Just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, aspiring journalist Dana Pierson joined the hordes of young people traveling to Eastern Europe to be a part of history. There, she and her best friend were swept up in the excitement of the Velvet Revolution. Twenty years later, Dana returns to the city of her youthful rebellion to reconnect with her old confidant, who never left the city. But the visit that was reserved for healing intimacies and giddy reminiscences is marred by a strange death in one of Prague’s most famous Catholic churches—and an even more peculiar mystery surrounding it…
In a city where the past is never far from the present, Dana must work with a conflicted Italian priest and a world-weary Czech investigator to unlock dark secrets hidden in Prague’s twisted streets. But the key to solving the puzzle may lie in memories of Dana’s long-ago visit, even as she is forced to face the reality of a more recent loss…
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
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The quiet woke her as it did each morning when the dreams faded. Claire lay, taking in a deep breath, aware that she had been given another day, forcing herself to be grateful for this. She rose, her knees creaking as she grasped the edge of the bed and lowered herself to the hard, cold floor for her morning offering. “O my God, my sweet Infant Savior, I offer thee my prayers, works, and sufferings,” she began.
After a silent Amen, she crossed herself, slowly unfolded her aging joints as she stood, and stepped to the narrow closet. Laboriously she tugged the night garment over her head, slipped on the dark brown tunic, the panels of the scapular, followed by white wimple and black veil, a ritual she had performed each morning for the past seventy-six years. She smoothed the covers on her small bed and sat, rubbing her feet together to encourage the circulation. The Barefoot Order of the Carmelites, she mused, though sandals had always been part of her habit. Today she would need a good pair of stockings to protect her toes from the early-morning chill. She worked the warm wool over her feet, pulling the socks up around her plump calves, and then nudged the sandals from beneath her bed and slipped them on, bending to secure the straps, a simple task that had become more and more difficult. Before leaving her room, she wrapped a frayed knit shawl around her shoulders.
In the darkness, she shuffled down the hall, through the kitchen, past the pantry. After retrieving the keys from the box near the door, she dipped her fingers into the dove-shaped holy water font that hung on the wall, offering her day for a second time to the Infant Savior.
Silently, she crept down the stairs, counting each step with an aspiration—my God—step—and my all—step—my God—step—and my all.Sixteen total. Making her way along the hall, she disturbed no one. She unbolted the heavy wooden door, pulled it open slowly, crossed the small courtyard, unlatched the iron gate, and stepped out onto the square. April’s dampness hung in the air, intensified by the silence, the absence of others. Sister Claire wrapped the shawl tighter and reached for her rosary. She knew exactly how long it would take to walk the short distance to Our Lady Victorious. One rosary. Twenty-five aspirations. As she grasped the small crucifix fixed to the beads, touched it to her head and heart, left, then right, she realized she wasn’t sure what day it was. This happened often now, and her greatest concern this morning was her uncertainty over which mysteries to contemplate. She decided on the Joyful to combat the feelings that had invaded her for the past weeks and months. The Joyful Mysteries were designated for Mondays and Thursdays, and she thought it was Thursday.
She encountered no one as she walked. The first light of morning had yet to rise over the golden-tipped spires of Prague. The bakers, whose delicious scents would soon fill the pastry shops in the neighborhoods of the Malá Strana, had just begun to rub sleep from their eyes, and it would be hours before the vendors, whose wooden wagons bumped early each morning with an uneven rhythm over the cobblestones, would offer fresh fruits and vegetables from the stalls at the open market.
Claire felt an energy in her prayers as if with each step, each word, she was nudging a soul closer toward heaven. She finished her rosary and kissed the cool metal of the cross, her lips pressed against the ridge of the nail piercing Christ’s feet. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” she whispered.
She had no permission to walk alone from the convent to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, though she was sure the prioress knew she often rose and moved about in the darkness, unable to sleep more than a few hours each night.
Later, she would return to her cell as she did each morning, then emerge once more in timely fashion, joining the other nuns in the chapter room for their silent procession into the convent chapel.
She recited the twenty-five aspirations, counting them off on two and a half decades of rosary beads—four more years’ indulgences. At times she thought she could feel and see the souls being lifted heavenward, greeted by the Father. She chided herself for such pride, thinking that she, a humble servant, could be an instrument in delivering these waiting souls to their eternal reward.
With the last aspiration, she arrived at her destination and in the darkness her fingers searched for the lock on the door. She slid the key in and entered. Immediately she sensed a foreign presence had infused the interior of the church. A faint vibration pulsed along the floor, and the glass chandelier above quivered with the slightest tremor. Yet, such movements were not unusual in themselves. The church was over four hundred years old; often she sensed spirits from the past still lingered, lurking in the crypt below, hovering in the attic above.
Inhaling, she wondered if the scent that clung to the air, a smell she knew but could not name nor retrieve from the proper pocket of her mind, was the source of this uneasiness and confusion. Memories, like pennies stored in a pouch riddled with holes, slipped out so easily now. Despite her misgivings, she approached the main altar and bowed—no longer able to lower herself for a proper genuflection—then continued to the sacristy where the cleaning supplies were stored, determined to complete the task for which she had come. She checked the altar alarm and found it had been turned off. Had she done this the day before? Forgotten to reset it? She gathered the plastic pail, inserted the whisk broom and dustpan, gripped the shears, and stepped back into the church, realizing with a touch of relief that the perplexing, yet familiar, smell was that of incense. A remnant of the previous evening’s services, it perfumed the air, mingling with the aroma perpetually clinging to the marble altars and ancient stone. But this relief coupled with the recognition of a recurring uncertainty. What was happening to her mind that she could not remember from day to day what had come and gone the day before? Today wasn’t Thursday. Yesterday had been Thursday. Holy Thursday. Today was Good Friday. There were no flowers to refresh, no dried blossoms to pinch or stray vines to clip. The altars were bare. How had she made such a terrible mistake? Today she should have contemplated on the Sorrowful Mysteries, meditating on the Passion of Christ. Today was the day Christ died for the sins of all mankind.
Again she felt a presence. A voice. “Accomplished with ease.” Was this merely her mind playing with her once more?
Then another, far away, near the door, the words carried on the air of a familiar melody, a distinct timbre. “A well-played plan. My reasoning correct. He is with us, guiding the way, as surely this would not have been so accomplished without.”
Then words, unspoken, a familiar voice, spinning about her, yet only within. The melody, the verse she’d often heard and pondered:
Under the wing of peace we march in gentle revolution
to claim our cherished life and freedom
The salvation of the world
to be found in the human heart
She stood, hands trembling, tightening her grasp on the shears. Lingering in the shadow of the altar of Saints Joachim and Anne, she listened. A click of the door? Nothing now. The voices had stilled. The church was quiet. Claire heard only her own breathing.
Moments later, deciding that the voices—which, together with the thieves of memory, had become her personal cross—were only imagined, she made her way down the side aisle. Again, she stopped and listened. Nothing. She was alone in the church.
She proceeded on quiet feet to the altar of the Praské Jezulátko.
At one time she had been allowed to dress the Infant, but this task has been handed over to the younger nuns, Sister Agnes, Sister Ludmila, and Sister Eurosia. Claire knew she could still do it without difficulty. Her mind and hands had memorized every curve of the precious little body. She knew how to enclose the small figure in the metal shell for protection. She was aware of the scent and texture of every garment, the history of each. Tomorrow the younger nuns would remove the Infant from his position high on the altar and prepare him for the glorious day, dressing the little King in the colors of the Resurrection.
She bowed before the Infant, suddenly aware of another scent, similar, though distinct from the spicy smell of incense. The voices could deceive her, but this smell, layered upon stone and incense, she easily identified as the residue of tobacco. No plumes curled in the air, nor invaded her nostrils, yet she knew someone had been here, and she knew the odor, a scent that would cling to a body, leaving a distinct trail long after the flame had been extinguished. She did not imagine this. Someone had been in the church.
Instinctively, she tilted her head up toward the altar. A knot tightened in her chest. For the briefest moment she felt something—a swish of warm air against her face. Then a sensation of empty air. A void. Something missing. Gone. The sharpness circling her heart increased, the weight of her body pulling her down as a deep sting cut into her cheek, warm and wet. The clatter of her plastic pail dropping to the floor, dustpan and whisk broom rattling out. Another voice gently calling. “It is time, my faithful servant.”
Claire’s own voice, humble, but strong, “Not yet, my Lord.”
Two weeks, two days before Easter
The streetlamp provided scant light; he used the flashlight beam as he traced along the outline of the form, bulky as a grizzly bear in winter. A bullet hole pierced the side of the head. Twisted beneath the tower of the old town hall at the Staromestské námesti, the man’s body lay as if placed on the bull’s-eye of a target, centered in a circle constructed of dark stones alternating with light stones, a sidewalk mosaic. The astronomical clock hovered above, marking time, tracking the movement of sun and moon. If it had been summer or fall, the tourists might be gathering now, though the chimes would not sound for another two hours. It was too early, too cold, too dark.
Chief Investigator Dal Damek of the Czech Republic Police Force and the Mestská policie Praha officer who’d made the call stood conversing in low whispers. The young officer, part of the city police force, had heard the shot rip through the quiet morning and claimed to have seen a quick flash from the roof of a building—he pointed across the square toward the Grand Hotel Praha.
A tilt of the head from Damek sent Detective Kristof Sokol and the team off toward the hotel, the eager young rookie leading the way.Charging, Damek thought, with the barely tested enthusiasm of a novice.
“There.” The Mestská policie Praha officer’s voice trembled, as did his still-extended arm, and Damek guessed he was new to the local force, an officer whose duties normally consisted of overseeing traffic and animal control, attending to the tourists. Damek himself was well seasoned, seven years now in homicide. Seven days as chief investigator.
A cool wind whipped through the square, tumbling a paper cup along the cobbles, catching against the wheel of the forensics van. Tiny sparkling flakes, dust motes, danced in the glow of the streetlight. Damek pulled a kerchief out of his pocket to catch a sneeze. Too early in the season for pollen, but something had invaded the morning air. Once more he surveyed the scene, then folded the square into his jacket and knelt down on the hard, cold stone.
The victim, a man with broad shoulders and thick legs, wore expensive, finely polished leather shoes, a heavy winter coat, soft black fur around the collar. Little more than a week into spring, mornings had yet to welcome the season. The last snowfall had come in early March.
“I didn’t touch anything,” the Mestská officer assured him. His voice quivered with nerves and Damek knew the man hadn’t approached the body. The location and appearance of the entry wound, the lack of blood, indicated it wouldn’t have mattered; death had come quickly. Once more the investigator scanned the square, his eyes settling on the hotel where faces pressed against the windows.
Branislov Cerný, “the old Commie,” as some of the younger officers called him, stooped to examine the metal door at the base of the clock tower. The photographer, other technicians, and officers scurried about, recording details, taking measurements. Damek could not see an exit wound, just the small hole in the dead man’s head. Gauging the distance to the hotel, the way the body had fallen, it was likely the fatal shot had originated from the roof, just as the young officer had said.
Cerný approached, his left leg slowing him down in the cold. Something perhaps overlooked during his last physical as he neared retirement. The senior detective stood beside the chief investigator, staring down. Damek knew the expression that had settled on the man’s craggy face even before he glanced back. An expression that some would call no expression at all. They said Detective Cerný had been doing this too long—he was a holdover, one of the few, from the old days. He operated mostly on gut instinct. Passed over too many times for promotion. Now just biding his time. Over the years, Damek had come to know the man well, and he knew exactly what the old detective was thinking—this was not the work of an amateur. One bullet to the head. This was an execution, a professional.
A small crowd gathered, standing at a distance, held back by the bright yellow crime scene tape. Curious, hushed voices. Others were cordoned off, being questioned now, anyone who might have seen or heard anything. Two of the officers were turning the body, face fully visible now, tongue protruding from a distorted mouth, a thin drool jelling on the gaping lower lip. A pair of pale blue eyes stared up at Damek, wide with astonishment. The man’s dark hair was peppered with silver.
A cell phone rang. The uniformed officer meticulously bagging the victim’s belongings glanced at Damek, who nodded. The officer handed him the dead man’s phone. Nothing to identify the caller on the screen—the number officially blocked. Damek hit answer.
A rough voice, quick and impatient. “I wish to continue our discussion. Ten. Same place.” Damek said nothing. He heard only the caller’s shallow breathing, then dead air.
The officer handed the man’s ID to Cerný, who in turn pressed it into Dal’s hand without a word. Damek glanced down at the official government-issued ID, then at the body, matching the victim’s face with the photo of a jowly middle-aged man, aware of how easily one could be stripped of power, control, and dignity. Again his eyes met Cerný’s, and once more he read the old detective’s thoughts.
Seven days in, and Damek had been handed his first high-profile case as chief of homicide. Once more, he scanned the square, then stared up at the clock, the signs of the zodiac on the face of the tower. He’d come here to the Staromestské námesti, the Old Town Square, often with Karla when they were young, after the revolution, then with Petr, particularly for the holidays. During the Christmas season and again for Easter, the square overflowed with vendors and festivities. Easter, just two weeks away. The traditional beginning of the tourist season.
The unseen apostles remained silent and still, high in the tower, enclosed within the intricacies of the ancient mechanical device, hidden behind the star-dappled doors, as if they were the gates to paradise. Damek knew how it would all begin. The knell to mark each hour. The sliding doors opening to reveal the turning figures, the apostles’ procession. Below this parade of saints, four figures of stone stood without motion, poised for what was to come. Vanity held a mirror. Greed grasped a bag of gold. Death stood to the right, along with Sloth, two more figures for symmetry. Death, a form devoid of flesh and heart. Mere bones. In the left hand he grasped a rope, prepared to pull; in the right hand, the hourglass ready to turn. The sand would slip slowly, each sifting grain a reminder of time running out.
In myths and legends, Death stalked at midnight. Damek looked to the east, spires of the city visible in the early pink glow of dawn. In Prague, Death danced with delight after daybreak, performing each hour for tourists and visitors gathered in the square. This morning the esteemed Senator Jaroslav Zajic had been invited to join the show.
Two days after Easter
She traveled alone. Unnoticed. A woman, neither young nor old. Neither beautiful nor plain. Perhaps a woman with a secret, something hidden. Yet, if one were to look deeply, sorrow, rather than secrets, might be revealed. A grief she wished to share with no one. And so, each year, she left, arranging her schedule around the Easter holiday, leaving behind laptop, cell phone, any thread of connection to home, choosing destinations where she was unlikely to encounter anyone she knew. Dana Pierson wished to be alone, to disappear into the crowds.
She gazed out the airplane window at a vast expanse, wishing for a moment she could become part of it, then stared down at the open novel on her lap, realizing she’d read a full page, unaware of a single word. It wasn’t the type of book she’d normally pick up at home—an improbable mystery requiring little thought, silly and complicated at the same time, a book she may or may not finish and would probably leave in the hotel room for the next guest.
She’d spent a week in Rome and was now flying to Prague where she planned to visit her cousin, an exception to the solitude of her spring escape, though by virtue of Caroline’s life choice the two women would have little time together. Dana heard her brother Ben admonishing her, “Better with those who love you. You must know we are here for you.”
Caroline hadn’t been there. She’d sent a letter. Filled with words, attempting comfort. Dana hadn’t seen her in years. At one time they were very close. Then something changed, and Caroline had made a momentous decision that Dana had never understood.
Her thoughts turned to a gloomy November almost twenty years earlier, a youthful journey, an introduction to Prague. Dark clouds cast a shadow over this unknown world, and Dana had wondered, as she looked out the train window, how she had conceived such a notion, why she hadn’t listened to Caroline’s protests about the dangers of entering a Communist country. Caroline, generally open to possibility, always game for a little adventure, perpetually seeing the good in everyone, was, in fact, afraid of godless Communists, and it had taken some cajoling on Dana’s part to convince her to agree to the excursion. The wall in Berlin had just fallen and figurative walls were crumbling all over Europe: The Iron Curtain had been rent. They had heard from others along the way about groups of young, hopeful students organizing in Prague and throughout Czechoslovakia to demonstrate for justice and freedom. As an aspiring journalist, Dana wanted to witness history. Caroline did not share her enthusiasm.
“We could see the Holy Infant of Prague,” Dana had offered, and this turned out to be the shining lure—the opportunity for Caroline, a young woman who believed in angels and saints and divine intervention, to see the small, revered sixteenth-century religious icon.
They were twenty-two at the time, just graduated from college. Both from Boston University, Dana in journalism, Caroline in art history. The trip was a gift from their parents, the great adventure before settling down to enter the real world of employment and grown-up responsibilities. Originally intended for a month-long adventure, a summer trip, it had now extended into the fall, and now as winter took hold.
Dana recalled clearly the noisy locomotive coming to an abrupt halt at the Austria-Czechoslovakia border, the mismatched pair of armed guards muscling their way onto the train, thumbing through passports, checking for visas, glancing up at every turn of the page. The younger officer, short and compact, eyed the Americans suspiciously. The larger and older, square-shouldered with thick dark brows and tight-set mouth, took his time examining papers as if viewing every foreigner as a potential threat. The girls exchanged guarded looks and Dana guessed that Caroline was praying they might be sent back to Austria, fearing that, if allowed to enter, they would be arrested immediately and thrown into a rat-infested prison, their parents not even aware of where they were.
Two hours later, the train huffed and snorted and continued on. When they finally arrived at the outskirts of Prague, they were greeted by a scene more dour than Dana had imagined. Slowing, they rolled past filthy building facades, tile roofs caked with soot, a winter sky clogged with black puffs billowing from dirty brick chimneys. The train jerked to a stop at an ancient-looking station.
A slap of frigid air greeted them as they filed out with other passengers. Lifting backpacks to shoulders, they started through the city, Caroline clutching her coat tighter and tighter around her throat, throwing her cousin one look of concern after another. Breathing air that was barely breathable and reeking with smoke, they walked past boxy Communist-constructed apartments, people bundled up in colorless clothes—few making eye contact—then more dark, filthy structures. With each step, Dana wondered if this had been a terrible mistake.
Eventually, they found a student hostel and, after they’d checked in and surrendered their passports, a plump matronly woman in a gray sacklike dress, clipboard in hand, led them silently down a narrow hall, past walls of peeling paint, over a speckled linoleum floor buckling beneath them. The girls’ dorm, lined with lumpy beds blanketed with itchy-looking wool, smelled of cold stone, overripe fruit, and wet socks and overflowed with the noisy chatter of young women. Mostly students, Dana guessed, all speaking in languages she did not understand. She glanced around, a few girls throwing furtive looks their way, no one offering a smile or welcome. Laundry—dingy underclothes—hung on makeshift clotheslines. Dana pressed her fingers along the side of her head, attempting to thwart the headache she felt coming, and then collapsed on her assigned bed.
Caroline threw her backpack on the adjacent bed, unzipped a pocket, and rummaged around, glancing at Dana with another one ofthose looks. Dana didn’t want to tell her cousin she was now having her own doubts.
Caroline took off down the hall to shower and wash her hair. A natural beauty, without conceit or arrogance, she had one vanity—her lovely, thick, long blond tresses. Dana, who often hopped out of bed and quickly ran a comb through her lank brown hair, frequently teased Caroline about her time-consuming ritual of washing, drying, combing, fluffing. Yet Dana could not deny that a girl with lovely, long blond hair, especially one as attractive as Caroline, caught the attention of the fellows. A definite plus when hanging out with her cousin. Boys sometimes told Dana she was cute, but Caroline far surpassed cute. She turned heads.
A thin girl, speaking in broken English, approached and attempted to bum a cigarette, which Dana didn’t have, and then invited her to join a march the following day to commemorate International Student Day.
Caroline returned to the room, shivering, her damp head still spotted with dabs of shampoo suds. Glaring at Dana, she shrieked, “The goddamned water just went off!”
Dana felt her lips splitting into a smile at the memory, particularly in light of what Caroline was now doing in Prague. No swearing. No hair problems. And then, like an unexpected hiccup, a quick high-pitched laugh escaped. She cleared her throat and glanced quickly at the man sitting next to her. He looked up from his newspaper with a faint smile of amusement.
“Good book?” he asked. He spoke in the deep, roughly textured voice of a smoker. Late sixties to early seventies, she guessed, with noticeable fatigue in his eyes, which were mapped with fine red threads. About her father’s age, if he were still alive. The man wore a dark suit with a nicely pressed white shirt, open collar, no tie. His black hair, little more than a neatly trimmed fringe set below a balding pate, was touched with a hint of gray. A large man, the bulk of his round body pressed against the armrest dividing their seats. Yet there was something rather refined about him—a man who had perhaps overindulged in the better things of life. He, too, appeared to be traveling alone.
Dana stared down at her book cover, feeling a blush of embarrassment over the shiny gold-embossed title, the woman in shapely silhouette holding a smoking gun. “Good book?” she replied. “Not really.” The man tilted his head as if waiting for her to explain the smile, as if she might owe him an explanation.
“I was thinking,” she said, “of an earlier visit to Prague.” As soon as she spoke, she wished she hadn’t. She could have nodded a yes and returned to her reading.
He folded his paper and stuffed it in the seat pocket, eager and ready to engage in conversation. She noticed his hands, carefully manicured, soft as if he’d never engaged in a day of hard, physical work.
“You are on holiday?” he asked with interest, and she nodded, realizing she’d randomly drawn the seat next to a talker. A person who actually enjoyed engaging with strangers. “You spent time in Rome?” He spoke with a slight accent. Italian, she guessed.
“Six days,” she answered.
“You enjoyed it?” Something in his voice told her Rome was home, that he was proud of his city. “A lovely place to enjoy the Easter holidays.”
“Yes, I did enjoy the city.” She’d done the regular tourist things: the Colosseum, the Vatican, St. Peter’s. But Easter Sunday, the five-year anniversary, as well as the day before Easter—the cruelty of a moveable holiday requiring she relive it twice every year—she’d done nothing but wander the streets, purposely placing herself in the busiest squares, the areas with the most pedestrian traffic, in order to be alone, and yet among others. To be unnoticed. To become a no one among so many.
“Rome is a beautiful city with much history. As is Prague.” His tone was friendly. “What brings you back to the Czech Republic?” he asked.
“I’m visiting a friend, my cousin, actually,” she said. He seemed a nice enough man, and the flight wasn’t long enough to get bogged down in a lengthy, unwelcome conversation.
“She lives in Prague?”
“It’s been some time since you’ve visited?” he asked.
“About twenty years.”
“On holiday then, too?”
“Well, yes, though . . .” She stopped. Why was she sharing this with a complete stranger?
He raised an inviting brow as if to say, Do tell me, I’m interested. “Prague twenty years ago?” he asked. “What brought you to the city back then?”
“A revolution,” she replied, wondering if this would shock him terribly.
“A revolution.” He repeated the words slowly. He was pensive, rather than surprised. “Sametová revoluce, a velvet revolution.” The word velvet rolled off his tongue devoid of any roughness, imbued with a softness the word itself deserved.
Dana nodded, acknowledging his familiarity with the history of Prague.
“Prague, they say, has become the new Paris,” he told her. “Much changed since the Communists.” He tilted his head as if offering this last statement as a subject of discussion.
“You’re also on holiday?” Dana asked, using the European word, which sounded more fun than vacation or break, like a true celebration.
“I’m not sure,” he said with a laugh that had a rough, raspy tone, as if it came from deep within, rattling up through his lungs. “I’m visiting a dear friend. Like you.” He held out his hands, palms up, then turned them back to himself, as if he and Dana shared something in common. “Though I have not been apprised of the details, I believe I’ve been called upon to exercise the skills I’ve developed in the course of my work, in positions I’ve held through the past several decades.” This was pronounced with a combination of pride, authority, and something that might have been described as a tease—a tease in the sense of My work is so important that I’m not at liberty to discuss it with you. “Not an official assignment,” he added.
She offered a curious smile. The man’s face held a hint of the same, the possibility quickly aborted with an agitated glance around as if searching for something or someone.
“This dry air,” he said, bringing a closed fist to his mouth and clearing his throat. “I would certainly enjoy a drink.” He gazed down the aisle at the smiling flight attendant pushing the refreshment cart, slowly making her way toward them.
He’d aroused Dana’s natural curiosity. She felt tested to draw out more, as if he were challenging her to do just that.
“You work for a business here in . . .” she said, motioning back with her head to imply where they’d come from, rather than where they were going. “Italy?”
He stared at her for a moment, as if determining her need to know. “Yes,” he conceded. He leaned closer as if they were about to share a secret. She smelled the liquor on his breath, as well as his spicy cologne or aftershave, along with a scent that confirmed he was a smoker. “I work for a large organization based in Italy,” he said softly, and she was sure she detected a taunting twinkle in his eye. The Italian Mafia, she thought with an inner laugh, edged with a small portion of self-warning. Was she sitting here with the Godfather?
“My work, in some aspects similar to yours,” he added.
“Mine?” she asked, the single word coming out slow and tentative. “My work?” He’d caught her off guard and now she felt more irritated than inquisitive. Did he know her? Had he read something she’d written? She was about to ask if they’d met before when he called to the flight attendant, chatting with the passenger in front of them.
“Per favore, signorina.” He spoke rapidly, urgently, in Italian. Dana sat back in her seat and gazed out the window, feeling as if her space—if such a thing existed in the narrow confines of an airplane—had been invaded. Though she’d certainly opened herself up for conversation.
“You, miss?” The flight attendant leaned in and asked, “Would you like something to drink?”
Dana looked up at the smiling face, the perfectly applied mauve lipstick and white teeth. “No, thank you.”
“A journalist?” she asked the man as the attendant poured him a whiskey. “You’re a journalist?” She prided herself in being observant, but she couldn’t place him.
“Like you, my work often involves gathering facts, analyzing, and recording my findings. Though, no, I’m not a journalist, not published traditionally as you.” The attendant handed him his drink and moved down the aisle.
“You’ve visited Boston?” Dana asked. They stared at each other for a long moment, and she sensed that he was playing with her, that he was enjoying this.
“My work often involves travel.”
“And your work, or pleasure, now takes you to Prague.”
“Not officially . . . yet, as a favor to a friend. Like you . . .” He tipped his head. “On holiday, visiting a friend.”
“I see,” she replied, waiting for more.
He raised his glass in a toast. “To friends and holidays.”
“Salute,” she replied, using an Italian toast.
He leaned back, closing his eyes, and took a slow, obviously pleasurable, drink. Conversation over, he seemed to say.
She opened her book. She was done with him, too—he’d started this, then cut her off. She refused to play his game, though that ever-present curiosity pried about in her head as she attempted to retrieve a memory of this man who seemed to know her. She dismissed the impulse to ask and gave her glasses a little nudge to keep them from slipping on her nose. She glanced over at the man, napping now, breathing heavily, clutching his empty plastic glass as it rose and fell rhythmically on the perch of his large belly.
After the flight attendant had gathered empty cups, napkins, and snack wrappers—plucking the empty cup from the still-slumbering man as she shot Dana a smile—a deep voice announced their descent into the Ruzyne Airport.
Awakened by the broadcast but still heavy lidded and groggy, the man pulled a black briefcase up from the floor space in front of his feet, unzipped a side pocket, and inserted his newspaper. Dana slid her book into her bag.
He turned to her again and said, “It’s been a pleasure visiting with you.” He’d released his seat belt, though the light was still on. He wasn’t a man used to playing by the rules, she guessed.
“We’ve met before?” she asked, unable to end the flight with the question unanswered.
“Oh, no, but I do know your work.”
The flight attendant glided down the aisle, head bobbing from side to side, checking to make sure those in her care were secure, kindly reminding the man to fasten his seat belt, gesturing toward the lit sign.
He let off an indignant humph, but he complied, and they soon hit the runway.
“You’re familiar with my work?” Dana asked.
“Yes,” he replied, but offered no more.
When the seat belt light dimmed, he stood abruptly and made his way to the front of the plane with a sense of entitlement. He had no overhead luggage, just the briefcase.
She watched him, and there was something about the way he moved, the grace with which he carried that excessive weight.
After gathering her own carry-on, it dawned on her in an unexpected flash. They had never met, but she had seen him briefly—from the back as he slid into a shiny black Town Car. She’d attempted to find him when he came to Boston. An elusive ghost of a man.
Ah, yes, she thought as she started down the aisle, that organization based in Italy—much older than and often as mysterious as the Mafia. Those perfectly manicured hands? A man who held the body of Christ would keep his hands as pristine as a newly baptized baby’s soul.
Father Giovanni Borelli hated to fly. He did not enjoy the bustle of airports, the queues for boarding, and then the dreadful, confined, cramped quarters of an aircraft. He loved his work, which often, at least in the past, required that he travel—wherever the miracles, the apparitions, the transgressions might take him. But he liked to be in the middle of things, not going there or coming back.
Yet he often met interesting people in his travels. He had enjoyed speaking with the woman from Boston. Years ago, they’d played a little game of cat and mouse. He recalled watching her then—he peering through the blinds in the bishop’s study, she stepping off the front porch, glancing back, and then hurrying down the sidewalk with a quick, agitated gait. When he found his seat on the plane, he easily recognized her, though there was nothing that would make her stand out in a crowd. She looked to be perhaps in her late thirties, though he knew she had to be at least forty if she’d been traipsing about Europe during the time of the revolution in Czechoslovakia. Her frame, slight. Her hair, an ordinary brown. He guessed with a little makeup and perhaps a more flattering hairstyle—hers hung limply to her shoulders—she might have turned a head. Her style of dress—jeans and T-shirt—certainly did nothing to enhance her figure. Borelli remembered when women used to take care with their appearance, dress like women. Gia had always attired herself as a proper, refined lady. He found this trend of casual dress, surely started by the Americans, inappropriate.
But he’d been unkind, and he’d have to confess. He’d engaged in a verbal game as if they were opponents, which they were not. They’d both arrived at the same conclusion in Boston.
He knew it was that old, yet familiar, sin of pride—he liked to have the upper hand and had quite enjoyed their conversation, she having no idea who he was. He should have walked off the plane with her, introduced himself, told her how fairly he believed she’d covered the events in Boston. But, damn, he had to get to the terminal and find the restroom. And he needed a cigarette.
He’d probably never see her again. Prague was a city of over a million and this time of year, with the advent of spring, it often appeared as if the population had doubled. One could practically walk across the Charles Bridge, the Karluv most, without lifting a foot, the tourist traffic so heavy a person might be carried along in the stream of flowing bodies.
After using the men’s room, he made his way out of the terminal, along with other travelers hefting, dragging, and wheeling an assortment of baggage. Father Borelli had but his briefcase, preferring the ease of traveling sans luggage. His wardrobe was limited, though he took pride in a neatly pressed suit and a fresh cassock being available at all times. He always packed a box and sent it ahead to his hotel with instructions to have the garments pressed and waiting in his room when he checked in. This assured he’d have a presentable wardrobe for the duration of his stay, though he was concerned since the urgency of this trip required he send the box special delivery. With the holiday weekend he was aware it might not arrive until several days into his stay. The thought irritated him, though the shipping company guaranteed his package would arrive within a day, and his hotel was always good about seeing to his requests. Fortunately he’d called ahead and been assured a room would be available for him, even on such short notice.
At least a dozen passengers waited in line at the cab stop, though he noted not a single cab in sight. Tourists everywhere. He reached into his pocket, grateful he had time for a smoke. He inserted a cigarette in his silver holder—he hated cigarette stains on fingers—lit up and drew in a comforting drag. He was content to stand and wait, though if he’d been wearing his collar he would most likely be invited to go ahead. People in Europe still respected the collar.
He tapped his cigarette ash into a receptacle by the cab stand and noticed a wrinkle in the leg of his trousers. Another reason he hated the confinement of an airplane. He gave it a quick, firm brush with his wide hand, pressing the crease with his fingers. By the time he finished his smoke, he’d moved to the front of the line. His cab arrived and he gave the driver the address of his hotel.
As they drove into the center of Prague, he wondered what Ms. Pierson would think coming back after an absence of almost twenty years. It was now a vibrant, commercial city with modern shops and galleries, cafés and theaters, combined in a charming way with the centuries-old buildings, cobbled streets, medieval churches, and ancient castles. Little physical damage had been done to the old city during the war. Most of the historical center had been spared, and he found it one of the loveliest in Eastern Europe. He’d once heard Prague described as the finest Italian city outside of Italy. Yet, during the forty years of the Communist regime, there was no pride in ownership and buildings had fallen into disrepair. The privatization and commercialism after the revolution had done much for the city. A visitor, such as the American woman, returning after a long absence would find the city quite delightful.
His first encounter with Ms. Dana Pierson had been seven years ago now, though the offenses that brought him to Boston had gone back decades, the sins of betrayal, the perhaps equally great sins of denial and cover-up. All had contributed to a terrible time in the history of the Church. When he reported back to Rome, it was with a heavy heart.
The trip to Boston had been one of many sporadic assignments after the dissolution of the office of Promoter of the Faith and then Father Borelli’s resignation from his position at the university in Rome. He had a reputation for being fair and thorough, though many of his efforts received little recognition. Much of his work was done “unofficially,” on special assignment. Now he found himself in Prague, though not officially. Not even unofficially. He had come simply because Giuseppe Ruffino—Beppe—had called. Over the past several years he had often visited his friend, who had been appointed the prior of Our Lady Victorious by the Holy Father shortly after a new government had been established in the early nineties. He’d give Beppe a call as soon as he got to the hotel. Saint Giuseppe, he often called him. They had been best friends since childhood, growing up in a little village south of Florence, one of the prettiest places on earth with its lovely vineyards and rolling hills, an area well-known for its fine wine production.
His cab arrived at the hotel and he tipped the driver generously, as he always did, though he had but the one small briefcase, which he carried in himself. He picked up his keys, inquiring if his package had been delivered. It had not. He’d packed a clean set of underwear in his briefcase, along with his toiletries and breviary, but he should not have trusted that the delivery and pressing would be done, particularly with the holiday. He took the elevator up to his third-floor room, miffed that he had nothing to wear other than what was on his back. Aware that he should be climbing stairs if just for a little exercise, he excused himself by the fact that he’d had a long day. As he stepped off the small elevator, he felt a familiar cramp knotting in his left leg. He also needed to pee. Again. This getting old did not agree with him.
In his room, he used the bathroom, then opened his briefcase, pulled out a bottle, fixed himself a drink, got out his cigarettes, flipped on the TV, and settled down. As a vintner, he enjoyed a nice bottle of wine with dinner. But for a good numbing jolt, he preferred a fine whiskey. How did the Americans say it, liquor is quicker? There was something to be said for both distillation and fermentation. He took another satisfying drink.
He would call Beppe tomorrow, when he had a pressed suit and cassock hanging in his closet.
• • •
After gathering her checked bag, Dana went out to find a cab. She hadn’t noticed her traveling companion waiting at the carousel, and wondered, Who travels with so little? Then realized a man in his line of work would not require an extensive wardrobe. If he wanted to look official, he could slip on a clerical collar. As she waited, she pulled a tourist guidebook out of her carry-on. She’d have plenty of free time in Prague. Caroline had explained in a letter that she’d have no more than one free hour each day. She’d invited Dana for lunch tomorrow.
Grilled lunch—you on one side of the grille, me on the other, Caroline had written.
Her cousin had always had a sense of humor, though often now the words in her letters were wrapped in such a serious tone, as if the convent had stripped her of her wit. This was obviously a joke, as Dana knew the order wasn’t cloistered in the truest sense. Caroline had explained that the nuns lived a monastic life, meaning they lived in a closed convent and adhered to a strict schedule, with much time dedicated to prayer, meditation, and solitude, though they did venture into the world to work. The small and intimate community of Discalced Carmelites consisted of fewer than a dozen nuns. From the Latin dis, meaning “not,” and calceatus, “shod.” Dana envisioned her free-spirited cousin, dancing joyfully unshod about the ancient convent, her toes wiggling without restraint. Perhaps her feet were the only part of her to experience such freedom.
Caroline, Sister Agnes now, had written that among the nuns’ duties were caring for the altars and the priests’ vestments and attending to the Holy Infant at the Church of Our Lady Victorious. She’d also lamented that the church was beginning to take on the trappings of just that—a tourist trap. Tourists coming in and out with all their disruptive paraphernalia, cameras and guidebooks, and noisy disrespectful chatter.
Her cab arrived and the driver helped Dana with her luggage. Easter Monday as well as Easter Sunday was a holiday throughout most of Europe, and it seemed the activity had not subsided even today as she witnessed a continuing celebration, more secular than religious, as they drove toward the city center. Throngs of people scurried about, carrying bags and backpacks. Children slurped ice cream cones, and parents snapped away, tiny cameras recording the festivities.
The driver chatted in English, offering bits of tourist information as Dana gazed out the window. The weather could not have been more different from the damp, dark November of her first visit. The sky was a lovely clear blue, the sun highlighting the fairy-tale village with gothic spires, romantic bridges spanning the Vltava River, and narrow cobbled passages and alleyways. Years ago this had seemed mysterious in an almost sinister way, but it now appeared as if everything had been spruced up to welcome the many visitors. What had the priest said—that Prague was the new Paris?
The cab came to an abrupt halt. A wide ditch stretched the length of the street, which was obviously being dug up—new water or sewer system, Dana guessed. This, along with restoration of one of the medieval buildings covered with plastic sheets and flanked with scaffolds, made the street impassable for a motor vehicle, other than perhaps a small motorcycle, as evidenced by one haphazardly zipping around them right now. The cabdriver turned and motioned outward.
“No drive to hotel,” he said, shaking his head.
“Yes, you walk.”
“How far?” she asked, realizing this was the end of the road.
“Not far, just there,” he said, pointing. He jumped out, opened her door gallantly, then hustled around and pulled her bag from the trunk. “No parking,” he said with another wide gesture.
Dana paid, giving him a tip that could have been larger had he actually dropped her at her hotel. Flipping the handle up on her wheeled luggage, she settled her small carry-on on top, hiked her handbag on her shoulder, adjusting it for balance, and started down the narrow street, maneuvering around the scaffolding and stepping carefully on the wooden planks set out for pedestrians to get around the construction. Narrow, pastel-colored structures lined the street, many of them sporting the old names and symbols used before the buildings were numbered. U cerveného orla, the Red Eagle, with its faded painting of just that; U tri houslicek, the Three Fiddles, identified by a relief created to designate the home of three generations of an eighteenth-century family of violin makers; U cerveného lva, the Red Lion. Tiled roofs had been scrubbed since her last visit, and stone buildings sandblasted, all pristine and sootless.
She smiled as she continued down the street toward her hotel, her wheeled bag bumping along the cobbles with an even rhythm. The sunshine stroked her face like a warm hand, and she felt a sense of being in a good place. The heat sent a spark of energy through her, coupled with a sense of excitement verging on happiness, something she had not felt in a very long time. She was looking forward to getting together with Caroline. Suddenly she was young and adventurous. It would be a good week.
“He expected you sooner,” Pavla Bártová told Chief Investigator Damek and Detective Kristof Sokol as she led them into her uncle’s study. A thin woman, wearing a skirt and sweater set, she appeared to be about thirty with the demeanor of an academic or librarian, which she was, according to the information recently gathered by Detective Sokol. She worked at the city library in the village of Kutná Hora in Southern Bohemia about seventy kilometers east of Prague. It was just 9:00 A.M., they had no appointment, but the woman’s face had registered little surprise as she opened the door. Even before the two men introduced themselves and produced identification, it seemed she was expecting them.
Dal, too, had hoped for sooner. Working nonstop, assigning extra officers, they seemed to be making little progress toward resolution in their investigation of Senator Zajic’s murder, and they were getting pressure from above, the chief of criminal investigations, who he was sure was also getting an earful from the independent prosecutor who oversaw all police proceedings.
Professor Josef Kovár was one of many on a list of those who might desire to see Senator Jaroslav Zajic dead, among them the senator’s wife as well as myriad political and personal foes. The professor might have been placed nearer the top of the list had they known his whereabouts sooner. He had left his position in the history department of the University of Prague more than seventeen years before and, though he had gone but a short distance, it had taken over two weeks to discover his whereabouts.
“He’s doing well,” Pavla said as she glanced back at Investigator Damek and Detective Sokol. “It’s sometimes difficult to understand him. His speech has been affected by the stroke, though his mind is still crystal clear, which I’m sure you understand leads to some frustration.” They entered the room, dimly lit by a single lamp. The niece went immediately to the blinds. The snap seemed to rouse the man sitting nestled in a blanket wrapped around his legs and lower body, head hung as if he’d momentarily dozed off while reading the newspaper held limply in his lap. A thin, blackened log smoldered in the fireplace.
Quickly, Dal cast his eyes about the room. Seeing a small cot with a rumpled quilt wedged against one wall, he guessed that the study, as the niece had called it, also served as the man’s sleeping quarters. The scent of the log along with a medicinal smell permeated the air. Bookcases filled with hardbound books threw in a hint of dust and mold and history, creating a mix of scents that sat heavily in the stuffy room. Dal took in a deep breath, wishing for fresher air. Wishing the niece would lift the window as well as the shade.
“Uncle Josef.” The woman spoke softly to the man, then turned to the detectives. “Detectives Damek and Sokol, from the Republic Police in Prague.”
The professor nodded, one side of his mouth lifting slowly in a knowing smile.
“Coffee for our guests,” he told his niece in a low voice. The words, as carefully formed as his smile, seemed to emanate from just one side of his mouth. He appeared to be much older than late sixties, barely recognizable as the man in the academic photos in his file. He whispered to the niece, who immediately left the room.
The professor studied his visitors for several moments before speaking again. “Please,” he said, lifting a finger to indicate the chair near the opposite side of the fireplace, identical to the one in which he sat, then toward a small sofa facing the mantel. “You are here about the senator.” His speech was slurred but understandable.
“Thank you for seeing us,” Dal replied. “We’d like to ask you a few questions.” He lowered himself to the chair. Kristof perched eagerly on the edge of the sofa.
“Yes, yes . . .” The professor reached with shaky hand into the pocket of his robe, pulled out a tissue, and carefully wiped the corner of his mouth. “I can tell you little . . . as I have been confined for some time. A stroke,” he said, repeating what the niece had already told them.
“You’ve had no recent contact with the senator?” Dal asked.
“No,” he said, paused, then added, “I have never personally met the man. But, yes, you are correct, I am not unhappy at his demise.” Each word came forth with great effort.
Professor Josef Kovár had been one of the first victims of a lustration program set up in 1991. Zajic, not yet a senator, had chaired the independent commission formed by the Civic Forum. Its purpose—to remove from office or ban from academic, judicial, military, and high-level civil service positions, those who had been involved as spies or informants or otherwise active in the StB, the Communist secret police. The commission had labored until 2000, sifting through and studying millions of documents relating to the Communist reign, which lasted from 1948 until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Even after his removal, the professor had continued to write scathing articles, most recently concerning the corrupt state of the Czech Republic and specifically Senator Zajic, though these had been published in liberal media with little if any circulation.
“Do you know of anyone who might want to harm the senator?” Investigator Damek asked.
Professor Kovár laughed, then nodded. “With all the commotion made by the commission, fewer than one hundred were removed. Not a particularly worthwhile project.” His lips quivered, emitting a hissing sound that Dal thought might turn into a word. Again he wiped his lips with the tissue clutched in his hand.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of Kelly Jones
“[An] intense and richly detailed novel…A wonderfully imaginative spin on art and history.”—Publishers Weekly
“Jones’s vivid descriptions of Florence, and the involving story, will captivate art and fiction lovers.”—Booklist
“An electrifying tale of suspense filled with twists.”—Midwest Book Review
“One of those rare reading experiences; page-turning and insightful, it explores the human condition in a way that few novels do. Kelly Jones is a wonderful writer, and definitely one to watch.”—Nicholas Sparks