A man can have so little liking for himself that people come to detest him.
Right at this moment, Tomáš Hájek, Snr. [T.H.] a.k.a. Josef Kulička, junior archivist at the State Literary Archive situated on the premises of Strahov Monastery, is thinking precisely this — wishing he was as far from where he presently is as humanly possible: in Tahiti, for example, the South Pole, or the Moon.
It’s been eight months since that nut Heydrich took von Neurath’s job as Reichsprotektor (acting) & for the last six of them T.H. has felt like he’s been losing his marbles. His assumed identity serves a double purpose, to protect himself on the one hand against charges of collaboration by the Partisan underground, & on the other to throw the Gestapo off his scent on the offchance someone gets wise to his little blackmarket sideline in literary antiquities.
Recently T.H.’s conscience has been troubling him more than usual, on account of this Heydrich, who’s had most of his (Kulička’s) colleagues tortured & shot on account of some private obsession to get his hands on the lost alchemical library of Rudolf II & one volume in particular, the Roger Bacon manuscript, socalled, the original (but not copy) of which, unbeknownst to Heydrich (but not to T.H.), is at that moment residing in a safe deposit box at the First Bank of America, Manhattan branch, registered to the widow of one W.M. Voynich. Kulička’s on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list, but so far T.H. has had the advantage: he knows Josef Kulička doesn’t exist, while the Gestapo (he thinks) don’t yet know he exists.
The idea had come from Eldrich von N____: they’d known each other since childhood. Kulička is T.H.’s insurance policy & a convenient cover for Eldrich von N____’s scam-mongering: his insurance policy is that he’s managed, through old Silesian family connections, to get himself a junior commission at the Ministry of Inertia, complete with desk, pen-set & tailored grey SS uniform. When he’s not busy supplying the “enemy” with morale-defeating celeb gossip about Goebbels’s latest Barrandov blockbuster (photo opps with all the big names — Moravec, the Havels, Goebbels’s fat wife — having quite the time of it, he is) & generally hobnobbing away from the office, Eldrich von N____, self-styled baron-in-waiting ever since his father’s been safely ensconced in a sanatorium on Lake Geneva, moonlights (a fact not unknown to his superiors, some of them his best customers) as an agent for the Golem City Book Emporium — Buchstabengetreu! — earning fat commissions in the antiques trade.
Business is good. In fact, from where Eldrich von N____ is sitting, so to speak, it couldn’t be better. Together with T.H. — a graduate of the historical restoration programme at the National Visual Arts Academy — he’s put together a nice little sideline in lesser-known rare editions, all fakes of course, sold at considerable profit to unsuspecting collectors: everything from Gutenberg psalm books to the works of that lunatic Englishman, William Blake, sometimes even the odd papyrus from the 2nd Intermediate. They’ve been at it for years, even before Munich, taking regular jaunts up to Berlin with autograph copies of everything from Schiller to Sharkspier, milking the market in cultural Anmaßung.
It was Eldrich von N____ who’d first conceived the scam of flogging a copy of the Bacon Manuscript to a high-ranking Nazi mystagogue — Rosenberg possibly — circulating rumours to the effect that a long-lost Teutonic ur-text had recently come to light… which wasn’t a new idea admittedly, but the pre-existence of similar rumours gave it all the foundation it required, & as soon as SS-Obergruppenführer Heydrich initiated his regime of interrogations along precisely those lines (Wo ist das Buch, du Abschaum?!), Eldrich von N____ knew he had his man.
Right now, though, T.H. — or Josef K, as his co-conspirator insists on calling him — is entertaining serious doubts. For one, he’s certain he’s been watched since his last foray up to the Monastery three days ago, to collect the vellum binding for the bogus Manuscript. The whole thing’s been put together piecemeal over a period of years (no small undertaking) in a workshop they’d rigged up for this & other purposes in the Archive’s basement — a disused janitor’s closet under a stairway in the south wing whose door had been plastered over & sometimes lacked the necessary ventilation, causing T.H. no end of trouble keeping his head straight. If it weren’t for the two obvious-looking plainclothes detectives sitting a few tables away, he’d probably tell himself he was imagining things. S.D. most likely — Sicherheitsdienst — Heydrich’s personal goon squad.
Nervously T.H. shifts the attaché case containing the manuscript, completed only that morning — the hundred-odd pages handstitched into the binding with vintage gutstring (got at a discount from a Zhiddish violin-maker who’d just been issued a deportation order) — to the chair on his left &, for the time being at least, out of sight. In the opposite chair, Eldrich von N____ is sipping from a cup of coffee, the restaurant on the Barrandov Terraces being the only place in town you could still get a really decent brew, & pondering his next move in the chess game they’ve been making a pretence at for the last half-hour: by rights he ought to be losing, but since the twelfth move things have been unexpectedly looking up — he puts it down to the fact that his opponent has all the appearance of someone who hasn’t slept in a week: black around the eyes, hollow cheeks, a little too closely shaven under the chin. Oddly, the effect is to make him (T.H.) look younger than he actually is. Probably been losing weight, too.
He (T.H.) is playing a characteristic Queen’s Gambit, following the orthodox line, while Eldrich von N____ is struggling to remember the proper combination of moves that constitute the usually innocuous Vienna Game: pawn to king four… knight to king’s bishop three… pawn to queen four (!)… & afterwards? White’s pawn-exchange tilts the game towards an open paradox neither player seems aware of, distracted as they each are by concerns of a different order — terms like “classical” & “hypermodern” have no currency here, it’s all gut-instinct & joining-the-dots — T.H. blundering his king into an impossible position just as one of the undercover cops gets up from his table & heads across the terrace into the restaurant, probably to take a piss but who knows, could be making a phone call to HQ: We’ve got your man right out in the open. He’s a sitting duck. Want us to bring him in? Even Eldrich von N____ can see there’s a checkmate coming in the next move.
The cop’s on his way back to the table when T.H. suddenly blurts out —
‘Do you make the two SiPo stooges over there by the railing?’
Eldrich von N____ looks up from the board at his companion as if he’s just said something incomprehensibly stupid, like Do Martians have spots on their tails? For one frightening moment T.H., who’s already afraid his face reads like a guilty conscience displayed in broad daylight, thinks his companion might even be in on it — The whole thing’s a frame-up! — but then he (Eldrich von N____) points at the board & in a voice that almost seems to doubt itself says —
‘Looks like you’re fucked, mate.’
‘No, I mean the cops, over there, the ones in the coats, by the railing — they’ve been watching us for the last half-hour at least. Don’t look at them! Here,’ T.H. says, reaching into the attaché case & sliding out a Fex 127, ‘take a picture.’
Just then a shout goes up from below the terrace: it’s the annual Youth Sports Festival taking place in the open-air Barrandov swimming pool. Women’s 400m backstroke most probably — always a fave with the terrace oglers. The cops, slow on the drawer, turn their heads well after the starter’s gun’s sent eight bathing beauties arching away from the blocks. Eldrich von N____, who’s understood only that his friend wants his photo taken, duly gets up & snaps a shot from a few steps back, cropping the two plainclothesmen at shoulder height so all that can be seen of them is their coats — T.H. in the foreground with the undeniable proof of his recent blunder visible for all to see on the chessboard in front of him.
The cops are still peering over the banister when T.H. takes his turn with the camera, elbowing each other in the ribs — Core, get a load of that! — the girl in lane three, white swimsuit a little on the sheer side & Wouldn’t mind trying a bit of the old breaststroke with her, eh Fritzl?
It’s just as they turn their heads — a weirdly synchronous movement — towards where he’d been sitting that T.H. presses down with index finger on the round metal button. Snap! When the aperture clicks back, he can still see them (the cops), frozen in the viewfinder — Eldrich von N____ in his ridiculous Oberst’s uniform suppressing a private gloat over the scene of carnage depicted on the board — though neither appears to notice the odd disposition of black’s bishops.
The question preoccupying T.H. is whether or not the cops know who he is, or if Eldrich’s the one who’s blown it, or if their being there is nothing but pure coincidence? He’ll get the photos developed & see if Eldrich can have the goons checked out, somehow, on the quiet, use one of his contacts down at Gestapo HQ. But no sooner has he laid the camera on the table than he notices something very peculiar about Eldrich von N____’s face: the expression reminds him of a child who’s just dropped an ice cream cone & is still factoring the details of the situation before bursting into tears. It’s this expression that causes T.H. to glance down, half expecting to find a mushy ball of lemon sorbet melting on the chessboard — but instead it’s black’s bishops, both of them on white squares.
Were it not for the fact that T.H. is unable to resist casting a grinning eye at his opponent, he undoubtedly would’ve registered the two SiPo men now moving away from their table directly towards him, straightening their coats in unison as though they’d rehearsed that particular touch countless times, perhaps on some casting agent’s advice, for who’s to tell they’re both not out-of-work thespians on the make? After all, this is Barrandov, home of the Entertainment Industry.
Yet none of this has a chance to occur to T.H., who’s still grinning but dimly aware that not only is his companion not amused, he’s not even looking at him — Probably in a huff! he thinks, but no, his expression’s exactly as it was a moment ago & he’s looking at something behind me…?
It’s at precisely this moment that a tap comes on T.H.’s shoulder. Only now does he see the two goons standing on either side of Eldrich von N____ & that one of them’s reaching for the attaché case left lying on the chair beside him: a voice he doesn’t recognise says something — the man it belongs to, the man who’s just tapped him on the shoulder, has an air of impatience about him that suggests he’s more familiar with giving orders than taking them.
Turning to face him, T.H. is able to fully appreciate the meaning of Eldrich von N____’s expression — if the voice is unfamiliar, the face isn’t, for the man now standing before him is none other than Horst Böhme, SS-Standartenführer, notorious owner of a red open-top Tatra sports car & commander of the city’s Security Police.
‘So leid, Herr Oberst,’ addressing Eldrich von N____, who’s knocked his chair over trying to get up fast enough & stand to attention, ‘I’m afraid your’ (voice charged now with the full weight of Saxon innuendo) ‘companion will not be at liberty to remain for the customary revenge match’ (indicating the board), ‘which would in any case appear superfluous. You’d be better advised in future, Herr Oberst, to keep the company of your fellow officers. Doubtless you’re unaware, but your companion here, this Mr Kulička, is in fact a notorious criminal & enemy of the Reich. In view of which, I expect you in my office at eight tomorrow morning, sharpish, with a full written account of all your dealings with this person — am I understood?’
‘Ja wohl! Herr Standartenführer!’
T.H. can hear the snap of Eldrich von N____’s boot heels, picturing him, right arm chopping the air in that absurd salute, like a ham-actor trying a little too hard to convince himself of his own role in this sham, trying not to choke on his lines, gone completely pale by now he’d imagine. Thinking this, is probably the only thing that keeps T.H. from fainting right there on the spot — nerves in a state of suspended animation, for the time being at least but surely that won’t last — as the two goons get their paws under each of his arms ready to frogmarch him across the terrace in full view of everyone. Plenty of excitement here today, folks. He daren’t glance back & only hopes Eldrich’s had the presence of mind to pocket the camera, if only for posterity’s sake…