearly gave you my nickname! Hah! How stupid of me! Anyway ... I’m Rafael Barola.’
The receptionist smiled sympathetically, finished entering the booking details, took an imprint of Rafael’s bank card, and then asked him for his passport.
‘You can collect it again when you next come down, Sr. Barola. Your room is number 14, on the first floor. Enjoy your stay.’
‘Děkuji.’ Toni had memorised only three simple words of Czech so far, from his short study of the list in his new guidebook, but he was determined to make the effort at least to say “Thank you”.
‘My pleasure, sir,’ came back the response, this time in perfect Spanish.
* * *
Toni was grateful for the chance to wash and change again after nearly twenty hours of travelling in the same clothes. Then, with his new passport safely back in his pocket, he was soon outside in the fresh and surprisingly warm air, and making his way the short distance to the magnificent Old Town Square.
Drawing back two chairs at one of the few vacant tables outside the Caffè Italia, and wondering at the strange pattern of place names he was continuing to encounter, he sat down, ordered his lunch, and waited for Carla.
She arrived at the same time as his beer (‘... no, nothing for the lady, thank you.’). Then, while he ate his sandwich, and managed to fit in a second beer, he and Carla talked again.
‘We must re-start our Insight Gaining mission now, Toni.’
‘Yes, Carla ... I do realise that.’
‘OK. Now ... I chose you, Toni, as you appreciate, because of your dedication to music. And that has already proved very worthwhile for you in our recent difficulties.
‘We believe a love of music brings with it a level of integrity which is the key to the insights we are seeking. So, may we try to pursue that path again?’
‘What do you suggest, Carla?’
‘Ah, Toni, we were counting on you for some sparks of ideas here ...’
Toni went silent. He was abruptly aware that he was being firmly encouraged to get back to his mission as Illuminator. He sat for some time in the sunshine, endeavouring to let the beer do its work on his brain cells. Then suddenly, he had an answer.
‘The Message Board!’
‘Yes, Toni ...?’
‘I often log into the message board of my favourite songwriter, on the Internet — the World Wide Web. There are lots of really interesting people in that community. They all love good music, and they live all over the world. I’m sure I’ve spotted one or two Czechs there in the past! Maybe I could try to contact one of them!’
‘Toni, you have surpassed yourself again! We suspected that some such solution would be possible. You have provided the detail and the motivation. But do you have all you need to attempt such a contact?’
‘Yes ... Uncle Giuseppe gave me a new e-mail ID, and lots of cash. All we need is an Internet café.’
‘Then let us find one!’
So Toni’s hopes of more relaxation and some early sightseeing with Carla were again confounded. He paid the bill, and together they began to search the streets around the huge square. With many people milling around, this presented the usual challenges for Carla. But they persevered, and not long after, just off the small square near the medieval astronomical clock of the Town Hall, they found exactly what they were seeking.
* * *
‘Are you sure it’s a good idea to use your own name, Toni?’
‘Yes ... in fact, that’s the best thing about it. Almost everyone else on the message board uses a nickname — so even though I’m now Rafael, I can still use “Toni” as usual! That’ll make me feel much more comfortable, anyway.’
‘I must trust your judgement, Toni.’
So Toni typed his message — in his very best Internet English:
Hi everybody. Long time! Got a new e-mail ID, but I’m still the same Toni!
At last I have a bit of time, while I’m travelling, to catch up with all your latest crazy postings!
Actually, I’m in Prague! If there’s anyone else on-line who’s in the city centre today and fancies a beer and a real chat, please let me know straight away!
I’ll be watching the board for the next couple of hours ... Toni.
After fifteen minutes of browsing his huge stack of unread messages and their follow-ups, Toni refreshed the main screen. It now showed there was one response to his earlier post. He clicked on it excitedly.
Hey Toni, good to hear from ya! Where ya been? We’ve missed ya!
Anyway ... enjoy the trip! Oh yeah ... whadd’ya think of Czech ice-creams?
He carried on browsing the message stack. Carla watched, only mildly fascinated.
Ten minutes later he checked again. Another greeting from an “old friend”.
The third message appeared, timed at 1444.
TONI — WELCOME TO PRAGUE. I’VE BEEN WATCHING THE BOARD FOR MONTHS, BUT I DON’T SAY MUCH! GOOD IDEA TO MEET UP. E-MAIL ME PRIVATELY NOW? ED.
Carla got the message by watching Toni’s reaction. Then she studied the screen.
‘What shall I say, Carla?’ he asked.
‘Just say what comes naturally. We want to meet up with Ed as soon as possible.’
Toni copied the inscrutable e-mail address from ED’s profile, and then made his way across into the Worldmailweb site, where Rafael Barola’s e-mail address had been registered. He logged in successfully with his brand new ID and password, selected “Compose”, pasted ED’s address into the “To” field, and then typed his text:
ED — it’s good to meet you! There’s an Internet café just off the Malé Náměstí — I’m sure you know it. Can you come over straight away? Toni.
He hit “Send”, and they waited.
Three minutes later came the reply: I’LL BE THERE BY 1545. YOU’LL SPOT ME, JUST WAVE.
* * *
There was time for a long cappuccino and some more browsing. Carla sat composing herself again. She had decided there was little point in any further joint planning before Ed’s arrival: things seemed to get very unpredictable whenever she began a new involvement, and she was anyway becoming a deft improviser. So, a few minutes before Ed was due to arrive, she simply moved over to the side wall and pretended to study the café’s notice board ...
Toni failed completely to wave as instructed to the well-built female with cropped red hair who breezed cheerily through the door in baggy blue jeans and a large white tee-shirt. She, in turn, peered around through the lenses of her large spectacles and failed to spot the woman she was expecting to greet her.
But she did not allow this situation to drag on for very long. ‘Toni?’ she shouted, loud enough for everyone in the café to hear: even those in the basement.
Toni gulped and finally found his wave and his Internet English voice. ‘Ah ... ah ... I’m over here!’ he called out as quietly as he could, his poor brain in turmoil again.
The new arrival was equally stunned by her discovery that Toni was a young man. She cautiously approached him, extended her arm, and gingerly shook his hand.
‘You’re Toni? Oh ... well ... hello. I’m Eva ... but everyone calls me Evita these days. Little Eva, get it? Me! Hah! Locos, all of them!’ She laughed nervously at her own regularly practised rock music joke. Toni was rather too young to pick it up.
‘Yes, I’m Toni,’ he said, now on autopilot. ‘But ... your nickname’s Ed ...’
‘Not Ed, Toni ... “ED”. My initials. My name’s Eva Dvořak. Simple. But your nickname’s Toni ... now that’s a girl’s name!’
‘Not in Spain. It’s short for ... oh, never mind. Pleased to meet you, Evita.’
Eva was looking less than pleased to meet Toni. So now it was his turn to cough pointedly and stare across at the notice board with a look that simply cried ‘Help!!’
Carla, who had picked up some of this English conversation, but had not caught all the implications straight away, turned around at once and moved back towards them. Like Toni, she had been surprised to discover, as soon as their new friend arrived — for she had eyes in the back of her head — that Ed was, in fact, a woman.
Toni now mumbled an introduction, and Eva at once looked much happier. She again extended her hand in greeting. Carla, of course, had to decline to shake it, but she smiled very sweetly instead, and her target was more than satisfied.
The involvement of Eva was then quickly and easily achieved, with no need for background music (for it was playing inside her head). And this time there were no sudden alarms to interrupt business.
Once Ms Dvořak was thoroughly entranced by Carla, they discreetly left the café (and Toni stayed with them, of course, to continue to open doors), and penetrated the surrounding back streets until they found themselves momentarily unobserved.
Then, to avoid a shock to his system, Carla quietly asked Toni to turn his back. She smiled once more, took Eva’s head in her hands, and quickly disappeared as the intensive engagement began ...
It revealed a most promising line for Quo to pursue.
Eva, it turned out, was a clerical assistant in a rather uninteresting government department. But she had an old friend, known affectionately as Jo, who worked in a more central role in the civil service. Sixteen years earlier, under the old regime, he had been her first supervisor when she had started out as an office junior in a minor finance unit. They had traded favours in those days, and her career, without exactly blossoming, had at least stayed on the rails. She was sensible enough to remain grateful for that.
But Eva had not been loved by a man in quite a while, and Jo had moved on and up. They now only met from time to time, and always by chance ... but they were still good friends.
However, Eva, like all around her, had found it hard to lose the habit learned at an early age in those bad old Prague days: to watch and listen to everything — both for your own protection, and to keep a few tricks up your sleeve. So she was quite aware, albeit rather loosely, of Jo’s ongoing entrepreneurial activities, and was readily able to share those insights with Quo ...
Josef Samek had run many little rackets in the old communist days. He still continued with some of them, and at greater profit now. But he was increasingly at risk of exposure in the slowly “opening” government that was the by-product of democracy and the new Republic’s recent intensive courting of the European Union.
He was a physically weak and cowardly man, nervous by natural disposition. His power was based solely on his intelligence sources and his knowledge, which had for decades allowed him to hold the threat of blackmail or violence against the hierarchy of many little people who did his grubby work for him.
And Eva was certain that he was, in his turn, manipulated at his place of work by powerful elements of the old guard ...
While Eva remained standing in an apparently idyllic reverie, and Toni looked forward to admiring some more fine architecture, Quo and the Handler formulated their plan. Which did not take very long.
Eva was then moved smoothly through a quite adequate briefing and missioning. In the absence of any external disturbances, the whole process appeared to those on the Mater to be working perfectly.
Their aim, of course, was to reach Jo Samek and enable him to become involved by Carla. As usual, the subject would need to be in a highly accommodating state of mind before this could be attempted. Toni and Salvatore had both been child’s play; the power of the siren’s unspoken call had been enough. Terleone had been motivated by family, and Carla’s smile had done the rest. Evita had come because of the music and the anticipation, and she too had then fallen for that smile.
But the nervous and probably suspicious Samek would be a very different challenge. To get him anywhere near Carla, they would have to rely on his respect for his old lover, and to counter his mistrust of everyone by making him an offer he could not refuse ...
As Eva returned to a single plane of consciousness, and Carla reappeared at a conveniently quiet moment (‘We’re ready, Toni ...’), Quo became aware that something was not quite right. Eva had not fought against them during the process of her engagement, but now she did not seem to have come totally under their control ... and she was not disguising this as effectively as the maestro Terleone had managed to.
She was already marching off towards the Old Town Square, with Toni and Carla in tow, and addressing them over her shoulder in a surprisingly businesslike way.
‘I have some work to do for you. I need to get on with it at once. But Carla, I must see you again — and alone this time, eh? Will you meet me later this evening? We can take a nice walk down by the river, and then we can go to a great Jazz Club — it’s just round the corner!’
Now Carla was in the hot seat. Rapid consultations, lasting only a few seconds, took place between Quo and the Handler. Eva had not been briefed or missioned to anything like the depth that Toni had been. Should they risk another attempt at engagement here and now, to give Eva some clearer operational guidelines? The Handler was already very tired. No, they would have to take the risk. The Finder should be able to look after herself. If things started to go wrong, they could always initiate another emergency engagement on the spot ...
But an unchaperoned walk was all they would entertain.
‘All right,’ Carla accepted — and Eva could now interpret her English words with ease. ‘I guess Toni won’t mind eating alone this evening, so we can go for a stroll then. But you’ll want to go to the club later, won’t you Toni?’ ... ‘Of course you will! I can’t leave him alone on our first night here, now can I?’
They were back in the square, and had halted beside the Jan Hus monument. Eva thought about protesting against the compromise plan, but decided to stop while she was ahead. She proposed a rendezvous with Carla there, at the monument, at seven-thirty and, with an easily assumed reluctance, scribbled an address for Toni on a scrap of paper, agreeing they would meet him outside the club at nine ...
To be continued ...