The Bridge by Simon Maltman

Part 1

I opened the door into my small and let’s say minimal office at just after half nine that morning. As usual, I had made the short journey on the metro from Chodov to Pancrák, grabbing a take out coffee and the morning papers on the way.

I opened the blinds and sat down at my desk. I leaned back and felt fresh and ready for the day. At that time, we had lived in Prague for about three years and it still felt new and exciting.

Grace had been offered a job as a translator in the British embassy and instead of maybe getting married- at the grand old ages of twenty seven, we had set off for an adventure somewhere new instead.

I had worked as a journalist in Belfast and the idea was for me to write some freelance stuff there when I could pick it up, knowing that Grace had a good wage coming in. I didn’t find that much work, but a few investigations led me into the realm of private detection and I just kind of fell into it. There was enough trade, mostly from ex-pats, to keep things ticking over and I found I really quite liked it.

I lit a cigarette and put one foot on the desk, opening up my copy of Czechia Today. There were a couple of calls in the morning- the tying up of a recent case and some others, dealing with bills and invoices. His call came at exactly midday.

“Is that Mr. Cairns? A Mr. Christopher J Cairns?”

“Yes, speaking,” I said, stubbing out a cigarette.

“I would like to speak with you in regards to the handling perhaps of a new case.”

The accent was Czech, a man’s, perhaps approaching middle age. I considered my reflection on my mobile screen as I lifted it off the desk. I wasn’t looking bad, though my beard needed a bit of work and my gelled black hair could do with a trim. I pressed record.

“Yes, certainly I could discuss this with you. What does it involve?”

He paused and I could hear a thin intake of breath, “It would be something that is in your usual remit I feel, though I would prefer not to speak on the phone.”

“I see,” I said evenly and shrugged, “That’s okay, would you like to meet somewhere to discuss it then?”

“Certainly. I could come to your office or meet you in the centre some place?”

“If you’re thinking today, I was going to head into town this afternoon actually. We could meet at two, say Café Franz Kafka, in old town?”

“Yes, Mr. Cairns, I will see you then.”

“Okay, oh, what’s the name?”

“Stein. Bernard Stein.”

*

I stepped off the metro again about one o’clock and bought a frankfurter from a vendor on my walk round to Old Town Square. It was a warm April afternoon, my checked short sleeve shirt and black jeans felt comfortable enough, but t-shirt and shorts would have been better. Back in Belfast if we had a few dry days in Spring, tops were off and the employment ‘sickness’ levels would rocket.

I lit a cigarette walking up Staromêstské nám, as I turned the corner and the medieval old square appeared in front of me. It never ceases to impress. It is the best preserved square of its kind in the world I’d say. The old buildings loom proudly over the cobbled streets; café’s and restaurants jut out from canopies, menu’s on stands offering frothy pitchers of Prague beer, snitzel and guláŝ.

I walked up towards the Old Town Hall and could see a crowd gathering beneath the Astronomical Clock. Every hour it was the same. There were always at least fifty tourists, waiting for the hour to change as the clockwork apostles march outwards and the little skeleton chimes the bell.

It seems like midnight on New Year’s Eve every hour. As I neared the centre of the square there was quite a bustle too for this time of year. It’s always busy, but there seemed to be more of a squeeze that day- maybe Prague was just getting fuller day after day.

There seemed to be more tour guides too, walking past with their umbrellas held high, incongruous in the sun, shepherding tourists forward. They always reminded me of the sixties show The Prisoner and the inmates with their umbrellas and Butlins style clothes.

*

“Mr. Cairns?”

I turned in my seat, at a small table on the street front of the café. I hadn’t sensed him approach.

“Yes, glad to meet you,” I said standing. We shook hands and Stein smiled, but his cold brown eyes surveyed me deeply. He was a little smaller than me, dressed in a full dark suit and he didn’t seem to mind the heat. I’d say he was in and around fifty, black and short curly hair, clean shaven and with three thick creases on his brow.

“Can I offer you a drink?” he said with a small flourish of his hand.

“Yeah, please, I’d take another Americano, thanks.”

He swiftly went off to the counter inside and I sat back down and lit a cigarette. He returned promptly and set the drinks down with a fleeting smile.

“Thanks,” I said. He took out a fully stocked leather cigarette case and fingered one out as he shot me a lingering stare. I leaned back and flicked some ash into the glass ash tray.

“Thank you for meeting with me at short notice,” he said, then paused to inhale deeply, “There is a somewhat urgent matter that I would like to share with you.”

“Certainly, that’s fine. I’ve just tied up a few cases, so I’m available to start on something new as soon as tomorrow, if it’s something I can agree to.”

“Good, good,” he said. He scooped out two sugar cubes and dropped them into his coffee. They broke up the thin brown swirls on top and he lifted his tea spoon, turning the drink a muddy black. Taking his time, he sipped it cautiously and stared at me again with a brief smile.

“I think you will be quite interested. Let me explain a little. I work for the government Mr. Cairns,” he looked around him and lowered his voice slightly, there was nobody seated at the tables next to ours anyway, “I have some documents that I must show you, I would like to…”

He was interrupted by his mobile phone droning on vibrate in his pocket.

“I am terribly sorry,” he said and snatched it out, looking to see who the caller was. His face contorted for a flash and then he offered an apologetic smile, “I must take this I’m afraid.”

“Stein,” he said and then went on to talk in what I was think was either German or Czech. He said very little, appearing to be answering the caller’s questions at the start, then asking a few of his own. I did not register any farewells when he ended the call and slipped the phone thoughtfully back into his pocket.

“Mr. Cairns, I am very sorry for wasting your time like this and I am very keen to talk with you further, but I am afraid I must leave you now,” he said, taking out another cigarette and lighting it, “ There is a most urgent matter that has arose and I must attend to it immediately.”

“That’s fine, I understand,” I replied with a shrug, “We can meet again.”

I was going to be in town anyway, so it didn’t matter much to me. He interested me, I was curious.

“I appreciate your patience,” he said and stood. I got up too, pushing my chair backwards.

He offered me his hand and I took it, “Would it be an inconvenience to meet again this evening? This matter is really also quite pressing.”

He released my grip and reached out an open envelope from his inside pocket and offered it to me. I leafed through it, trying to appear disinterested. There looked to be over seven thousand Koruna, more than about two hundred quid.

“This would be a retainer, if that is acceptable to you,” he added and took a few quick puffs on his cigarette.

“Yes, that should be fine, “I answered nonchalantly, “Where and when?”

He thought for a moment and then said, “Do you know the approach to Petrin Hill? There is a small rose garden with some benches in the corner? I am sorry for the element of secrecy, but it would be a quiet and pleasant place where we could have our conversation.”

I thought for a second, it was unusual, but I wanted to know more. If I didn’t like things I could just not take the case and give him back his money.

“That’s grand, “I said, “I can do that, what time?”

“Ten o’clock?” he asked, taking a step back.

“Yes, I’ll see you then.”

“Goodbye Mr. Carins,” he said and offered a half wave as he turned and strode away. I could see him reaching for another cigarette as he went.

*

Part 2

“Steak and chips,” I said as she leaned round me for a kiss. Grace is tall, blonde and still way out of my league.

“Yum, I’m starving,” she said, peering over my shoulder as I turned over the onions and mushrooms, as they sizzled beside the steaks.

“It’ll be about ten minutes,” I said and added in a few herbs from the jar.

“Great, thanks love, I’ll get the plates.”

We enjoyed a quiet meal with a glass of beer each and a little Art Blakely on in the background. It wasn’t often we had time to take our time over dinner. At a quarter to nine, Grace had changed into her gym stuff and came into the living room where I was catching up with the BBC news channel.

“I’m off to my class then,” she said and bent offer and kissed me on the cheek.

“Have fun, I’ve got that meeting, so it’ll be about midnight I’d say for me.”

“Okay, she said walking to the door and then said turning, “Be careful, won’t you?”

“Always, “I said casually, “See you later.”

I looked back to the T.V, another story involving Brexit and the gloomy forecasts for the foreseeable future. I was glad Grace had her languages and we could travel where we liked. I was glad for my Irish passport too.

There was a sharp knock on the door and I presumed Grace had forgotten something. As I approached the middle glass pane, I saw two dark outlines on the other side.

I opened the door to find two men in dark suits, both sporting sullen expressions. The first wore a fine old fashioned hat with a rim and the second an old fashioned and ugly moustache.

“Hello, can I help you?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the first, “Mr. Cairns, we would like to come in and ask you a few questions.” He flashed a badge.

“What is this about?”

“Please, if we could come in?” He didn’t trouble himself with a smile.

I led them into the living room, but we all remained standing.

“You met with a man today. A Mr. Stein,” the first stated.

It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t answer it. Moustache glared at me and then Hat pressed on,

“What did he talk to you about?” His expression never changed much.

“We didn’t talk about much at all. Look, he wants to discuss a possible case, but I don’t know anything about it. If I did, I probably wouldn’t tell you anyway, not until I see some warrant or papers telling me that I have to.”

I wasn’t trying to sound particularly tough and from their undisturbed stances I hadn’t come across tough either.

“You accepted from him a large sum of money. What was this in exchange for?” he went on crisply.

“Like I said, I’m not saying anything more until I see something official. Can I have a look at that badge again, what’s your name?” I added, trying to keep my nerve up.

The first man looked at me coldly and licked his lips. He abruptly turned on his heel and the second followed. I walked behind them to the door and they both turned when out on the steps.

“We will talk with you again,” said the first firmly.

“We?” I said, “I thought your buddy was mute. Be seeing you.”

That time I was trying to sound tough. I closed the door and then leaned my back against it, catching my breath.

*

Part 3

I approached the rose garden close to ten. I had been pretty much chain smoking from when I got off the metro and stubbed the most recent cig out on the black fence surrounding the garden.

There were a few people around, walking on by, mostly in pairs. No one was in the garden except a lone figure sitting on one of the benches. The couple of street lights had just come on after the daylight had started to fade. Even so, it was still dark and it wasn’t until a few steps in that I was sure it was Stein. Petrin Hill stood tall behind him, the replica Eiffel Tower at the summit, surveying the city. He was sitting to the side, a Trilby hat hanging partly over his face.

When I was just a few yards away I was almost certain he was dead. I stopped suddenly and felt as if my feet were sinking into the dry, dusty earth below. Acid seemed to flood my stomach and my head burst with adrenalin. My eyes searched all around, I pulled my feet from the ground, spinning round, gripped by fear. My body then stiffened, poised.

There were trees behind the benches, but I could see through them and there was no one else there. I relaxed my muscles again very slightly. I moved on and stood before the body, a shell. The face was grey and the eyes like a set of disused traffic lights. I forced myself to sit beside it and I lifted up the hand. It was cold, quite rigid and I could find no pulse.

I looked up at the body and for the first time noticed a small, reddish brown stain on the jacket. I edged the jacket away with two fingers and found the shirt beneath was saturated with blood.

I slid to the side, as far as I could go and pulled out my mobile. I jumped up and started to press in numbers, my whole body tingling with an unpleasant sensation.

When I spotted a book jutting out from his lower jacket pocket, I stopped dialling and put the phone back in my pocket. I glanced around me again before reaching over, plucking out the book and stepping backwards again. It was a collection of short stories.

Protruding from page 411 was a small brown envelope, much like the one Stein had given me earlier. Impulsively, I carefully lifted out the contents; one folded white sheet. I opened it out and found it was some kind of official document, written in a foreign language. There were only two words I recognised on it: Chistopher Cairns.

*

It was almost eleven when I arrived at her apartment. I was as close to the word ‘frantic’ as I have ever been. My type of investigations did not usually involve dead bodies with government documents that had my name on them. There were plenty of things that I know I should have done like calling the police, or even taking the document for Grace to translate. I didn’t do any of them; I especially didn’t want to involve Grace.

“Hello, is Becky in?” I asked, attempting to appear casual.

The stocky, thirty something man still eyed me with caution and replied in a Czech accent, “Just one moment please. Who can I see is calling?”

“Oh, it’s Chris Cairns.”

He closed the door to and went back into the apartment. I lit a smoke and tried to calm myself down. After a minute, she came to the door. She was dressed in a smart blue dress; her usual style for wearing to work. Becky was English, in her twenties and pretty. I had worked with her briefly at one of the local papers, soon after I moved to Prague.

“Chris, this is a surprise.”

“I know, I’m really sorry to barge in on you. Would you have five minutes, it’s pretty important?” I threw the half smoked cigarette down and stood on it.

“Of course, come in,” she said, looking concerned. She opened the door for me to go in. I walked past the guy seated at a table in the living room and she showed me through into the kitchen.

“Can I get you something, coffee?” she asked, as we both sat down at the breakfast bar.

“No, no, thank you. Can you close the door?”

“Okay, sure, what’s this about, I haven’t seen you in ages?” she answered, closing the door slowly, then swiftly returning to her stool.

“I know, I’m sorry,” I said gathering myself and lifting out the envelope. I set it in front of us and she looked down at it with a blank expression.

“I just need five minutes. I know that you’re fluent in a couple of languages and I need something translated. If you can, please?”

“Sure, I’ll try. What is it?”

“Look, it’s better I don’t tell you much. It’s, well, an official document. I just need to know the gist of it.”

She looked pained and brushed her long brown hair to the side, “Are you in some kind of trouble Chris?”

“Please,” I said, “Just take a look.”

She looked at the envelope as if it might jump up and bite her on the nose, but picked it up and slid out the letter. She quickly unfolded it and began to read it silently. I stared at her face, searching for a reaction. Her lips moved as she scanned the document, a few wrinkles appearing on her forehead, “It’s in Czech, I can read it,” she said absently.

As she read on, her face went a little pale and her lips stopped moving.

“What does it say?” I said, my voice cracked and harsher than I intended.

“Just a second,” she said in almost a whisper.

“What does it say!” I begged, trying not to shout.

“Wait a second!” she said irritably.

Just then the door opened, and the guy looked round the door at us, “Everything okay Becky?” he said, looking directly at her, a firmness to his voice.

“Yes, yes everything’s fine,” she said looking up, trying to sound chipper, “Chris has just had some bad news here.”

“Aright, I’ll just be next door,” he added evenly and closed the door and left.

I watched her patiently as she read the rest of the sheet and then set it down. She reached her hand to her brow and spoke very quietly,

“You have to call the police Chris,” she said, facing down at the table.

“What does it say?” I urged, almost desperately.

“You are in trouble, what have you been doing?”

“Nothing,” I said and shook my head, “What does it say about me?”

“You’re being investigated; it looks like it’s quite serious. They’re considering warrants, even one for your arrest.”

I felt sick. I had felt sick all night long, but this was total nausea. I said nothing.

“You need to ring them now,” she said and lifted out her mobile and passed it to me.

“No, I can’t.”

“You have to,” she hissed, “Or I’ll have to do it,” she added gentler.

I considered her with disdain and stood up.

“I’ll go, just don’t call anyone, I’ll sort things,” I said almost mechanically.

“I have to call them,” she said holding the phone up with a shrug, rising from the counter.

I shook my head again and looked her in the eyes, my body almost limp now, “At least wait five minutes,” I said.

*

The streets were quiet, bodies moved past me occasionally, but I hardly noticed them. My eyes were searching for only uniforms or flashing lights.

I ambled through the centre of Prague, passing the Apostles and their skeleton.

I found myself walking on and then I crossed the street beside the macabre and favourite tourist attraction ,‘The Museum of Torture.’ I allowed myself a wry smile. Maybe it was a nervous smile, I don’t know what I was feeling. I had no plan, nothing more than one foot in front of the other.

I looked over to The Charles Bridge, curving out in front of me. A thin mist hung over it. The cobbles were silent after the day’s tourists and caricaturists had long departed. I began to walk across the bridge; I had never seen it empty before.

There was a slight chill on the air and after throwing a cigarette down, I held my arms close to my sides. I walked on. I only sensed the approaching steps as the blade passed easily into my side.

*

My shirt is suddenly wet as the knife is pulled from me.

My body heaves and seems to pull apart like cracked glass.

I fall forward, I’m on my knees.

The metal feels cold as it enters my back.

*

Simon Maltman is a bestselling writer and musician from Northern Ireland. A Chaser on the Rocks was his critically acclaimed debut novel, followed by the bestselling collection of shorts: More Faces. He is also the author of the hard boiled ‘Bongo Fury‘ series. Simon is an established musician, performing with his current band The Hung Jury. He lives in Northern Ireland, with his wife and two daughters.

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