Table of Contents
Chapter 15, part 1 appeared
in issue 134.
Chapter 15: Prague, Czech Republic
Leaving her rather bemused new friends standing beside the monument, Eva walked to one side of the square and found a cool corner near an Irish pub. She took out her mobile phone. She didn’t remember Jo’s number, and she certainly didn’t have it stored. But she knew where he lived: he had been in the same house on the outskirts of the city for the past twenty years, since before the birth of his first child. The Prague directory enquiries service luckily found the number with ease.
He answered at once. With a worried and broken tone to her voice, she bluntly told him she must see him as soon as possible — otherwise, they would both be in serious trouble. She refused to elaborate.
Samek had heard enough intimidated voices to recognise another one now. Somebody had got to Eva. He had no choice. Not bothered about inventing an excuse for his family (he was always having to go out on “business” at a moment’s notice — his wife was grateful that their total income allowed her to provide for their four children better than most of her neighbours could, and so she kept her mouth firmly shut), he agreed to meet his old friend in a city centre café at six-thirty.
Eva pocketed the phone and made her way back to her own modest apartment in a large, run-down old tenement block by the railway lines, west of Republic Square. She would need to dress very carefully to suit the three rather different evening engagements that were suddenly looming ahead of her ...
* * *
Toni was pleased, as usual, to be stood down from his duties as Carla’s minder. He much preferred the more general role of Illuminator, especially when it involved some sightseeing in a city as glorious as Prague ...
So they did their first little tour. With only three hours to spare, they stayed in the old town area. They strolled in the main square at their leisure, admiring the huge variety of beautiful buildings surrounding them. Then, retracing their steps from earlier that day, they walked the short distance back to Wenceslas Square. Although the evening was still young, Toni was obliged several times to reject the offers of the street girls stationed all the way along Melantrichova and Namůstku. And if any of the countless currency touts had tried to touch Carla on the arm, as they did with Toni, they would have been in for a big shock.
At the corner of Wenceslas Square, Toni bought a huge, blood-red sausage from a pavement stall, took one bite, and decided to take no more. Then they took a full walk around the square: ‘... for the benefit of your Spanish, Carla, this is hardly a square, more a huge, long rectangle!’ He marvelled again at the beauty of the buildings’ façades, when viewed from a distance, and was dismayed by the contrast of their eye-level shabbiness on closer inspection ... an impression deepened by the sight of a steady stream of well-dressed men rummaging deep into the roadside litter bins in search of anything of interest.
Carla looked and learned with Toni. But as the sun went down, she suggested it was time for him to sort himself out for the evening and then get some dinner, while she went off for her rather unwelcome stroll with their new friend.
‘Good thinking,’ said Toni. ‘Have a nice time!’
‘Thanks a lot, partner! See you at nine.’
* * *
Just before half-past six, Josef Samek walked across the Old Town Square, down a side street, and into U Karla IV café. He descended the stairs to the basement bar.
Eva was already waiting for him, deep in thought.
She didn’t understand why she had chosen that particular bar, with Carla’s name in it. Anyway, in this city, there were Karlas everywhere you looked, from the famous bridge outwards in all directions. Perhaps it wasn’t her real name. Perhaps it was just a temporary nickname while she was here. Strange though: first the confusions about Toni and herself, and now a woman with a man’s name ... and a king’s name, an emperor’s name, here in Prague!
She was brought sharply back from her daydream by the abrupt arrival at her table of a very worried man.
‘What is it, Eva? Who is it? What do they want? What have they done to you?’ He was talking quietly, but with an attempt at firmness and support.
‘Oh, Jo, you are so sweet. Don’t worry, no-one has hurt me; it’s just the usual menaces ...’
‘Eva ... don’t play around. I want to know what they have said to you ...’
‘Oh, Jo, you really do worry too much ...’
For a couple of minutes, she stuck to her plan to try and stretch things out for dramatic effect. But the closer she came to having to reveal the pretended “problem”, the less she found herself able to concentrate on the matter in hand. She could not get that woman off her mind.
She made a valiant effort at regrouping. ‘Jo, I’m feeling a little faint. Would you get me another glass of water, please?’
He hurried to the bar and brought back the water and a small glass of beer. He was already intensely frustrated at having come all this way only to be obliged to tolerate Eva’s nerves and maladies, without gaining any insight so far into the real issue. He was not a naturally patient man, nor was he particularly strong on charm ...
‘So ... come on, Eva, pull yourself together. Tell me what it’s all about!’ He was becoming visibly agitated now, but he kept his voice very low, and took a nervous sip of his beer.
‘Jo, they know all about you ...’
‘Who, Eva? What are you talking about?’
‘They want you to do something for them ...’
‘Eva, for goodness’ sake ...’
She really could no longer handle this. Just too much to cope with at once.
‘I’m sorry, Jo ... I’ve got to go. I really am feeling quite ill now. I just need to rest. I’m sure I’ll feel better in the morning. Look — can I meet you for lunch ... at The Three Ostriches, say? At twelve o’clock? I’ll reserve, I’ll pay ...’
‘Eva, this is crazy ... You’ve got me really worried ...’
‘Please, Jo ... I must go now. You must be there tomorrow. It’s so important ...’
Then she rushed from the table, ran up the stairs, and was gone.
Josef Samek, Deputy Head of the Strategic Studies Group in the Department of European Union Relations, knew the importance of not causing scenes in public. He sat back coldly in his chair, took another sip of his beer, and tried to work out what could have so disturbed his trusted old friend ...
* * *
Half an hour later, Eva had calmed down and done her best to forget her mission for Quo, at least for the time being. Feeling it was now safe to emerge from her hiding place in the toilets of another nearby bar, she made her way back over to the main square.
Like the educated and modernising sovereign and namesake who had preceded her into the city many centuries earlier, Carla was, as ever, alert to the need to keep her subjects as contented as possible. So she was already waiting in the warm calm of the evening when Eva arrived back at the Jan Hus monument.
Quo and Carla were then very dismayed to hear that Eva’s mission had been temporarily abandoned. But they realised that, once again, they had little choice but to accept the revised plans that had been made for them ...
* * *
Throughout their walk, Eva played her cards carefully, and was the perfect guide and companion. She maintained a respectful distance from Carla, who was delighted that she and Quo did not have to invoke an emergency engagement as a result of any physical contact, accidental or otherwise.
They strolled from the square down to the Charles Bridge, and Eva described its history as they crossed the river. They admired the huge towers at each end, and the many historic statues positioned along the full length of both sides (‘but very few of them are the originals, Carla ...’). And when they reached the west bank, Eva pointed out the restaurant where she would meet Jo again the next day.
Eva rejected her companion’s suggestion of what would have been for them both a breathless walk up the steep hills to the Castle, and instead she led them through a maze of small streets on the Lesser Town side of the river, until they emerged onto the attractive little Kampa Island, between the river and the Maltese Grand Prior’s Palace Gardens.
‘It’s like a little Venice, Carla,’ said Eva. ‘This tiny park was really popular with the “flower children” back in the 60’s. Before I was born, by the way! But the whole place was devastated by last year’s terrible floods. Look, even the grass has hardly started to grow again; it’s all still so very wet and muddy ...’
And as they walked around, she pointed out many buildings whose lower wall coverings had been stripped away by the rising water. Clearly only very slow progress was being made in their reparation. Then she stopped and gazed back across the river at the countless spires of the beautiful Old Town. ‘We seem always destined in this country, Carla, for one step forward, then one rude step back. Perhaps joining the European Union will change that pattern. Perhaps not ...’
* * *
Toni, meanwhile, had decided to experience a traditional Czech dinner at the elegant Staroměstská on the Old Town Square.
When he was ready to order, he tried out his Czech pronunciation of the names of the dishes.
The waiter smiled and said, in perfect English, ‘Very good, sir.’
Wondering what he really meant by that, Toni resolved to abandon his pursuit of this unfamiliar language, and to marvel instead at the restaurant’s fascinating décor.
* * *
At nine o’clock they all met up again outside the Ungelt Jazz & Blues Club, hidden on Týnská Ulíčka behind the ancient, towering Týn church.
Eva was back in tourist guide mode.
‘You’ll love this place. We go right down into the fifteenth century vaults ...’
Carla turned to Toni and whispered: ‘I hope I won’t fade away down there! If that happens, I’ll need to get out quickly, before the Mater loses me forever — and I’ll meet you back outside the Internet café!’
Eva was still gushing.
‘... lots of different little rooms, bars, corners, balconies and so on. Super acoustics, and always great bands!’
Toni and Carla both had to admire her enthusiasm and her love of life. And Toni was really looking forward to the music.
He was not disappointed. After acting as doorman for Carla at the entrance, keeping alert to the need to shield her from any careless passers-by as they descended the stairs into the music cellar, and politely readying her chair as usual, he left her with Eva and made for the bar. Then, just as he got back to their table, carrying two very large beers for himself and Eva (‘No, I’m not thirsty,’ said Carla in response to Eva’s raised eyebrows), the Chicken Soup Band began to play. Toni was immediately impressed, and for the next hour they all just sat and lapped up the excellent jazz fusion sounds.
Or rather, Eva lapped up the huge beer within ten minutes, and returned twice to the bar before the interval, bringing back a double vodka for herself on each occasion. And she seemed honestly disappointed that Toni insisted on sticking with his original beer and Carla just sweetly shook her head each time she was invited to ‘Come on, have a drink with us!’ ...
At ten-fifteen the band stopped for a break. Toni’s glass had been empty for some time, and now he was very thirsty again. Eva requested another double vodka, and he went off to wait his turn at the busy bar.
Now that it was quiet for a few moments, Eva tried to strike up another conversation with the object of her new desire. Carla, already feeling ill at ease and wishing they had not had to agree to this episode in the first place, said something agreeable for the sake of politeness, and smiled sweetly again.
That did it. Now fully primed with alcohol, Eva succumbed to temptation. She reached across the table and made to stroke Carla’s beautiful long hair ...
And found there was nothing there.
Toni heard the commotion and at once recognised the voice doing the shrieking ... even though it was shrieking in Czech.
Within ten seconds the manager and a security guard burst into the music room, with Eva screaming at them to call the police. Carla had had enough. But she was desperate to remain fully visible. With the men still focused on trying to get the incoherent Eva to explain what was wrong, Carla squeezed past two startled couples and out through the open door. She peered into the bar where Toni stood speechlessly staring towards her, jerked her head in an unmistakable order to “Get out of the place, now!”, turned two corners into an empty kitchen area, and un-made at once.
It was another minute or more before one of the security staff came looking for her, paying lip service to Eva’s now slightly more lucid ravings. Failing to find her, he simply assumed she had left the place by the back stairs. ‘So would I, with that crazy woman screaming at me,’ he thought, as he went to report back to the management.
Nobody thought twice about the young man who had abandoned the queue for the bar and, forgetting that he had left a brand new pullover on the back of his chair, walked quietly up the main stairs and out of the front door ...
Eva Dvořak continued to demand the police, and eventually they were called. She gave a vivid description of Carla, and then proceeded to insist that the woman’s head simply did not exist. Nobody believed her. The barman was consulted, and he reported that she had already drunk at least two double vodkas, probably more.
One of the police officers suggested very pointedly to Eva that she might perhaps like a lift home. She tried one last little rant, then realised she was onto a loser, and noisily stormed out ...
* * *
Carla made straight for the Internet café and hovered invisibly nearby. Toni soon hurried up and waited by the entrance. When Carla rounded the corner and walked towards him a minute later, with as annoyed a look on her face as she could imagine, he silently opened the door for her and they went inside.
She took less than ten seconds to explain what had happened. Then she got down to business once more.
‘We have to get her back, Toni. She hasn’t done her work yet. We can’t start all over again. It is your moment now. You must seize it.’
On his way across, Toni had flipped, in a mild sort of way. He could now only see the funny side of it all. ‘So I stop being an Illuminator and become an Eva Retriever?’
This washed straight over Carla. ‘Exactly. You must call her and agree to meet her — at once. You must try to pacify her. You must get her to agree to complete her mission tomorrow, exactly as planned. Do it now, Toni.’
Toni was stunned by the firmness of Carla’s voice. He had never seen her like this. But then, she had just been through rather a lot ...
‘Very well, Carla. Of course I’ll do it. I’ll do anything for you. You know that.’
Carla seemed to spot the effect she had unwittingly had. ‘I do, Toni. I do. I’m sorry I was abrupt. And thank you, once again.’
‘Wait a minute, though. I don’t know her phone number!’
‘I know it, Toni.’
‘We know a great deal about Eva, Toni ...’
But Toni insisted on a cup of coffee before placing the call. Carla conceded. It would extend Eva’s cooling-off period, and improve Toni’s concentration..
Then Carla dictated the number, and he called Eva’s mobile phone. She was just arriving back at her apartment.
‘Evita, it’s Toni.’ ... ‘Don’t ask.’ ... ‘Yes.’ ... ‘Yes, Evita, she is sorry, we don’t know what happened — perhaps she just moved at that moment ...’ ... ‘Well, maybe you aren’t feeling too well ...’ ... ‘No, I’m sorry, I wasn’t suggesting ...’
Toni presented Carla with a helpless look. She scowled and encouraged him to get on with it.
‘No, Evita ... look, can I come over and see you? We could have a quiet coffee, maybe play some of our favourite music, and I could explain exactly how Carla feels. I know it’ll all be fine again tomorrow ... she really wants to see you again ...’
Carla was smiling now in approval of his new approach.
‘Please trust me, Evita ...
‘Evita ... please ...
‘Good ... give me the address.’ ... ‘OK, I’ve got a map. How long from the Internet café?’ ... ‘Thirty minutes ... that’s fine. See you soon!’
‘Good for you, Toni,’ said Carla. ‘Make any promises you need to. I can break them all. Just make sure she meets up with Samek tomorrow. I’ll join you when you leave the hotel in the morning, and we can go sightseeing all day! But we’ll be splitting up for lunch. I’ll need to be watching them ...’
* * *
It was eleven-fifteen before Toni found Eva’s apartment. She let him in without a word. She looked a mess and had not tried to improve things before he arrived. And she wasn’t going to make it easy for him, he could tell. She sat back down on her sofa and glared unhappily at him, even though she knew he was blameless for ... whatever.
Once again Toni felt way out of his depth. But the force was with him ...
‘Can we have some music, Evita?’
She shrugged, reached forward and touched one button of her CD remote control. Their favourite singer had already been singing, silently: but she was un-muted now. Their common ground was re-established.
‘Are things any clearer now, Evita?’
‘I don’t know, Toni. I just can’t understand. I would swear on my Bible that there was just empty space where I touched Carla’s hair ...’ Then she started to weep. He could see something close to terror in her eyes. He would definitely have to abandon some principles here.
‘Evita, you know it simply can’t have been like that. It must just have been your imagination.’ He attempted a friendly chuckle. ‘Or maybe the vodkas!’ The ploy seemed to work: at least she didn’t blow up again this time.
‘I was really scared, Toni.’
‘I know, Evita. But can you imagine how Carla felt when you started screaming? She didn’t understand, either. She still doesn’t. She was scared, too. That’s why she left. She’s very sensitive. But she does like you a lot, Evita ...’
‘Really?’ Eva sniffed.
‘Really. Now, will you see her again later tomorrow, after you and Jo have done your work?’
‘Yes. I’d like that, Toni.’ She was attempting a smile now.
‘Good. Now, why don’t you get some sleep, Evita? Good job you didn’t make us any coffee after all!’
‘Oh, I am sorry, Toni. Would you like one now?’
‘No ... I’m very tired too. I’ll get straight back to my hotel. Carla wants to meet you at seven o’clock at the Internet café ... OK?’
Toni stood up and made for the door. ‘And you will definitely see Jo, as arranged, tomorrow lunch-time? You know how important that is, don’t you, Evita ...’
‘Yes, I will, Toni. Look ... thanks for making the effort to come over. It wasn’t fair of me to give you a hard time. Carla’s your friend, and ...’
‘No problem, Evita. Get to bed. Look forward to tomorrow. I’ll see you when I see you ...OK?’
‘Sure.’ She walked over to the door and opened it for him. ‘Thanks, Toni.’ She chanced a little kiss on his cheek, and was very relieved to find the flesh was real.
* * *
The night air was still warm as Toni wandered back to the hotel, in a daze from the events of the past three hours, and not sure whether to be impressed or ashamed of his catalogue of lies. Well, it was done now, and it was what Carla wanted.
He picked up his key from the night porter just before one o’clock, and made his way wearily up to his room.
Carla had witnessed his entire stellar performance at Eva’s flat, and followed him all the way back. Once she was sure he was sound asleep, she called in her deputy and went off-duty again at last.