Bewildering Stories

Table of Contents
Chapter 15, part 2 appeared
in issue 135.

Observation One:
Singing of promises ...

by Michael E. Lloyd

Chapter 15: Prague, Czech Republic

part 3

Toni slept long and woke very late that Sunday morning. Eventually, discovering that the hotel breakfast service was now not an option, he wandered back to the old town square, sat down again at the Caffè Italia, and ordered his usual coffee and pastry.

When Carla arrived, she complimented him profusely on his success with Eva, and assured him that she and Quo would now take care of everything.

‘But first, Toni, I need to listen in to her conversation with Jo. You stay right here and get some lunch. I’ll be back soon ... and then we can do some more sightseeing. I have some interesting things to tell you about Prague ...’

She was enjoying herself again.

* * *

Jo arrived just after twelve for his lunch engagement at U Tři Pštrosů restaurant.

If he had been anxious not to make a scene in the basement bar of the small Karla IV café, he was certainly keen to avoid any hint of trouble at this prestigious establishment nestling into the embankment at the western end of the Charles Bridge.

So he counted to ten as he walked through the door, and he greeted Eva pleasantly; indeed he gave her a fond hug, for old times’ sake. He ordered the drinks, and insisted that he would be paying for everything. And when the waiter had retreated, he sat back and listened.

And so, unseen, did Carla.

This time Eva followed, to the letter, the script that had been written by Quo.

She told her old friend and colleague that “somebody” (she didn’t know who — they hadn’t identified themselves when they’d phoned — but they’d kept saying “we”) claimed to know all about his “activities of the last twenty years”, and had a huge dossier which they were threatening to reveal. And she had been fingered to be the messenger (“because you can convince him we mean business”).

And to keep their silence (they had told her), Josef Samek must secretly obtain specific information on the internal decisions which would have been made, the previous Friday, for the letting of the major contracts for “Vixen” (‘... isn’t that the code name for some big urban regeneration project, Jo?’). He must memorise the names of the companies that had been chosen, and he must then meet up with the caller’s contacts — a woman in a green hat and a young man with a beard. At six o’clock tonight! At the Old Town Square Restaurant. At an open-air table. Unaccompanied. Unwired. And they would be checking. Scrupulously.

If he co-operated fully, he would receive a large cash sum on the spot, and he would not be pestered again. He would co-operate fully, they were certain, or the consequences would be very serious for him and his family ...

Her task completed, Eva sat back with an appropriate degree of concern registered on her face. Carla held her virtual breath and waited for Jo Samek to bite.

He bit.

The first course arrived soon afterwards. For appearances’ sake, he consumed it, and the course that followed, with hardly any sign of the distress he was feeling inside. For her part, Eva, now purged rather than primed, found the excellent and free meal rather more enjoyable. Part of her was feeling sympathy for Jo’s plight. Most of her was focusing on her upcoming rendezvous with Carla.

Carla, meanwhile, was saying her goodbyes.

Without proposing a dessert course, Jo then paid up as quickly as he decently could, gave Eva an unconvincing thank-you kiss, and hurried away. He had just over five hours to spare. But worse, on a Sunday afternoon, he had little hope of a result.

On the way directly to his office building, he phoned his wife and, for the third time that weekend, made his apologies.

At least he would be able to work undisturbed. But they knew that, of course. That was why this was all happening at the weekend ...

* * *

By five o’clock he was really beginning to panic.

After entering the building, and then his own office area, using his magnetic ID card, he had been alert enough to cover his tracks by doing a small amount of real work at his own computer before leaving it logged on and starting his quest for the data his unknown enemies were after.

But in the three hours since then, he had located only a small amount of Vixen-relevant information from open files lying around on desks or in cupboards — and it was nothing special: he reckoned that the people who knew this much about him and about Vixen must already know far more than he had been able to discover. He had certainly not been able to establish the names of any of the selected contractors ...

And he simply could not just try to log in to the procurement system and browse the records. Even if he made it through the security controls, which was unlikely, they would then have a complete log of his activities and would be able to trace it directly back to his personal system ID ...

If it had been a weekday, he could have put pressure on any one of several individuals to make some discreet enquiries. It would have been their computer IDs and their careers at risk, not his ... and they, like him, would have had little choice about co-operating.

But with only half an hour to spare before he would have to leave, he knew there was only one other option left open to him. He could physically break in to his Director’s office, and hope that something useful had been left in an unlocked drawer. It was still only an outside chance. The Director might possibly have been told something about which contractors had been selected, but he was very unlikely to be in possession of any of Procurement’s paperwork. Of course, Security would know Jo had been in the building, but he could probably bluff his way out of that ... especially if a couple of windows were found to have been carelessly left open ...

He struggled with his dilemma.

* * *

While Jo was hard at work, Toni and Carla completed their tour of Prague. Carla led him back over the Charles Bridge (‘Karlův Most — my bridge, Toni!’), and this time they did make the pilgrimage up the hill to discover the magnificence of the Castle and the Cathedral.

When they returned to the eastern bank, they branched off to visit the ancient buildings of the Jewish quarter. Later, as they wandered up and down the side streets surrounding the old town square, they saw all the contrasts again. Shabby exteriors, but beautifully neat and clean interiors (‘It’s so often the other way round, Carla ...’). A full-time dog’s mess collector, whom they spotted on at least five occasions over the whole weekend, and who seemed to be very happy in his work. Hardly any police to be seen — a vivid contrast with Rome. But many beggars on their knees on the pavement, or sometimes fully prostrated before them as they passed. Thousands and thousands of puppets, of every shape and form, for sale wherever they looked (‘... but nobody buying any, Carla!’). Poor and ill-educated traders and waiters speaking near-perfect English with affluent foreign tourists who had never tried to learn a word of another language.

And, again in sharp contrast to Rome, there was music, sweet music, on offer everywhere ...

* * *

Eva Dvořak had left the Three Ostriches with an afternoon to kill and in a high state of anticipation.

Quo had of course decided that there would be no further rendezvous between Eva and Carla, despite Toni’s vehement promises. But Quo was not, by nature, a cruel being. So it had been arranged, from the start, that Eva’s subconscious hearing of Carla’s gently-whispered ‘Goodbye’, at the end of her lunch with Jo, should carry a very particular additional message ...

Over the next four hours, one small degree at a time, Eva’s anticipation steadily diminished. Soon after five o’clock, she was the happy victim of Cupid’s Hypothermia. Her ardour had cooled and died away. She had forgotten Carla completely, and all the business about Jo. She only remembered a short, pleasant meeting at the Internet café with her new message board buddy, and she knew she had some bridges to rebuild at her favourite jazz club.

Eventually, she found herself walking briskly back to her apartment to catch up with her household chores and get ready for the working week ahead.

* * *

At three minutes to six, as Jo Samek hurried past the huge bulk of the Týn church, he consulted his watch for the fifth time in as many minutes. Finally deciding that he could attempt to regain some dignity, he slowed to a brisk walking pace as he entered the Old Town Square and approached the Staroměstská restaurant.

Seated at the corner table nearest to him were a sharp young blade and an elegant young woman in a green straw hat. His heart skipped two beats ... the first in deep relief, the second in abject fear.

Toni’s role as Illuminator had been clearly expanded by Carla, while they had been waiting, to include that of host and gentle intimidator. Now she gave him the nod. He stood up, smiled courteously, and gestured to the sweating Samek to join him at their table.

Jo did exactly what was suggested. Then he waited for a few moments. Nothing was said. He guessed they must be expecting him to begin.

‘Look ... I really tried,’ he blurted out. ‘There was nothing worth showing you. Nothing!! I even thought about breaking into the Director’s office ... but that would have blown the secrecy. I can definitely get something tomorrow. You must believe me ...’

His voice trailed off as he caught Carla’s smile. His face instantly lost its mask of fear and, by comparison, took on an air of utter grace. He jumped up again and, for the first time in thirty years, broke into a little folk dance, accompanying himself in song. Then he sat back down, Carla took his head in her hands (Quo was testing to see whether this engagement could be completed without a disappearing act), and Jo and the Mater joined minds.

Toni was used to this routine by now. He sat back in his chair, sipped his beer, studied his guidebook, and worked again on matching the magnificent buildings all around him to the written descriptions. And he simply ignored the rather gruff stares of the older generation of Sunday promenaders who were less than amused by Jo and Carla’s public display of affection ...

Quo, however, found Josef Samek to be a very interesting subject. His insights into the goings-on in the many central government ministries of the old Czechoslovakia, and the new Czech Republic, were deep and wide-ranging. He might not have ready access to the latest list of construction contractors selected by the Ministry of Works procurement section (Quo had not been interested in that red herring anyway), but he knew a vast amount about who, within government and on its peripheries, was doing what with whom, and why, and how dubious each of those relationships might be. Especially in his own area of responsibility — forward planning for the Republic’s recent zealous efforts at adoption by the European Union. Which suited the visitors’ aims perfectly ...

But they would need to be quite selective. Carla could not go around engaging the dozens of mildly interesting contacts that Jo had revealed. The crucial conclusion drawn by Quo was that the Czech Republic was obviously still on the sidelines of Europe; rapidly modernising, desperate to join the club, but with one leg still stuck quite firmly in the quagmires of the past.

Studying those in power here would reveal plenty of intrigue, but everything would be coloured by the effects of this state of transition. No ... Jo’s greatest contribution to the visitors’ goals would be the provision of one or two major contacts operating much closer to the hub of European affairs. Taking that approach should lead Quo more quickly to the hearts and minds of some real power brokers — and hopefully, towards the apparently pristine Hilde van Wostraap ...

So a two-pronged strategy was established ...

Its first element could be resolved at once, based on the transferral that was now complete. Samek had revealed one very promising contact ... a certain Monsieur Jean-Christophe Nallier, Junior Minister Delegate for European Affairs in the French Foreign Ministry. Jo had worked closely with that department for the past four years, and knew all the important telephone extensions, including that of the junior minister himself, whom he had encountered twice in the recent past.

Their first meeting had been about a year ago, in Paris, when Jo had been part of a small Czech delegation dedicated to courting the French (who were always willing to be courted — without any prejudice or commitment, of course).

The second, follow-up meeting had been here in Prague, five months later, when the minister had visited the city alone for a couple of days to avoid the July heat, had drummed up what could turn out to be some highly lucrative potential business for French infrastructure construction companies (Quo wondered for a moment, on discovering this: ‘Do I really have seventh sight? — it would be fascinating to know the names on that Vixen shortlist after all!’), and had enjoyed himself in the evenings by taking advantage of some mutually beneficial tips from Jo on the city’s most entertaining night spots.

Jo’s ongoing insight into Nallier’s European affairs even extended to the knowledge that the minister was at this very moment away from Paris again, opening up new frontiers with a business contact in a luxurious chalet in the Italian Alps. But, it seemed, he would return to Paris the following Wednesday afternoon. And, Jo was able to reveal in response to Quo’s direct enquiry, the romantic Monsieur Nallier’s musical preferences were the popular and mellifluous waltzes of Johann Strauss.

But the aspect of Jo’s familiarity with the life of Jean-Christophe which was of greatest interest to Quo was the fact that the French politician was apparently a founding member of an organisation entitled the Campaign for Real Truth.

The second element of Quo’s strategy would however require another active contribution from the good Mr Samek. He had shown that he was aware of a senior NATO political advisor, based in Mons, Belgium, who could be a potentially rich source of insights for the visitors, and was believed to be somewhat compromised; he might be easily won over. But Jo had never dealt directly with NATO, and knew no more details. Those, it seemed, would need to be gleaned from his own manager in the EU strategy group ...

So Jo’s first engagement, on that warm Prague spring evening, concluded with one simple, real mission (which could indeed be given to him at the lower energy level available with Carla still fully “made”) ... to pursue those details with vigour at his place of work, first thing in the morning, and to report back here to Carla at one o’clock precisely.

By the time Jo realised he was back in the square, his new acquaintances had departed. But he was now very clear on what he must do. His fears for his own safety and survival, indeed all his memories of the last few hours of frantic searching, had evaporated as the sun disappeared behind the Town Hall. Now there was just a straightforward piece of muck-raking to be done, for a different sort of anonymous caller. Easy.

* * *

‘What shall we do tonight, Carla? We’d better not try the Ungelt again ... but it was a wonderful place, and I’m really sorry I missed the rest of that band’s set ...’

‘Toni, you know there’s lots of music to listen to in Prague. Go off and enjoy yourself. Have the night of your life! You don’t want me spoiling it for you again! Just be back in your hotel room by half past twelve tomorrow afternoon, and start packing ... we may need to leave at short notice.’

‘OK, Carla. I like that idea. But will you be all right ...?’

‘Oh, Toni ... you are the perfect gentleman! But you must stop being silly. Of course I’ll be all right. Now ... just go!’

* * *

Jo Samek did indeed find it easy to complete his mission. Soon after arriving at his office the next morning, he went to his head of department, Petr Stojespal, with the usual sort of story, which in this case was perfectly true.

‘Petr, my team has recently identified some very good reasons to get a lot closer to the power centres at NATO, urgently ... but since we joined in to it all, four years ago, it’s become much harder for us to bend the rules and get inside things — as you are well aware. But we know one of the special teams did some covert work a while back, and we’ve picked up a possibly interesting name from them: Raymond Martin Graves. Do you have anything positive on him? ... and anything dubious?’

Co-operation with Samek was usually the best policy, both for the sake of the department and for one’s own personal security, although he was kept under careful scrutiny, and was never allowed to step too far out of line. In fact, he often did the authorities great surrogate favours, without being at all aware of it.

So Stojespal told his subordinate most of what he knew.

Yes, Graves was a significant figure in the NATO machine. He worked at SHAPE — the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Yes, he could prove to be a valuable contact, for various reasons. Petr mentioned a few of them. And yes (‘how did you guess, Jo?’), there was at least one Achilles heel. Graves had a girlfriend in Brussels, whose name was ... Petr consulted his little black book, and then a bulky file taken from his huge safe ... whose name was Mireille Daurant. And Mireille was known to be very amenable to inducements. Did Jo perhaps need her address and telephone number?

‘Thank you, Petr. I think this will all prove very useful. I’ll keep you in touch. Oh, yes, one other thing ... have you heard of a Dutch MEP by the name of Hilde van Wostraap?’

Petr had not. ‘Must be quite newly elected. Have you looked her up?’

‘No, not yet — just thought I’d ask while I was here ...’

‘Hold on.’ Stojespal clicked into the EuroParl web site and quickly found the right page. ‘Yes, here she is. Netherlands. Not had many dealings with them. And judging by her profile, it doesn’t look as if she’d be interested in any specials deals with us!’

* * *

At one o’clock, Samek sat down again next to the attractive woman he had met at the same restaurant the evening before. She had no minder with her this time, but he did not give that a second thought, particularly when she once again presented him with that winning smile.

Carla remained in full public view, and the process of collection was carried out in a matter of seconds. Quo was satisfied. Josef had proved to be a very easy-to-manage subject, and the results were most acceptable. And since the Frenchman, Jean-Christophe Nallier, was known to be otherwise engaged for the next few days, the next destination for Toni and Carla would definitely need to be the Belgian capital.

So Jo could now be released from all his responsibilities to the visitors. He would need to remember what his boss had just told him, of course, and would maybe use that information one of these days in the normal course of his work. And obviously he would recollect that he had popped into the office the previous day, to do a bit of catching-up. But as he blinked his eyes on his return to the bright light of the midday sun, to find that Carla had once again departed in silence, everything else to do with the extraordinary events of the past forty-eight hours had been forgotten forever. Jo Samek had been demobbed.

* * *

Carla softly called ‘Hola,’ and Toni looked up from his packing to see her standing beside his window.

‘Ah, you’re back. How did it go?’

‘Very well, thank you, Toni. We learned exactly what we needed to.’

‘So are we moving on, then?’

‘We certainly are, Toni — straight away. You need to book a flight to Brussels ... and a hotel room.’

‘Ah! Another city I’ve never visited! Are you coming with me?’

‘Of course! I think I’ll travel inside the plane this time, just for a change. But nobody will see me ... it’ll be a little too congested in there to make an appearance, I would imagine. So you only need to buy one ticket.’

Toni smiled at Carla’s first, very reasonable attempt at humour, took out Rafael’s bank card, and picked up the phone.

To be continued ...

Copyright © 2003 by Michael E. Lloyd
Lyrics credits and copyrights

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