The Canceled Czech Page 1

Author: Lawrence Block

Series: Evan Tanner #2

Genres: Mystery , Adventure

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Chapter 1

For a crow, the cities of Vienna and Prague are just a shade over 150 miles apart. When one travels by train, the distance is increased by almost one-half. The railroad bed meanders west along the northern bank of the Danube to Linz, then turns abruptly northward, crosses the Czech border, and follows the Vltava River into Prague. If the train kept to its schedule, the entire journey would take five hours and eleven minutes.

My particular train seemed unlikely to meet its schedule. It was several minutes late leaving Vienna, lost a few more minutes en route to Linz, and spent almost a quarter of an hour more time in that city than it was supposed to. I had left Vienna by six; by nine we had still not quite reached the border station, and I expected it would be well after midnight before we arrived in Prague.

The delay did not bother me. I had spent the major portion of the past week purposefully wasting my time. If I had wanted to proceed directly, I would have flown from New York to Lisbon, spent a few hours there, and gone on directly by air to Prague. But it had seemed advisable to create the impression that I was a rather ordinary American tourist on a rather ordinary European vacation. I had, accordingly, gone first to London, then to Lisbon, then to Rome, and finally to Vienna. I was to arrive in Prague this evening, where according to the itinerary I carried, I would be met by a government guide and conveyed to a recommended hotel. After a busy day touring the Czech capital, I would go on to Berlin by air, take another train to Copenhagen, and finish up with a few days in Stockholm.

Once in Prague, however, I intended to depart rather drastically from my itinerary. After I slipped away from my government guide, it would become obvious that I was not entirely the tourist I had seemed to be. But in the meantime my cover was safe enough, and looked capable of doing the one thing it was designed to do – get me through the Iron Curtain without arousing anyone’s interest.

My seat companion was French, a plump little man about forty with a dark shadow of beard and very little hair. He wore thick glasses and a rumpled silk suit. On the first part of the journey he busied himself with some commercial magazines. I had the window seat, and I spent most of my time looking out of the window and watching the blue Danube turn purple in the twilight. The whole countryside looked like background scenery for a Strauss waltz.

By the time we reached Linz it was too dark to see much of anything. I propped open my guide book and began reading about the town. The man beside me closed his magazine, fidgeted a bit in his seat, opened the magazine again, closed it a second time, and sighed heavily. The longer we remained in the Linz station, the more restless he grew. Several times he seemed on the point of attempting a conversation, but each time he held himself in check. Finally, as the train pulled out of Linz, he offered me a cigarette.

In French, I thanked him and explained that I do not smoke.

“You speak French?”

“Yes, a bit.”

“It is a blessing. Myself, I have no head for languages. None!”

I said that this was a great pity, or something equally noncommittal.

“I am from Lyon. I am in textiles. A branch manager – I do not normally travel. Why should a man who speaks only French be sent on missions to other countries? Eh?”

He did not wait for an answer, which saved me the trouble of trying to think of one. “Extensive revisions in our pricing policies. Certain important associates must be informed in person. But why by me? First I am sent to Florence. Do I speak Italian? I thought I could speak Italian, but when I speak they do not understand, and when they speak I do not understand. Next Vienna. Three days in Vienna. But I was fortunate. In Vienna and in Florence there were men in our offices who could speak French. But Prague! What do they speak in Prague?”

“Czechoslovakian.”

“How formidable! I wonder if anyone will speak French. It is not merely the men one sees on business. But the waiters, the taxi drivers, the clerks. It astonishes me that such persons are not required to learn French-”

He carried on in this vein all the way to the border. For all the talking I did, it was hardly necessary that I spoke French; it would have been enough for his purpose if I merely understood it, and was willing to nod in confirmation whenever he came to the end of a sentence.

As we approached the border, he asked me my own nationality. I told him I was an American.

He studied me very thoroughly. “But,” he said, “I can see that you are not the usual American tourist.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Ah, because of your manner. So many of your countrymen come to Europe with an attitude of – what is it? Superiority? Yes, just that. They do not even trouble to learn the languages of the countries they visit. What is their attitude? Let everyone else learn English. An incredible attitude…”

The customs inspections at the border silenced him. Meticulous announcements of just what was going on were delivered in both German and Czech, neither of which my worldly companion could understand. I translated the German for him, explaining that he was to get his suitcase down from the rack and unlock it, prepare his passport and other pertinent papers, and otherwise ready himself for customs check. When the announcement was repeated in Czech, he demanded to know its content. I assured him that it was just more of the same.

There were two inspections. The exit inspection on the Austrian side was cursory. My own suitcase was not even opened. Then we crossed the border, and the Austrian trainmen were replaced by Czechs, and Czech customs officials paraded through the cars. This second check was a good deal more detailed. When the customs men left and the train started up again, I noticed that a government railway policeman remained in our car. We had been spared the presence of such an official in Austria.

I glanced over at him and saw that he was looking at me. He was a big man, thick in the shoulders and thicker in the neck, with a flat forehead and close-cropped sand-colored hair. I avoided his eyes for a few moments, then glanced his way again. He was still looking at me.

I wondered why. There had been no trouble with the passport. I was sure they had my name on a list somewhere, but a brief customs check would not turn it up. By the time they had put two and two together, I expected to be hidden in Prague.

Unless, of course, they’d had advance notice that I was coming…

The little Frenchman was talking again, assuring me what a pleasure it was to have me for a companion. The pleasure, I wanted to tell him, was all his. He dropped a cigarette upon the floor, ground it out carefully underfoot, and sighed again.

“I think,” he said, “that perhaps I shall take a brief nap.”

“Go ahead.”

“I have not had a decent night’s sleep in almost two weeks.”

I had not had any sleep, decent or otherwise, for over sixteen years, so his lament made less of an impression upon me than it might have on most people. In Korea, a fragment of shrapnel found its way into my head and destroyed something called the sleep center. No one knows exactly what the sleep center is, or how it works, but mine, ever since then, isn’t and doesn’t.

I watched my little French friend doze off in his seat and tried unsuccessfully to remember what sleep felt like. I could not recall the sensation. But I did not envy the sleeping man beside me. With an extra eight hours a day of wakefulness, he might have improved himself in any of a number of ways. He might have learned German, or Italian, or Czechoslovakian. Or, for that matter, tact and civility.

I looked out the window, or tried to; all I could see was my own reflection in the glass. I couldn’t read my guide book. The lights had been turned off just after we crossed into Czechoslovakia. I closed my eyes and thought about the old man in the jail in Prague, and tried to figure out how I would get to him, how I would remove him from his prison, how I would slip him out of the country, and how I could possibly manage all of this without getting myself killed.

After perhaps fifteen minutes of generally fruitless thought, the train stopped and the lights went on and a pair of tall young men in dark green uniforms entered the car.

My Frenchman was awake and chattering but I couldn’t be bothered with him. The stop, I knew, was an unscheduled one. We were not due to stop until Ceske Budejovice and were still miles from that city. I looked around. The train buzzed with fear. At the front of the car, the railway policeman was talking with the two uniformed men. I could only catch occasional words, and none of them were especially encouraging. “American… spy… Prague…” And, as if there were any doubt, “Evan Tanner.”

Evan Tanner was my name. It was also, unfortunately, the name on my passport.

“Where are we? Why have we stopped here? What is the matter with everyone?”

“I don’t know,” I said. The railway policeman had turned and was looking at me. I noticed that he had a revolver on his hip. So, for that matter, did the two men in green.

“What is this? Are we in Prague?”

“No.”

“Then why have we stopped?”

The railway policeman walked directly toward us. If the window had been open I would have gone through it. But there was no place to go, nothing to do. I thought of the days I had spent pretending to be a tourist. Wasted, all of them. I might as well have flown directly to Prague. For that matter, I might as well have shot myself in New York and saved myself a trip.

“Your passports. Both of you.”

I turned. His thick face was utterly expressionless. The Frenchman demanded that I explain what was going on.

“He wants your passport,” I said.

“The idiot saw it ten minutes ago.”

“I can’t help it,” I said. I reached into my jacket pocket and wished that it contained a gun instead of a passport. I handed my passport to the policeman and wondered if there was any way on earth I could bluff my way clear.

It seemed unlikely.

“And yours,” the policeman said to my companion. For once I didn’t have to translate. The meaning was obvious, even to the Frenchman. He produced his passport and the policeman took it from him. The two men in green uniform moved up and flanked the railway policeman.

He studied the passports, selected mine, shook it vehemently in the faces of the men on either side of him. “This is the man,” he announced sternly. “Evan Michael Tanner, American. This is the agent.”

And, incredibly, his hand fastened on the Frenchman’s shoulder. “Take him away,” he told the men in green. “This is the man you want. Take him off at once. We’re nearly an hour late as it is.”

The Frenchman didn’t understand. They asked him to stand and he had no idea what they wanted. “You have to go with them,” I said.

“But why?”

Because Providence has supplied me with the stupidest policeman on earth, I thought. But in rapid French I said, “They believe you are an opium smuggler. They intend to torture you until you turn in your accomplices.”

That did it. His jaw fell and he began to shriek that it was all a mistake, that he was innocent. If the twins in the green uniforms had had any doubts before, their reservations were now forever erased. No man who made such a show of innocence could be anything but guilty. They dragged him from his seat and walked him the length of the car. The railway policeman followed behind with the Frenchman’s suitcase and magazines in tow.

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