Dime Store Novel Hour: The Old Town

Aaaand now for something completely different.

They sat at a table for two, set out on the cobblestones underneath a canvas awning. It was morning and still cold. She wrapped a blanket around her legs and waist, but he kept the blanket on the back of his chair as he sipped coffee. The sun appeared above the ancient church steeple and lit the stone statue in the old town square. People began to move about, opening shops, buying and selling goods, disappearing around the many corners between buildings.

He watched as a woman crossed the square, past the town hall and toward the old building with the stone bell at its corner. She wore a long, brown wool coat, a red scarf wrapped up to her nose. Single strands of blone hair stuck to the red fibers of the scarf. She walked loudly, her boots clicking against cobblestone, brought to an echo in the quiet hour. She never looked anywhere but straight ahead, head down, moving briskly until she disappeared in the alley beyond the stone bell.

The woman across from him set the coffee cup in her lap.

“Do you think she is pretty?” she asked.

“No,” he responded. He never took her eyes off her.

Every morning she crossed the square. At 8:12 she appeared around the corner by the House of the Minute. At 8:15 she walked by the cafe where they sat with their coffees, where she sharply broke left. At 8:17 she brushed past the stone statue at the far end of the square. Just past 8:18 disappeared in the alley beyond the stone bell. The schedule was unwavering, the path resolute. He was certain that, if he could mark each cobblestone her boots touched, she would barely miss her mark by more than an inch any given morning.

She never looked up. This is what fascinated him the most. Even as she walked by the cafe, as he intently followed her steps, she never bothered to notice him. He wondered where she headed every morning, on such a schedule.

She disappeared down the alley. His mind now drifted back to the emptiness of the square.

The woman sipped her coffee again. “We have tickets for Friday.”

He turned his gaze back to her. “What is it again?”

Armida.”

“Haydn?”

“Dvořák.”

“Of course.” He emptied his cup.

It grew warmer, and she removed the blanket. “We should get going.”

“We have a few minutes.”

More people filled the square now. The smell of chimney pastries carried through the air, sweet cinnamon and vanilla mixed with smoky charcoal. A group of children passed, laughing. Across from the statue a young man stood, holding a stack of papers out to passerby, shouting in German. Most ignored him, or took a slip of paper and promptly disposed of it. After a few minutes an older man approached him and knocked the papers from his hand, screaming in Czech. Nose-to-nose, arms waving frantically, both fought to shout louder than the other, voices filling the square, drawing a reluctant audience from passersby.

The older man clenched his fists. The young man grabbed the older one by the labels of his jacket, roughly lifting him to the tips of his toes. Two policemen rush in to break them apart.

The man at the cafe listened intetly, eyes narrowed.

“What’s happening?” She asked. “What are they saying?”

“We should go,” he said.

He quickly paid for the two coffees. He squeezed the woman’s arm and led her abruptly across the square, past the statue and down Paris Street. She stole a glance at the scene of the two men. He refused to look.

The office on the third floor of the Hotel Pacifica opened at 9:00, and Rodger Carrington was standing outside the door ten minutes before that fidgeting with a cigarette and lighter. John noticed two extinguished butts at the heels of the man’s feet. Rodger doffed his hat as Susan moved to unlock the door, spraying a thin film of ash across the breast of his slicked down green coat, which he hurriedly brushed away.

“Miss Smith,” he uttered, the cigarette dancing in the corner of his mouth. Susan nodded politely.

“Didn’t think you were on appointment today,” John said.

Rodger pulled the half-gone cigarette from his mouth and shook his head. “Not that kind of meeting, I’m afraid.” The accent always sounded droll, but his words carried a sense of urgency.

“Hmm. Well, come on in. Susan, hold my appointments?”

“Of course.”

John gestured to Rodger’s mess in the doorway. “And can you…?”

She nodded, moving to grab a dustpan from the corner of the room.

“Ah,” Rodger smiled. “Thank you.”

John silently wagged a finger. “C’mon.”

John led him through another door to the adjoining room. A large, worn desk was set at the center, two chairs on one side, a leather-backed chair on the other. A small bookshelf was propped against a wall, half-filled. A roll away bed was tucked into the other. The room was the corner of the hotel’s third floor and commanded a view of the intersection of Paris street from two large windows. John liked to the keep the curtains open, one window cracked to chew on the smells wafting in from the Jewish bakery down the street.

John removed his coat and hat and slid into the leather-backed chair. “Have a seat.”

Rodger ignored him, removed his hat and dashed to the window, leaning forward slightly to catch sight of the street corner below where the tram stopped on the hour. After a moment he retreated, falling into the nearest chair.

“No, please, I insist,” John said. He leaned back. “Expecting someone?”

“You can never be too careful anymore.” He rolled up the edge of his fedora between clenched fists. “You know every morning I leave my flat and there’s the same man standing there, on the corner. Black trench coat, hat. Reading the newspaper.”

“The newspaper?”

“In Deustche. He’s Gestapo, I’m sure of it.”

“Or else he can’t read Czech.”

Rodger swatted his hat on his knee. “This isn’t the same game anymore, John. Things have changed since you left.”

John leaned forward. “Susan and I have coffee at the cafe on the square every morning. Started doing it just after we got here. Two coffees, cream, sometimes a pastry or two if we wish. We sit there for a half hour or so before leaving for work. Every morning I see the same woman, at the same time, cross the square in the same spot, same direction. If I had a stopwatch I could time her to the second. She has more precision in her step than Hitler’s entire Wehrmacht.”

“And she’s following you?”

“No,” John replied. “She never even looks up as she walks by. She hasn’t changed, at all.”

Rodger grunted. “You’re daft. And infatuated, I might add.”

John was silent. He produced a bottle of liquor and two glasses from a desk drawer. He poured. “So I hear Hácha is to be president.”

Rodger snorted. “God help us all.” He swiped a glass and downed the liquid, and set it back on the desk. John poured again. Rodger took it again, this time holding it in his hand, swirling the liquor until it touched the rim. He pointed a finger. “You and your… Susan, you two shouldn’t have come back.”

John took a sip. “That was never an option.”

“Is that Susan’s opinion?”

John tapped the glass on his desk. “She agrees with me.” There was a pause. “Go on,” John gestured, “ask her.”

“Then you’re both daft,” Rodger countered. “You two had all the reason in the world to hang back…”

Rodger fell quiet. John turned away, eyes fixed on the floor.

“I’m sorry.”

A pause.

“Did you just come here to try and send us back, Carry?” John asked.

Rodger set down his glass. He reached into his coat pocket, produced a dog-eared photograph and handed it to John. The man in it was middle-aged, balding, thin wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose.

“Who is he?” John asked.

“Professor Maxwell Strauss. Physicist, and ‘political dissedent’ in the eyes of the Reich. Formerly of the University of Vienna, currently incognito. He fled after the Anschluss and has taken up residence in Prague ever since, writing anti-Nazi manifestos and such.” Rodger pulled a cigarette from his pocket and placed it in his mouth. He removed a lighter, thought the better of it, and put it away. The cigarette remained. “He’s remained in contact with Beneš government-in-exile in London, and now they want him out.”

“Sounds more like your jurisdiction.”

The cigarette bobbed as he nodded his head. “It is. We have all the proper paperwork, exit visas, the whole pitch. What we don’t have is the man himself.”

Rodger drew the cigarette from his lips. “I need you to find him.”

John’s laugh was unexpected, even to him. “You certainly have better resources for that than two church relief workers just come back from the States, Carry.”

“Like I said, things have changed. The British Commission for Czech Relief is passing more refugees across the border than any other agency in Prague. We’re receiving a lot of attention.”

“And what does the Reich care about train loads of children?”

“They don’t care about them,” Rodger exclaimed. He drank. “Might receive a bloody medal from the bloody Führer once he gets here for doing the job for him.” He drank. “If we don’t all hang first.” He drank. “But they pay a little more mind to men like Doctor Strauss when they’re on the move. If we keep poking around ourselves we’ll never find him.”

He drank. “Alive, anyway.”

John stared at the photo, then Rodger. “What do you have to go on?”

Rodger pulled a slip of paper from his pocket, accidentally dropping his light on the floor. “Just an address.” He set the paper on the desk and kneeled to pick up the lighter. “72 Celetna, Number Fifteen. He hasn’t been there for days, though.”

John hesitated. He took the paper. “I’ll look into it.”

Rodger nodded. “Thank you John.” He stood up, put on his hat. “Those exit visas are good until the end of the month. I need him by then, John.”

John nodded. “I’ll see to it.”

“The end of the month.” He turned to leave, then back to John. “Thanks for the drink.” A pause, then: “I’m bloody sorry for what happened.”

John stood up, nodded. “Me, too. Susan can see you out.”

Rodger nodded, slipping back through the doorway into the adjacent room where Susan met him. She smiled, touching his arm lightly.

“Everything all right?” she asked.

Rodger smiled. “Of course. As always.” He moved to the office door and went to the turn the handle, then stopped. “There’s something I need to ask you. Remind me sometime?”

Susan furrowed a brow. She nodded. Rodger tipped his hat. He left.

She turned again, back across the room and through the adjoining doorway into John’s office. He looked up, slip of paper in hand, eyes knowing. His face was blank. After a moment he looked away.

He closed the door.

 

…to be continued…?

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Author: chesleyfan

I work, I fish, I write.

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