The Canceled Czech

Page 11

She was a reasonably fast study. Once she had her lines down pat I tucked her into a cab and gave the driver Klaus Silber’s address. I put the luggage in the cab with her and watched her disappear into the night.

Hradecy Castle was not terribly hard to find. I could have taken a cab there, but I didn’t want anyone wondering why a man would want to look at a castle-turned-prison-turned-castle-turned-prison in the middle of the night, so instead I went looking for the place myself. I took a taxi to a hotel in Wenceslas Square and had little trouble finding the Vltava from there. I had a fair idea which direction would lead me to the castle. I headed in that direction, and there it was.

Even at that hour the structure was impressive. A broad base, about the size of a downtown bank. Long narrow windows trimmed with rococo gingerbread. Sixty feet up, the squarish base of the building gave way to a central peaked cathedral apex, with four rectangular towers at the corners. The towers extended perhaps another sixty feet or more, with narrow slits for windows. I could imagine how they were constructed on the inside. A taut spiral staircase running up each tower to the tiny roomlet at the top.

The defensive value of the design was obvious enough. Men posted in the tower rooms could remain quite safe while guarding the castle from all directions. Even a traitor within the gates would be hard put to knock out the marksmen in the towers. The spiral staircases were easily defended.

The towers made good dungeons, too. In one of them, I thought, Janos Kotacek awaited his trial and execution. There would be a guard posted at his door at the top of the long staircase. Perhaps there would be another guard halfway down the stairs. Perhaps not. But there would surely be a guard or two at the foot of the staircase, just as there were guards in the castle courtyard and in front of the castle gates.

Even if one got over the fence that surrounded the castle grounds, even if one managed the impossible feat of getting inside the castle walls, the whole business was still unworkable. It would be impossible to get up the staircase, impossible to get into Kotacek’s cell, and profoundly impossible, once in, to get oneself and Kotacek out of there. The only possible exit would involve the removal of a couple of iron bars and a plunge of some hundred fifty feet into the water of the Vltava River.

All out of the question.

I shouldn’t have come in the first place, I told myself. I should have told the soft pudgy madman from Washington to go to hell for himself. I was not one of his boys. Just because I had used him once to get the CIA off my back, just because he had been gull enough to believe I was one of his agents, the man was handing me idiot assignments. And I, idiot, was taking them. Go to Prague. Storm a castle. Save a Nazi. Come home and await further instructions.


Well, it simply could not be done. I would have to find some way to get out of the country and back to the States. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to stay a week or so with Greta and Klaus Silber until the government had a chance to forget me. Then out of the country, without Kotacek but with my head still fastened to my shoulders, and back to New York. Then, if my puffy little chief ever condescended to contact me (“Don’t ever try to get in touch with us, Tanner. We’ll always be the ones to make contact”) I could tell him the job went sour. Or that it was easy, but I blew it – that might be best, because it would put him off the idea of using me in the future.

I felt a good deal better having decided all this. With all that taken care of, I slipped across the road and moved alongside the castle gate for a better look at things. Was the gate electrified? I studied it and couldn’t tell. I squatted down a foot from it and looked through it at the guards. There were three of them in the front yard of the castle, one on each side of the massive door, one at the head of the walk. The two on the door were talking, but I couldn’t catch any of the words.

Assuming one was fool enough to try, I thought, one would have to find some way to get the guards out of the castle. It wouldn’t be possible to get past them, and without an army it wouldn’t be feasible to take the citadel by storm. There would have to be some way to goad them all out and deal with them one by one, and all without arousing suspicion from any quarter.


I moved back from the fence, slipped around the side toward the river. There was a light burning in the turret at the left rear corner of the castle. Kotacek’s light? Impossible to tell. Imagine negotiating each of those spiral staircases in turn, hunting for the right one. Climbing all the way up, then begging pardon when one stumbles on some arsonist or murderer, then heading down again and pressing on once more in the search for the Slovak Nazi.

Assuming that the fence wasn’t electrified, I thought, it wouldn’t be all that hard to get over it. Even limited to a two-person job, it could be scaled without all that much trouble. How high was it? Ten feet? Spikes on the top, of course, but toss a pillow over them and they’d be less of a problem. Or get a hacksaw and go through the spikes – no, not likely, not as thick as they were and not with the little time available. Still, a person could climb over…

Nonsense. I wasn’t going to try anything quite so harebrained.

Still, it was worth pondering, if only as an intellectual puzzle. Suppose one could get over the gate satisfactorily. Then what? Create a diversion at the rear of the castle grounds, draw the guards that way? No, small chance of that working. They wouldn’t all rush out. A few would hang back, and they’d be doubly on their guard.

I looked at the river. Approach on a raft? Scale the walls with grappling hooks, something of the sort? I became dizzy at the thought. Even if it were possible – and I was quite confident that it was not – that would leave us up there in Kotacek’s cell with no particular way to get out. And if we tried to carry the old invalid down the ropes to the raft – no, no, it wasn’t even worth thinking about.

How could one draw out the guards? Start a fire in the castle? Set off an air-raid siren? They’d probably take shelter right there. But some ploy of that sort had to be the answer. The best method would have to be one that avoided the scaling of walls and the climbing of fences. Some special stratagem that would permit us to walk through the front gate and up into the castle and into Kotacek’s tower and out again.

It would have to be done at night, obviously. The castle had not entirely been made into a prison. The towers each contained a cell, but the two main floors seemed to have been converted into administrative offices of one sort or another, probably housing some special police branch. In the daytime, there would be more than a handful of guards to worry about. But at night there were only the guards.

How many of them? The three I saw, and, unless I was mistaken, at least half a dozen more on the inside. I drew back from the gate, followed it back to the front of the castle, then went on across the street. I worked my way around to the other side of the castle and kept my eye on the guards. It wasn’t hard to see that they approached their tasks with rather less in the way of enthusiasm than, say, the Beefeaters at the Tower of London. I did not much blame them. It was late, the night was dark, no one was watching them (at least as far as they knew), and their job was the unromantic one of making sure that a sickly old Slovak didn’t break out of his maximum-security cell.

They did about as well as could be expected. They did not stand firmly at attention, but neither did they slouch. They did not leave their posts, and yet they were willing to take a few steps one way or the other. They were not boisterous, but neither were they silent. I could hear them more clearly now, the two who stood at either side of the door. They were talking about girls, one boasting slightly, the other pretending disbelief in order to be told more details.

“Oh, come now,” the second was saying. “Do you expect me to believe that?”

“You doubt that there are such girls?”

“I am sure you exaggerate.”

“This one could have taken on an army,” said the first. “At least a battalion, and quite likely a regiment. She could not get enough. You should have been there, Erno. She had more than enough to go around…”

They might almost have been talking about my little Greta.

I moved closer to hear them better. All right, I thought. So there was a way to do it after all. A long shot, but the whole business had been a ridiculous long shot from the beginning. All right, old mystery man from Washington, we’ll take a crack at it. We’ll bring your Nazi home for you. With all the trouble getting into the country and all the probable trouble getting out of it, it only made sense to do the job while I was there.

And now I felt quite noble and heroic, like Bogart and Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca . Very what the hell, it’s not our war and we don’t much care, but while we’re here we’ll give the Nazi a little bit of hell.

It’s always pleasant to identify with Bogart. Play it again, Sam, I would say, and the rickety old piano would swing with the Moldau theme. Play it, Sam, I would drawl, and Greta Neumann would tickle the ivories with the “Horst Wessel Lied” and “Mack the Knife.” Play it again, Sam…

I didn’t even hear them come up behind me. No one stepped on a twig. There was just the tiniest intake of breath, barely noticeable, and then something got me behind the right ear, and the lights went out.

Chapter 8

The first thing I noticed was that my head ached. I wanted to touch the sore spot, see if the blow had left a bump, and at that point I discovered that my hands were tied. I was sitting in a chair, and my hands were lashed together behind my back. I still hadn’t opened my eyes. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to.

This was trouble. The charges – inciting to riot, auto theft, God knew what else – would be enough to keep me many years in prison. The fact that I had been trying to spring Kotacek would add another thousand years to my sentence. And there was no one to call on for help. Not the U.S. government. Not the man who had sent me to Prague; he wouldn’t lift a finger for me, and I didn’t even know how to get in touch with him anyway.

My head hurt. There were voices around me, but I did not bother listening to them. I was completely dissociated. Coming to after having been knocked out is not much different from waking up in the morning, but I hadn’t done the latter in better than sixteen years. I wasn’t used to being unconscious, and I didn’t like it.

Humphrey Bogart. Hah. I no longer felt like him at all. He would be on his feet now, I thought, bandying words nimbly with his captors, still cocksure and glib. I was simply not in his league.

“…advance information,” someone said. “He couldn’t have been alone. We may be in for trouble.”

“You should never have hit him.”

“But he obviously knew about us. And would have given the alarm.”

“I’m not sure of that.”

“Any identification on him?”

“Just this damned French passport, but I don’t think it’s his. Fabre, it says his name is. But look at that picture. Doesn’t look a bit like him.”

“They all look alike.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

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