Tanner takes on jobs for a covert intelligence organization so secret that even those who work for it have no idea who they're working for. Now his nameless supervisor wants him to sneak behind the Iron Curtain, storm an impregnable castle in Prague (alone!), and rescue an old Slovak who's got a pressing date with a hangman's noose.
The trouble is the prisoner is an unrepentant Nazi who makes Goering look like Mister Rogers. Tanner hates Nazis. If he's caught (which is likely) the U.S. will deny that they know him. And Tanner will be executed. After being tortured, no doubt. All in all, there are many excellent reasons why Tanner should refuse this assignment.
So, naturally, he says yes.
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The Canceled Czech
By Lawrence Block
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Lawrence Block
All right reserved.
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 theitinerary 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?"
"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.
Excerpted from The Canceled Czech by Lawrence Block Copyright © 2007 by Lawrence Block. Excerpted by permission.
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