In which our hero encounters a mysterious stranger.
72 Celetna was a four story building made of cream brick and located across the street from the tram stop. The main doorway was at ground level, in front of a ragged stretch of sidewalk missing one too many cobblestones. John tried the buzzer. No one answered. He turned down the narrow alleyway running the length of the building to a side door that stank like an urinal. He turned the latch, shook the door, and felt it click free. The hinges groaned as he pushed it forward.
The hallway was dark. Some light came through a greasy window on the far end of the corridor, crept along the baseboard and touched the tips of John’s feet. The air felt old and damp. He coughed, and the booming echo startled him. He removed his hat, stuck it underneath his arm. He listened. Soft footsteps above him, across a squeaking floor. The opening of a door, and then strains of hissing radio that brought the soft murmurs of a stern newsman. The door shuddered and the radio static was gone. Silence.
John took a few steps and grabbed the cold railing that led to the second floor, looked up. The staircase was once elegant, cut of marbled rock that could have been a few shades lighter had it mattered to anyone, red carpeting worn thin and bloated with loose rolls of stretched fabric. Sconces appeared to stick to the walls by spiders’ webs. As the stairs reached the next landing they turned sharply, and marking the adjoining alcove was a carved statuette of a cherubic figure. It was the only thing that appeared clean and polished, but its brass trim was tarnished black.
John moved up to the second floor, admired the statue as much as he could, and then turned down the hallway to search for Number 115. He found it, a plain door with small numbers tacked to it. He knocked. No answer. He tried the doorknob, which twisted generously in his hand to rattle the door.
It was the door to Number 110 that rattled open. And squat woman poked her head out, eyes narrowed. Or possibly it was simply the wrinkles on her face, John thought. A kerchief wrapped about her head to hold back most of her graying hair, a dark floral pattern dress and dusty apron. She looked to the number on the door, then to John, then scowled.
“Neni doma,” she regurgitated from the back of her throat.
“You know English?” John asked.
“You know if he is home?”
She paused. Her eyes definitely narrowed this time. “Who you looking for?”
She shook her head defiantly. “He don’t live here.” She moved to close the door.
John shuffled across the hallway and jammed an elbow into the crook of the doorframe. The woman pressed down harder, staring, lips twisted into a grimace. John lightly pushed back.
“I’m with American Relief.”
Her strength ebbed a bit. “Prove it.”
He grunted. “Give me back my arm and I will.”
The old woman pulled the door back, and John wrenched his elbow free, grabbing it gingerly with his opposite hand. He took a step back from the doorway. She nodded, satisfied, and slammed the door. He grunted, rummaged through the pocket on his coat to pull out his identification, and placed it back on her door.
A pause. The door opened just enough to let one of the old woman’s eyeballs to shine through, peeking just above the chain lock. John brought the passport right up to the lock and held it there. The dark pupil of her eye twitched back and forth, up and down, but she said nothing. John grew impatient.
“Well?” he snapped.
The pupil stopped moving, fixated on John’ stare. In one swift movement her fingers reached from underneath the lock and tore the passport from John’s hand, pulling it behind the door. She closed the door again before the look of surprise left his face.
John cursed, spun around, dropped his hands to hips and then his eyes to the floor. He cursed again, and shook his head. He turned back toward Number 110. Just as John was deciding which shoulder to put against the door the old woman appeared again. She held out the passport without saying a word. John studied her expression and found nothing of value. He took the passport.
“He has been gone for days.” Her voice was just above a whisper.
John sighed. He nodded, tipped his hat, and turned to leave. The old woman reached out and grabbed his arm, turning him back around. She reached into his apron pocket and produced a key, which she then placed into palm of John’s hand. She gently closed his fingers into a fist. She smiled faintly, then quietly shut the door.
John opened his palm and read the numbered inscription on the key. It didn’t take long to put two-and-two together. He shuffled back over to Number 115, tried the key, and felt the lock softly give way. He pushed the door forward and searched for a light switch on the wall, turning on a desk lamp that cast an orange glow about the room. The place was small and neat. A stove sat in one corner next to the sink. Worn couch pushed against the window. A few tables, and a large armoire and vanity mirror where the lamp sat. The toilet was just beyond that, and a tiny bedroom with little more than a mattress and sheets just beyond that.
John pulled the brown curtains away from the window to brighten up the place. He looked out the window, across the street and down to the tram stop. A man dressed in gray stood there, coat draped over his arm, waiting.
John turned around, taking in the room again in better light. It wasn’t the kind of flat he’d imagined for an academic. It wasn’t the kind of flat he’d imagined was even inhabited. Empty closet. Empty armoire. No soap on the counter or towels on the rack or pillows on the bed. His own hat and coat carried more dust into the place than what settled on the couch and chairs. Whoever lived here did so briefly, or he was impeccably clean, or someone did a fine job of tidying up once they left. John was certain it wasn’t the old woman or whomever took care of the building.
He walked into the bedroom and around the mattress. The sheets were mismatched, a combination of white and gray. John knelt down next to the nightstand and opened the top drawer. Empty. He closed it, then opened the bottom. There was a Bible, and on top of the good book was a small-gauge chain necklace ending in a silver cross. John picked it up and turned it over in his fingers, exposing a small red jewel set in its center.
Without much thought, and without an explanation he could offer later, John pocketed the cross.
He took one final look around the apartment, then went back toward the window. He heard the tram pass moments before. The man in gray still stood there, coat over his arm, hat drawn low about his head. The man looked down at his watch, then glanced across the street toward the building’s main entrance. John studied him a few minutes longer and thought of Carry. The man looked back across the street a second time. John closed the curtains and turned off the light.
He walked out. The old woman was waiting there in the middle of the hallway, arms behind her back. John smiled weakly, key in hand, and locked the door to Number 115. He gave the key back to the old woman.
“You working with the other one?” She asked.
“I only work with my wife,” John replied. “British with a green coat?”
She shook her head. “Deutschlander.”
John forced back a frown. “Looking for Professor Strauss?”
She nodded. “Few days ago.”
He thumbed toward the door. “Did you…”
“Did they find anything? Take anything?”
He hesitated, palming the cross in his pocket. Then asked: “What did this Deutschlander look like?”
She shrugged. “My eyes not so good. Can’t see unless they close. They not so close.”
She thought. “Dark color clothes. And they smell like lik… likkor…” he eyes turned upward, searching for the word.
“Liquor?” John offered.
She clapped her hands and nodded approvingly. “Liquors. Yes. Liquors.”
John reached into his back pocket for his wallet and removed a card. “Thank you. If he comes back—Strauss, not the Deutschlander—please have him contact me?”
The old woman took the card. “Yes,” she nodded.
John thanked her and left, down the narrow stairway. He first turned to go out the back door, then thought the better of it. He drew the back door closed and locked it, then turned down the corridor and exited through the main doorway across from the tram stop. He stood just outside the doorway for a moment to fix his hat. The gray-suited man stared at him, his look stern and rigid to match the rest of his face. The man turned away, but not before a sense of dread crawled across the back of John’s mind.
He thought better of waiting for the tram, and took a step to his left. His knee abruptly buckled—felt like a brick wall hit him—and as he reached out an arm to break his fall it brushed across the a woman’s wool coat. A gloved hand reached out to grab him at the shoulder, and he wrapped his arms around her waist as he fell to his knees. It took him a moment to come to his senses, and he quickly broke the awkward embrace.
“Sorry!” The woman tucked her purse underneath an arm and reached down to help John back his feet.
“No, I…” he looked up and forgot his next words. She was brunette and beautiful, hazel eyes and olive skin, wide-brimmed hat just a shade darker than her lipstick. Some sort of fluffy feather was stuck into the hat’s side; ostrich, maybe, John guessed.
“Clumsy me.” She bent down and picked his hat from the ground and handed it back to him.
She drew him close and whispered in his ear. “Walk with me. Please?”
She let him go. He stared, breathless, mixed up with a combination of embarrassment and confusion. He saw her eyes dart to the gray-suited man, and the corners of her lips twitched. He understood.
“Is he looking this way?” John asked softly.
“Not now,” she replied.
He offered her an arm. She casually locked her arm around his and lightly touched his chest with her hand. She laughed, and he played along. They walked down Celetna until the street took a sharp right and the tram stop disappeared behind the sharp corner of a church. John looked up to see the name of the street had changed, and he couldn’t pronounce it. The gray-suited man did not follow. As they rounded the corner the woman let go of John’s arm.
“Thank you,” she exhaled.
“A friend of yours?”
“I was waiting for a friend. Should have told her to meet me at the cafe, had I known there would such men about.” She shook her head, then turned to John. “I didn’t mean to knock you down like that.”
“I’ve had worse.” He brushed at the dirt on his pants. “Your friend lives in that apartment?”
He stared down at her brown wool overcoat and up to her hat. “Doesn’t seem the place for a lady such as yourself.”
“You just met me.”
“Am I wrong?”
She smiled. “You were coming from there.”
“I…” he laughed. “I came to see a friend, too.”
“Well, then.” She pulled a silver pill bottle from her purse. “I’d offer you a cigarette, but I don’t have any.”
“I don’t smoke.”
“I bumped into the right man.” She twisted the cap from the pill bottle and upended it, dropping a small hard candy into her palm. “A sweet instead?”
He shook his head. “No. Thank you.”
“Anise. Helps the stomach.” She ate the candy.
“Are we heading anywhere in particular?” he asked.
“You have somewhere to go?”
“We can stop here.” They stood near the street corner, across from a small cafe. “Just until the tram goes by.”
“Alright.” John glanced down at his watch, then across the street. It was late afternoon. The cafe was half-full, tables spreading out unto the sidewalk, people dressed in their wool and flannel coats contrasted with the bright yellow awnings above them. Few people were in the streets yet. Most were still at work. Susan would still be in the office for another half hour or so, before she would get ready for the theater. John didn’t need much to be ready, but he did need to be there. Dvořák wasn’t his favorite—Susan knew that—so he at least needed to be on time. He looked at his watch.
“Coffee?” The woman kept studying his face. What was it? Certainly not his looks. Even in his best days Susan didn’t admire him this much. Even in her best days he didn’t admire her as much—
“No. Thank you.”
“Don’t drink coffee, either?”
“Not in the afternoons.”
“You were the right man.” She chewed on another candy, then placed the bottle back in her purse. “So, who is your friend?”
“Someone I knew back home.”
“Don’t lie to me.” She was being playful when she said it, but it still struck John hard. He tried not to let on.
“What makes you think I’m lying?”
“There are no Americans living there.”
“My friend would have told me if there were. She loves Americans. The way you talk.” She smiled, candy lodged in one cheek, as she squeezed his arm. “Personally I find your accent rather boorish.”
From far away came the piercing wail of a siren. It increased pitch as it drew closer until it drummed in the space between John’s ears. Cafe patrons craned their necks to watch as the police wagon careened down the street, lights flashing, and swung a hard left onto Celetna and out of view. The woman watched, eyes blank. John waited until the drumming in his head stopped, then turned back to her.
“Let me guess at yours?”
“Austria. Salzburg region.”
She nodded slightly in approval.
“Northern Italy. My father was Austrian.”
“And you speak English rather well.”
“Yours isn’t too bad.” She briefly searched for something in her purse, then changed her mind and set it back down between her hands at her waist. “He’s not your friend, no?”
He paused, then blurted: “An acquaintance. Just checking up on him.”
“A spy, then.” Her smile this time was broader, showing a sliver of teeth. “Sent here on some secret mission directly from Washington and into the dangerous—and beautiful—city of Prague.” She put added emphasis on beautiful.
At that he couldn’t help himself. He laughed. “I don’t expect I look much like a spy.”
“You can’t keep secrets like one, either.”
“Should I be concerned, talking to someone who knows so much about spies?”
“Maybe you should. I learned from the best. Misters Moto and Chan. Nick and Nora.”
“If you were a spy, you’re starting with the wrong questions.”
“Like… what’s your name?”
“If I was a good spy I’d already know your name.”
At that he looked her up and down, waiting. She smiled that broad smile again, and asked: “So, what’s your name?”
Her smiled quickly faded, attention drifting away from John and back up the street toward Celetna. John turned to see the silver tram sliding down the tracks toward them. As it passed he spotted the gray-suited man sitting beside a window at the far end of the tram, eyes down at some unseen newspaper. If he bothered to look up he may have caught Maria’s knowing look. John did. As the tram squeezed between a pair of buildings at the edge of the plaza her expression relaxed again, and the smile returned.
“Thank you, John. I should go.” Without waiting for a response she began moving briskly up the street, back the way they came.
He thought of saying something, but nothing seemed to fit. He watched her for half a block. None of that conversation seemed to fit, he told himself. He watched her anyway, for a while longer, until his watch said it was time to go. He crossed the street, passed by the cafe, and continued along the street he couldn’t pronounce until he found the next tram stop to take him back to the office.