Nicolas Whistler is young, bored and in debt. When an opportunity to make some money arises, he can’t turn it down. He is sent to Prague to carry out a simple assignment, but he soon finds himself trapped between the secret police and the clutches of the mysterious Vlasta. Whether he likes it or not, Nicolas is now a spy.
Read on for an extract from The Night of Wenceslas.
The Night of Wenceslas
Pavelka, whose face, on closer inspection, was like a St Bernard’s rather than a gorilla’s, shambled forward and extended his hand. ‘Dobry den,’ he said.
‘Dobry den.’ I was still so shaken that I was unaware for the moment of the lapse into Czech.
Pavelka folded my hand in his massive paw and slowly shook it, gazing earnestly at me like some champion of his breed trying to catch the judge’s eye.
‘I am very glad to make your acquaintance,’ he said in Czech. ‘This is a wonderful task you have undertaken. I only hope you prove worthy of it.’
‘Task?’ I said in Czech through dry lips – it was uncanny how natural the Czech tongue sounded; even Maminka had not spoken it to me for years – ‘Task?’ I looked helplessly from one to the other of them, and for an instant my sole thought was escape; perhaps to throw Cunliffe at Pavelka and, clutching Bunface as a shield, bound down the stairs four at a time and rush screaming into the street.
Cunliffe smiled dryly. ‘Mr Pavelka is going a little too fast. Please sit down both of you. Ah, thank you, Miss Vogler,’ he said as Bunface bobbed in with the papers.
He waited until she had gone before continuing. ‘Very briefly, Mr Whistler, we have been looking for some time for a young gentleman like yourself to go on a small mission for us. It is completely without danger but so unusual that we realised some inducement would be necessary. In your case we thought – I thought, as a matter of fact – that it might be best to place you in our debt in some way and then offer you the opportunity of cancelling the debt and, at the same time, earning yourself a handsome fee. I took the precaution of securing your signature to this standard loan certificate. Perhaps Mr Pavelka will hold one side of it while you read it.’
He handed the paper over the desk and Pavelka, with a murmured ‘Prosim’ to me, took it, inclining towards me like a slightly animated Tower of Pisa.
It was a printed document. My eye went dizzily over the close columns of pursuant to the Acts and hereinafters. It was folded horizontally. Below the fold was Cunliffe’s TWO HUNDRED POUNDS and below that my own jerky signature.
‘You will see,’ Cunliffe said, at the same moment that I saw the paragraph, ‘that your motor car is down as part security. At a rather low figure, I am afraid.’
I think it was the sight of the car quoted at fifty pounds that, more than anything else in the last stupefying five minutes, maddened me into sudden action. With a wordless snarl, I tore the paper from Pavelka’s grip, and at once found myself on the floor with my head nearly knocked off. Without moving an inch he had caught me a paralysing clout on the ear.
‘No, please!’ he said in English, looking down at me with embarrassed alarm. ‘Why do you do this?’
I looked up at him, horribly shocked. It was the first time anybody had ever hit me. His head, the entire room, was expanding and contracting with an agonising boiler-house roar.
‘It is perfectly all right, Mr Pavelka,’ I heard Cunliffe’s voice grating. ‘I have another copy of the document, also signed. Ah, just a little torn is it? Two are better than one. I hope you are not hurt, Mr Whistler?’
Pavelka, after handing the form back, was helping me to my feet like a troubled elderly uncle. My ear felt as if it had been hit with a hammer.
‘I’m sorry I forgot to mention about Mr Pavelka,’ Cunliffe said. ‘He used to be quite a well-known amateur wrestler. Wrestling champion of Bohemia – I think I am right, Mr Pavelka?’
‘Western Bohemia,’ Pavelka said.
I sat down and gazed at him through a mist of pain as he slowly took his seat. The shocked, aggrieved expression was still on his face.
‘Mr Pavelka is startled by your behaviour,’ Cunliffe said, with an I-thought-it-would-be-so shake of his head. ‘The young man has been greatly upset by money troubles,’ he said in Czech to Pavelka. ‘He is not yet aware of our offer.’
‘And I’m not bloody well going to be,’ I said. ‘You let me out of here and I’m going straight to the police.’
It was not the most inviting of offers, but I heard my voice with amazement, astonished at my own courage. Cunliffe diplo-matically produced his cigarette case and passed it round.
‘You are at perfect liberty to go whenever you like,’ he said mildly. ‘I don’t know what exactly it is you want to tell the police. I don’t think you have any letters from me?’ (This had occurred to me as he was speaking; I had brought back the only letter he had sent me.) ‘You will find that I am a fairly well-known money-lender. To any sensible person it would be obvious that, having accepted a loan, you have rashly squandered it and are now displaying reluctance to meet your obligations. Moreover, you would force me to take the motor car from you right away, as I am fully entitled to do.’
I inhaled an enormous lungful of smoke, and it seemed to ease my ear a little. The room had ceased its painful contractions. The situation was no less mad. I leaned forward, groping for some strand of understanding.
‘If all this about Bela is just – just invention, how did you get to hear about him in the first place?’
Cunliffe’s eyelids drooped wryly. ‘You have not exactly made a secret of your expectations.’
I gazed at him, appalled. Someone had been watching me, taking careful note of the absurd little jokes…
‘But why me? You don’t know me,’ I said urgently. ‘I’m not cut out for this sort of thing.’
‘You are exactly cut out for it. As I say we have been looking for someone with just your qualifications.’
I haven’t any qualifications, Mr Cunliffe,’ I told him slowly and desperately. ‘Before you go any further, you’ve got to understand that. I am not qualified to do anything. I am also a coward. I don’t know what it is you want me to do, and I don’t want to know. I’d be less than useless to you.’
As I spoke I was frightening myself and the words came in a gabble at the end. I didn’t seem to be frightening Cunliffe who was holding Pavelka with his eye as though to ensure that he heard every word. He gave a little nod and Pavelka, who seemed to have reassured himself about me, at once sat forward and grasped my knee.
‘I like you,’ he said simply. ‘You look like your father. You have no recollection, I suppose, of Pavelka ware?’
‘I know nothing at all about Czechoslovakia—’
‘Nobody has today,’ he said bitterly. ‘It was excellent glass. I had the finest factory in Bohemia. Since 1934 I employed a re-search staff of twenty-seven – yoh, twenty-seven!’ he repeated, wrongly interpreting as astonishment the look of despair I threw at Cunliffe. ‘Twenty-seven men uneconomically employed who did nothing but experiment to try and produce unbreakable glass. Not oven-proof glass, not plastic. Beautiful table glass, as delicate as the finest in my complete range. Since 1934! Now they have found it, and you are going to Prague to bring it to me.’
His inhumanly large hand was gripping my knee tightly, his great creased dog’s face not a foot away.
‘Mr Pavelka!’ I cried. ‘This is incredible! The very idea—’
‘Yoh, incredible! But it is so. Since 1934 twenty-seven men working at nothing else, and now they have it. And they will flood the world with it. You know what it means.’
‘I don’t, Mr Pavelka,’ I said. ‘I don’t know anything about glass. I only worked in the office.’ His big dog eyes were looking seri-ously at me, but it was plain he didn’t understand me, or didn’t believe me, or didn’t care. I glanced desperately at little Cunliffe. He gazed blandly back.
‘You need have no fears, Mr Whistler,’ Cunliffe said after a moment of silence. ‘It is the simplest job in the world. I could do it, or Mr Pavelka here or a reasonably intelligent boy scout. It is all a matter of finding someone with a legitimate reason for visiting glass factories – someone the Czechoslovak authorities would not suspect. Your father was a well-known glass importer. It is entirely natural that you should wish to start up trade again. You will go as a buyer, of course.’
‘They’re not going to sell me this unbreakable glass!’
‘No. It’s not in production yet. And I gather a specimen of the glass wouldn’t be very useful for our purposes. One can’t hope to duplicate it after analysis because of the fusion process in glass – you’ll know more about that than I would. You’re bringing back the formula.’
His reasonable tone had been bringing the project down to earth; the word ‘formula’ although casually dropped in put it back on a new mad plane. Cunliffe saw my expression and smiled. ‘A bit of paper with a few figures on – you won’t know anything about it. I assure you unless I told you where it was you wouldn’t know you were carrying it. The whole thing has been arranged so that there is not the slightest danger to you. After all, we’re going to quite a bit of trouble and expense to get that for-mula, and Mr Pavelka, as you can see, has thought about scarcely anything else since 1934.’
‘That’s just it,’ I said eagerly, and turned to Pavelka who was staring moodily at a drinking glass on the desk. ‘There’s so much trouble and money involved here that I’d be a definite weak link. I’d be frightened out of my life. They couldn’t help but suspect me. You’ve waited years for this. For God’s sake, Mr Pavelka,’ I cried, ‘put someone you can trust on the job. I’d wreck your chances for life.’
‘It is very pleasing, is it not?’ Cunliffe said to Pavelka, his head held a little to one side as he listened to me. ‘I thought I was not mistaken the first time. Modesty, circumspection, reserve, a little childish cunning… I won’t conceal from you, Mr Whistler,’ he said to me, ‘that I am more and more taken with your manner. I am sure the Czechoslovak authorities will expect you to be a little – well, a little as you are. Your family was there in the old days, the former capitalist class . . . It would be difficult to make a better choice for the job. And now to business,’ he said as my mouth opened.
‘The moment you return with the – the bit of paper, I hand you the loan certificate. Both copies!’ he said, smiling. ‘And on top of that we will pay you a further two hundred pounds. Moreover, if you do not feel inclined to return to your job, I dare say Mr Pavelka will be prepared to offer you something. He has the highest hopes for the new process.’
‘It will be colossal,’ Pavelka said. ‘Of course you will work for me.’
‘There,’ said Cunliffe. ‘The prospects are unlimited and you’ve got to admit the pay is princely for a few days’ pleasant sightsee-ing with all expenses paid.’
‘How many days?’ I asked reluctantly.
‘That is not entirely clear yet. Perhaps only four or five. They will want to give you a good time. It is all a matter of how quickly you can tear yourself away.’
‘And when do I pick up this – this formula?’
‘Probably the day after you arrive. If so, of course, you must try and cut short your stay. It is really something you must decide when you are there. They will make a programme for you and one of the items will be a visit to Mr Pavelka’s factory. We have asked for that – in your name of course. Incidentally, your visa application is going through – we applied for it as soon as you brought your passport along – and we have been assured it will come through almost immediately. I expect we will have it tomorrow.’
There was a long pause while I thought this over.
Pavelka said moodily, ‘They have changed the name, the robbers. It is the Zapotocky Works now.’
‘Somebody will give me this formula?’ I asked at length.
‘It will be given to you. You won’t know anything about it.’ ‘How?’
‘You must leave that to us. I will explain everything before you go. It is remarkably simple and you need not have the slightest fear.’
‘Well,’ I said, and stood up. ‘I’ll think it over.’
‘Of course,’ Cunliffe said. ‘You have several days. You will be leaving by plane at ten o’clock on Tuesday morning.’
Pavelka unfolded himself and grasped my hand in his again. ‘I am relying on you,’ he said with his great St Bernard face. ‘I only wish I could go myself.’
I wished he could, too. I was too full of worried care to speak. ‘You might telephone me on Sunday,’ Cunliffe said, slipping out of his seat to come to the door with me.
‘I’ll be in Bournemouth on Sunday.’ I had forgotten that I would be staying overnight until this moment.
‘Bournemouth?’ he said sharply. ‘Bournemouth? Ah, your mother. I’m not sure,’ he said slowly, ‘if that is a very good idea.’
‘Well, that’s too bad,’ I said, with a sudden idiot pleasure in crossing him. ‘She’s expecting me and I’m going.’
He looked at me consideringly. ‘You understand, don’t you, that the only possible danger to you is if you mention any of this to anyone? Anyone at all. I advise you to forget everything that has been said here. Put it out of your mind.’
‘Right away,’ I said, allowing my face to lengthen in a sardonic leer. God knows what I’d got to leer about. It seemed to worry little Cunliffe. He looked at me pensively.
‘Well, ring me when you get back. You can get me at this number,’ he said, writing it on a sheet of his diary. ‘You must be back on Sunday night. Ring me however late it is.’