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Prague, present day.
"Please, have you seen the person in this picture?" Elizabeth Martin slid a four by five color photograph of her twin brother, David, across the small round table toward the man sipping coffee at dusk. He didn't understand English, and Elizabeth didn't speak Czech, so she pointed at the photo of David, his smile clearly bright enough to captivate a room, then pantomimed looking around for him.
The coffee drinker gazed down carefully at the photo and shook his head, giving her a shrug, then resumed staring at his laptop.
Elizabeth sighed, scanning the crowded Internet café near the Charles Bridge. This was where David had sent the e-mail from. But Prague was a cosmopolitan city full of people from all over the globe, including the Czech Republic's nearest neighbors Austria, Germany, Slovakia and Poland. Around her, tongues spoke in so many different languages and dialects, she felt utterly isolated. And then her ears picked up a male voice speaking English. Whipping her head around, she spied a young man with a backpack, scruffy reddish beard, and a tweed newsboy cap, talking with a backpacking counterpart in a thick black fisherman's sweater and sporting a black knit cap. She walked over to them.
"I'm sorry to bother you." She smiled at them.
"You speak English?"
They both nodded. "With a brogue, lass," the one with the knit cap said, clear blue eyes dancing.
"I'm looking for my brother. He passed through here maybe two weeks ago, I think. He sent me ane-mail from this cafÃ©. Do you recognize him?" Elizabeth passed them the photograph.
"David," the one with the red beard said."Sweet Jesus, what troubles has he gotten himself into? My name's Finn." He stuck out a hand to her. "Sit down."
"Elizabeth Martin," she said, shaking his hand, then gratefully sinking into the wooden chair. "You have no idea how worried I am. When did you last see him?"
He stroked his beard. "About three weeks ago. Right, Tom?" He glanced at his traveling companion, who nodded. "He wasn't himself. Looked fookingpardon the languagetired. I was worried he'd picked up something. Flusomething."
"Picked up something?" She tucked a stray black hair behind her ear and gazed down at David's photo. They were so clearly siblingssame shade of black hair, same blue-gray eyes, same pale skin with a rosy tinge around the cheekbones, same cupid's bow forming full lips. She had the faintest smattering of freckles across her nose, and wore her hair nearly to her waist. David kept his shorn close to the scalp, and he wore a simple gold hoop in his left ear. He also had a tattoo, a yin and yang symbol, on his leftbiceps. In profile, though, they were almost identical, with straight noses and strong, graceful jawlines.
"He looked shaky. He'd been backpacking way the hell out past the Liberac region. Past the ski resorts. He was in the Karkonosze. It's January, love. You just don't do that alone and outside the resorts. Too cold to be out there for days on end. I didn't understand it. I mean, go off into the mountains and not ski? Just to be alone?"
She nodded. "That would be David. Always defying conventional wisdom." She paused and bit her lip. "I have to ask you something." She sighed. "Did he seem like maybe he was onâ€¦drugs?" She held her breath waiting for the answer. It wouldn't be the first time David had troubles with addiction.
"Could be. Don't know. He was just pale. Thin. Never said anything about drugs, though. We'd even shared a room in a hostel one night just before Christmas. I didn't see anything that made me think he was on something. We each had a pint of ale. That was it."
"Thank you. Any bit of news helps."
"He was heading back there, you know. I don'tget the allure of the isolation, but maybe that's what he wanted," Finn offered. "Maybe he was trying to find himself or something."
"I think that's part of it." Elizabeth nodded.
"Is he in trouble?" Tom asked her.
"I honestly don't know. But thank you." She gave him a feeble smile. "At least I know for sure he was here. And he was in the mountains. I'm trying to trace his route."
"I wish we could tell you more."
"I'm just grateful I even found someone who's seen him. His e-mailâ€¦he didn't sound like himself."
Elizabeth stood. "You don't happen to know where he was staying out there, do you?"
"No," Finn said. "But there's an inn out where he said he was. Into the Karkonosze mountainsnear the Polish border. The Hawthorn Inn is the English translation of the name. One of the few places in the heart of the mountains where he was hiking and climbing. If he was in those mountains, chances are he either stayed at that inn or passed through. Or someone staying there may have seen him."
Elizabeth nodded."Hire a car and driver," Tom said. "Don't go out there alone." He looked over at Finn. "We could travel with you. We're not tied to any schedule. We're just bumminâ€™ our way through Europe avoidinâ€™ growinâ€™ up." He smiled at her.
"Sounds familiar," Elizabeth mused, smiling back. "That's all right. But I'll hire a driver for sure." Elizabeth thanked them both again, shook their hands, and exited the cafÃ© to go back to her hotel overlooking the Charles Bridge. She walked across the bridge with hundreds of tourists. Built in the 13th century, the Charles Bridge was considered one of Europe's most romantic spots. Each dawn and twilight, tourists strolled across, taking in the view of the red roofs of Prague, or the huge green cupola of the Church of St. Nicholas. Spires rose above the picturesque city, and she felt a pang at how utterly alone she felt. As she walked, she pulled the e-mail out of her purse and unfolded it for the thousandth time since she received it at the University of Virginia, where she taught comparative religion.
In big trouble. Please. Need help. Someone is trying to destroy me. He even knows what I think before I think it. Come for me. It isn't madness. It is evil.
As Ever, David
Elizabeth fingered the paper like a talisman, her last communication with him. When it had arrived, she'd gone pale and shut her office door, hands trembling as she waited for her printer to spit the hard copy out. She had easily re-read it a hundred times that night alone.
She had first tried his cell phone. They rarely went a week without talking, using each other as true confidants. For a day or two, his phone would ring once and go to voicemail. After that, she got a message that stated it was a nonworking number. With no further word, she was left to her own imagination.
He even knows what I think before I think it. She first thought of the possibility of a religiouscult. Certainly, in her studies, she was aware of the world's major religions, but also the thousands of splinter sects. But she couldn't imagine David falling prey to some charismatic cultist. They were both too academic.
Their mother had died in a car accident when they were smallso young they had scant remembrance of her. Their father committed suicide seventeen years later, finally succumbing to the madness that had always choked off his brilliance. He had been an itinerant professor, teaching mathematics at whatever university willing to deal with his bouts of mania in return for his remarkable ability to solve complex proofs, to see the world of formulas in three and four dimensions. After his deaththe twins were both juniors in collegeshe and David had clung to each other and to their studies. She was a Harvard graduate, later a Rhodes scholar; David had attended Harvard as well, studying English with dreams of being a writer. They traveled in the same circles on campus, spent vacations together, bonded as twins,but also by the familial tragedies that affected them both profoundly.