The Canceled Czech

Page 10

“Where are we going?” Greta wanted to know.

“ Prague.”

“Oh, good.”

“Which way is Prague?”


“Which way is north?”

“I don’t know. On the map, it’s straight up.”

The damn car stalled again. The mob had very nearly disappeared from view and I thought they might have given up, but now that we had stalled they summoned up their second wind. I saw a pack of older teenagers giggling at us from the curb. I got out of the car, tore the “Just Married” sign from the trunk lid, sailed it across the street. One of the kids asked me where I was going. I asked him how to get to Prague, and he gave me rough directions, and I talked with him some more. The mob was getting close.


I motioned Greta to be quiet, then spoke some more with the Czech boy. He wished me good luck. I got behind the wheel, closed the door. The mob was closing in again. Their ranks had thinned perceptibly, but we were still greatly outnumbered and our bargaining position looked weak.

“Can’t you get this started?”

“I’m trying to,” I told her.

“They’ll get us. Why did you have to talk to that boy?”

“He told me how to get to Prague. Don’t worry.”

“But they’ll catch us-”

“No, they won’t.”

The engine caught. I pulled away, less in a hurry now, and the mob came on strong, and the teenager’s companions moved into the middle of the street in a phalanx. Greta was staring out the window, taking it all in.

“They’re fighting,” she said.


“It’s a brawl. They are all fighting, the wedding mob and those boys. Why?”

“To give us a chance to get out of here.”

“But why?”

“I told that fellow you were going to be married off to an old man, a wealthy Communist bureaucrat. That you and I were in love, but your parents forced you into this marriage. And that I came out of the west like Lochinvar to rescue you.” I turned the corner, taking it at a restful pace this time. “Juvenile delinquents are incurably romantic. It’s that way the whole world over. They are helping the earnest young man save the beautiful young lady from a fate worse than death. They are fighting for youth and love and truth and beauty.”

“It is good that they did not know who we are.”


“They aren’t following us anymore. I can’t see anyone behind us. Is it far to Prague?”

“Don’t you know?”

“I think it is about one hundred kilometers, but that is not what I meant. How long will it take us to get there?”

“About two hours. I don’t know the roads, of course.”

“Of course.” She gave up gazing through the rear window, swung around and sat down beside me. “I have nothing to wear. Nothing but these clothes.”

“There may be something in the trunk.”

“You mean of the ones who got married? Her things would not fit me, I don’t think. She was shorter than me, and thin. And quite flat-chested.”

“I didn’t notice.”

“I thought men always notice.”

“Not always.”

“The boy was your height. His clothes might fit you, though he too was very thin. Not at all handsome, either. He had no chin.”

“Well, he has less chin now. That’s where I hit him. Was he circumcised?”

“Now how do I know? I only – oh, you are making a joke with me, aren’t you?”


“Where will we stay in Prague? Can we go to one of the better hotels? I have always wanted to stay in a truly beautiful hotel.”

“We can’t go to a hotel.”

“Oh, because we would be detected. I understand.” She was silent for a moment. “Then where will we stay?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh. Will we have to be in Prague very long?”

“I have no idea.”

“How do you think we shall rescue Herr Kotacek? Do you have a plan?”


“No plan at all?”


“We will just go there and try to figure out a plan, and then go ahead and do it?”

“That’s the general idea, yes.”

“I’m sorry. Would you like me to be quiet now?”

“I’d love that.”

“I’m sorry. I will be quiet.”


She was remarkably true to her word. I had managed to find the main road to Prague, a two-lane affair that was reasonably straight and quite free of traffic. I stayed on it for about three-quarters of an hour and got most of the way to Prague, then got nervous about the road and took a turn to the left. I had the feeling that they might have guessed that Evan Tanner and the mad auto thief were one and the same, and that our road might have a welcoming party in waiting at its northern end. We drove west for a while, then found another road going north and worked our way into Prague from the northwest. No one took any particular notice of us.

The car worried me. No one had noticed it yet, and it was even possible that the license number had not yet been widely broadcast. Between the confusion of the Nazi melee and the milder but equally confusing rumble between the wedding guests and the teenagers, the police might well have had their hands full. But by morning the Prague police would be looking for our license number, and by morning it would be light enough for them to see it.

I was reluctant to abandon it. It might come in handy later on, after we either managed to get Kotacek or failed in the attempt. Either way we would want to leave Prague in a hurry, and I didn’t want to count on stumbling across a car with key in ignition and motor running a second time. But keeping it was risky, and even abandoning it could be risky; it would be a very obvious indication to whoever found the car that I was in Prague. They would probably guess as much by themselves, but why draw them pictures?

I stopped the car around the corner from a government petrol station, one of the rare ones that stayed open all night. Greta got out, and together we unloaded a pair of cheap new suitcases from the trunk. I raised the hood and performed some minor surgery on the engine – a wire here, a thing or two there. I got back in the car and tried the ignition, and nothing happened.

“Hell,” I said.

“Was something wrong with the car?”

“Something is now.”

I fiddled around, put back the loose wire, and tried the car again. It started this time, but the engine made a beautifully horrible noise. It sounded as though the whole thing would go up in smoke any minute. I left Greta on the curb with the luggage and drove around the block and into the petrol station. The engine clanked furiously. I cut it, coasted to a stop. The attendant came on the run. It sounded, he told me, like a meat grinder. I asked him if he could fix it. That, he said, was plainly impossible until morning, when the mechanic would be on duty. For his part, he sold petrol and oil, nothing else. But, I said, I had to drive to Pilsen for several days, and had to be there by morning. What could be done? Nothing, he replied. Could I leave the car, take a bus to Pilsen, and pick it up repaired upon my return? I could leave it, he assured me, but he could not guarantee it would be repaired when I returned. Such things took time. On occasion they had to send a long distance for a part. But the work, he went on, would be as good as any obtainable anywhere…

He raised the garage door for me and I put the car to bed. If we needed it, it would be there. If not, it would still be there. And, in any case, it would be where no one would report it as an abandoned vehicle, and where no passing cop would take any special notice of its license number.

I collected Greta where I had left her. “I was afraid you would not come back,” she said. “What happened to the car?”

“I left it to be repaired. Let’s go.”


“I’d like to have a look at that castle.”

“At this hour? We should find a place to sleep. I’m exhausted.”

“You have to sleep now?”

“Darling, it is the middle of the night.”


“The morning will be time enough to look at the castle.”

“I’m too keyed up to sleep, Greta. I want to see where they’re holding Kotacek. I want to-”

“I know a way to help you relax.”

“No, not now.” I thought for a moment. “But you need a place to sleep, and we can’t use a hotel. Do you have friends in Prague?”

“Yes, a few.”

“Can you trust them?”


It was a bad country for trusting one’s friends, it seemed. I closed my eyes and thought about Prague. There were various political friends of mine, but none of them struck me as ideal hosts for a young Nazi maiden. Then I remembered Klaus Silber.

“There is a man we can stay with,” I said. “A man here in Prague, a friend of mine. He will give you a bed for the night, and then I will join you in the morning.”

“Won’t you sleep?”

“Perhaps I’ll return in time to sleep a few hours. It doesn’t matter.”

“Will this man help us?”

“No. He is not sympathetic to our cause.”

“Then why go to him?”

“Because he will pay no attention to us,” I said. “He is a scientist, and a great one. An astronomer.”

“A professor?”

“They do not allow him to teach anymore.”

“Ah, I see. For political reasons?”

“No, he is not a political man. He will probably not want to talk with you at all. If he does, you might pretend to have difficulty with his language. No, that won’t do. He must speak a dozen languages. Let me think…”

“Is something wrong with this man?”

“No, not really. He was in a concentration camp during the war. It changed his view of the world. He’s a Jew, so it might be better if he didn’t know you were a German. What other languages do you have?”

“Just German and Czech.”

“Oh. Well, be a German then, if he asks, but don’t hand him any Nazi doctrine.”

“I am not a fool, darling.”

“I know. If he says anything that strikes you as strange, just pretend to agree with him. Tell him you are traveling with Evan Tanner, that I am on dangerous business. Tell him they are after us.”

“Who is ‘they’?”

“He will not ask. That will be explanation enough for him. Tell him that I am very much taken with his moebius-strip theory and feel it might offer an acceptable rebuttal to the Blankenstein Proposition. Can you remember that?”

“If I could understand it…”

“You can’t, I don’t think. A moebius strip is a band with a twist in it, so that it only has one side. Can you follow that much?”


“Good. Just memorize what you are supposed to tell him. Can you get it straight? Evan Tanner is very much taken with your moebius-strip theory and-”

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