I watched the two of them in the window on the second story of the Hotel Petr. The white crosses on the window only partially obscured them. Dominika’s hat was pulled low in an attempt to disguise her face, but she was unmistakable. The Russian general Igorek stood over her, huge and hideous, holding her close to his mouth. He breathed on her face and bared his teeth in the afternoon sunlight that spilled into their room. Dominika smiled politely, but wouldn’t look at him for more than a moment.
I shook my head and ground the tips of my teeth together. My mouth was dry and my eyes burned with sweat.
The hotel’s design was of typical Karlovy Vary fashion: extravagantly tall, excessively colored, and embellished with gold. It wedged itself in between two residential buildings that overlooked the Teplá River and the street with its fat bushes and white picket fencing.
Outside in the courtyard, Igorek’s new lieutenant, Mikolas, busied himself with a bowl of the hotel’s finest porridge, scooping it into his massive maw with rapid repetition. Mikolas used to be a hell of a Czech officer, but when the Soviets arrived he took on the red tin star—a symbol of his solidarity with the communist cause—and that made him my enemy. It made him Karlovy Vary’s enemy as well.
I looked back to the window, to Dominika, and to the general. “My love, I will save you from that beast,” I said. I took a long draw from my silvered flask, one of several I owned and kept quite full. I pocketed the flask and pulled myself back into cover behind the fence that hid the three of us: myself, Gera, and Dimitri.
Dimitri was an honorable man, which was more than I could say for my other “friends” in Karlovy Vary. My wealth attracted the wrong sort and Dimitri understood that. He was close to my age, in his late twenties, but much taller, even as we bent low behind the splintering fence. Unlike Mikolas, Dimitri had never taken the red star. Dimitri had come to Karlovy Vary a Soviet and I respected his consistency. When I met him in 1944, I knew Dimitri—Soviet or not—would help me.
Dimitri had seen action under Igorek’s command, had a bad leg, and walked with a cane. A distinctive poke, slap, and drag preceded him wherever he went. His eyes were steel blue and if you didn’t know him, you might have thought him blind. After his injury, Dimitri transported troops throughout Bohemia in a green military truck with a red cross painted on each side of its canvas covering. I asked him once about how he had been injured, but the only response I got was, “In service.”
While I didn’t know how he had been hurt, I knew his pain. Dimitri’s once trusted friend and fellow officer, Igorek, had ruined Dimitri’s young fiancée while he was away performing his duty for his country. But had he repented? No. There he was, doing the same thing to my Dominika, my love. But God had given me the honest Russian, Dimitri, and our revenge would burn stronger together.
“Igorek, the bastard,” I said.
“What’s the matter, Kazimir?” Dimitri said.
Mikolas stood up from his meal and strutted to his post in front of the entrance to the lobby. We ducked lower so we wouldn’t be seen.
“What’s the matter, kamarád?” Dimitri said. “You’ll have your love soon enough. Be patient, and softer on young Gera’s ear, will you?”
“I’m not so young,” Gera said, spitting out his words. He looked like a chimp when he was angry. Often when I met Dimitri, I found Gera by his side. The kid was a street boy, one of many produced in the 1940’s by the Soviets. His family had run a restaurant in the Market Colonnade until the Soviets bullied them out. The only thing that separated Gera from the hundreds of other victims of the Russians’ occupation was his determination to do harm to the Soviets, and the right friends to do it.
“Patience?” I moaned. “Patience has done me too much wrong. Dominika has received my expensive gifts and poems—well, your poems, beautiful poems, but my feelings—and still hasn’t acknowledged me. Patience! It’s dragging her further from me and closer to the general. I know it now, she must hate me.” After I said it, I wanted to sip the words back. I was grateful to Dimitri for his help in winning Dominika, but I hated to remind myself how impotent my own words would have been in those poems.
“No, my good Kazimir,” Dimitri said. “Dominika doesn’t hate you. Dominika longs for you to save her and she knows of your love—I’ve made sure of that—but she’s trapped,” he said, pointing his thumb at the window, “with that thing.” He cringed and picked at the head of his cane. “Believe me, Kazimir, your feline’s no fool. She fears Igorek, and rightfully so. He’s a powerful, intimidating soldier. Did you secure me the fifty korun for the flowers?”
“Of course.” I reached into my coat and produced a heavy sack. I thrust it toward Dimitri. He took it dutifully.
“And what about my writing fee? I only ask because I am quite behind on my own accounts, what with spending so much time in your service.” He smiled and looked to my pocket. I produced my wallet and gave him three notes.
“Sorry, I’d forgotten. That should cover it. Thank you again,” I said.
“Of course, my friend. Anyway, like I was saying, you are the only one whom Dominika loves. You can’t forget that.” As Dimitri spoke, he pocketed the bills, gave Gera a few korun, which he took eagerly, and placed the rest of the sack into his coat.
“I know, I know, but it’s been weeks—weeks. Without a single kind word or longing glance.” My eyes burned again, but it wasn’t sweat.
“Patience, kamarád,” Dimitri said. “With a little more patience, you’ll win a lifetime of kind words and longing looks to warm you to sleep at night. With just a little more patience, you’ll see. I’m sorry things haven’t moved along as quickly as you had hoped, but I can only do what the daylight hours—and the depth of your pocket—allow.” He grinned and rubbed at his leg.
“Oh, it’s not your fault,” I said. “It’s me. It’s always me.”
“So, what are we going to do?” Gera said. “Mikolas won’t let us near Igorek, not without a fight.” He punched his open hand and smiled.
“Oh, we’re not going to fight, young Gera,” Dimitri said. “Although I do admire your spirit. Igorek expects direct action against him. And, as you can see, I am no fighter.” We heard the flampf, flampf, flampf of marching men, followed by the shaking of the rusty armored cars as they passed, so we ducked lower.
“But Gera is right,” I whispered. “We have to do something. I can’t stand seeing her with the general. You were right about young girls. They are drawn to dangerous men.”
“But remember,” Dimitri said, “danger is nothing without the wealth. Igorek is a poor general and nothing more. Not to mention that Karlovy Vary has powerful men of its own, men who care a great deal about Dominika’s welfare—her being an innocent Czech girl corrupted by the evil general.” Dimitri smiled and averted his eyes. I smiled back and Gera grinned again. I didn’t understand, so I said nothing.
Dimitri went on.“You see, we will go to the girl’s father, Bronislav, and present to him this rancid relationship. We’ll wake him from his ignorant sleep this very night, and force him to hear our plight in such a way that he marches here at once. And with him, all his house and kamaráds. And so, Bronislav will confront Igorek for us.”
“That’s perfect, Dimitri,” I laughed. I jammed my fist against my sticky teeth. It was perfect. Dominika’s father, poor as he was, had powerful friends. I shouldn’t doubt the good Dimitri.
“But, what if the senator knows already,” Gera said, “and throws us in jail for waking him?”
“Listen, young Gera,” Dimitri crooned, “no father who has a heart, who cherishes his family, or who has any shame at all, could let his virtuous daughter be paraded around with a vile brute and enemy of the people like Igorek.” He cradled Gera’s cheek in his hand. “You will learn these simple things in time, kamarád.”
I quietly nodded my approval of Dimitri’s plan. I could already envision Igorek’s defeat and public embarrassment, and I felt sharp pinpricks all over my arms. We made sure Mikolas wasn’t looking our way and that the troops had passed, and we set off.
Senator Bronislav’s apartment was a small nook on the second floor of an apartment building that squatted on the corner of Foersterova and Koptova, in what used to be a very grand hotel. It had only two rooms. In one, the senator and his wife slept, and in the other, his daughter Aneta rocked back and forth in her chair and attempted to finish the last book of her favorite collection, Ad Infinitum.
Every so often Aneta paused to check on Simon, her infant brother, or to gaze at her unfinished dress that lay in a crimson heap on the floor. The room was hollow and cold, and she longed to wear the dress. She hoped the book would distract her from her longing.
The furnace across from Aneta no longer glowed, and she shivered as she remembered her father’s saying: A senator is a servant of the people.
“What does that make us, then?” she said. Simon continued to stare with his mouth open. Aneta rocked forward and stayed herself with a foot. She leaned over Simon and covered him with thin blue blankets. He gazed up at her from his crib that had been passed down to him from Aneta, who had inherited it from Dominika. His legs kicked and his eyes drooped as his sister’s face came close, then receded again.
The midnight hour’s routine was familiar for them both. As the town slept, and their father slept, Aneta rocked Simon and read. Between chores and work, she had little time for herself during the day, so she took advantage of her nights.
Aneta worked as an assistant to the local seamstress, Madame Fortenbra. Fortenbra was a heavyset widow who was partially deaf in one ear and ran her shop by the words: work quick or get the stick. She had thick orange whiskers and clubbed thumbs that gave her the appearance of the ogress from Ad Infinitum’s Hectogony. The ogress would kill anyone who attempted to come or go from the town of Cheb who couldn’t answer her riddles. Fortenbra didn’t know any riddles, but she knew how to run a tight business, and Aneta rarely came home with more than five korun for a day’s work. But for all of seamstress Fortenbra’s miserly roughness, Aneta was amazed at the exquisite delicacy of the woman’s work.
Aneta loved to read, but her father did not approve. He hoped Aneta would marry the son of a respectable Czech family, have productive children, and grow old and fat with them. Men don’t like women who read. But Aneta hoped for more. She found herself fantasizing about running away to join the rebels and force the invaders out of Czech Land. She would be brave, and heroic, and rich—above all else, rich. After all, the heroes in her books fought their way from poverty to prominence, all through acts of war, so why couldn’t she? But the dreams began to get shorter and farther away as the reality of her petite frame and lack of physical prowess dug deep into her consciousness.
War was not the only way to riches, though. Aneta was no soldier, but she was a girl, and a handsome one, if young Czech men’s hoots were not to be ignored. A handsome girl could gain wealth through marriage, just as a soldier could through war.
Aneta stood, picked up her dress, held it up to herself, and went to the dark window to admire it. She smoothed the fabric and turned like a cork. The proper dress for the proper man. Aneta had been tediously piecing together just the right materials for it; she took a scrap here, a button there. Fortenbra would beat her if she knew, but that dress was her key to a rich husband and a happy life, and nothing would stop her from achieving that.
Aneta spotted a new blemish on her cheek and she leaned closer to her reflection in the window to inspect it. A twitch of movement in the dark stole her focus as something rustled the plants just outside the apartment. Aneta leaned closer, trying to make out the object. The plants shook again, then stopped, then spoke.
“Bronislav! Senator Bronislav!” The voice was familiar. As the object stepped away from the bushes, she saw Kazimir. He was looking all around and wiping his hands on his pants. Aneta’s heart started beating faster and she gathered up her dress in her arms.
The shouting continued. “Thieves, thieves! Robbers and rapists! Oh, Bronislav! Bronislav, it’s not safe for your children! There are liars and monsters in the streets of Karlovy Vary!”
“I think they heard me,” I said. My head swam with nervousness and my palms sweated profusely. I heard the ruckus inside the apartment and I looked to the bushes for direction.
“They most certainly did, kamarád!” Dimitri said. “Look, you can see Bronislav’s younger daughter in the window there.” I looked back to the house, but Bronislav had pushed his way in front of the window. He screwed up his eyes trying to make us out, but we were outside of the dim street lamp’s light. I stood up straighter, held up my hand to him, and moved farther away from the planter that bordered the street.
“Senator Bronislav!” I tried to sound desperate. “Oh! Senator Bronislav! Thank God you’re at home!”
“What’s this, now?” Bronislav said. “What is all this commotion about thieves and rape? This is a respectable building, sir. Who are you?”
”Senator I—I beg you. Is your Dominika at home?”
“Kazimir? Kazimir is that you? What are you, drunk, boy?”
“Senator, no, please, I—”
“That’s enough, Kazimir, I know it is you! You’ve been haunting these streets for long enough. I can’t help saying it so plainly. My daughter is not for you! You’ll spend the night in prison, you insubordinate fool.” He turned away from the window.
I tried to speak, but my mind went completely blank. I hadn’t expected him to recognize me. I moved my mouth silently and turned to Dimitri. It was not part of the plan for Dimitri to get involved, but I was hopeless and he called out on my behalf.
“Senator Bronislav! You’ve been robbed, you bloated fool!” he yelled from his cover. “Your virtuous daughter is stolen and raped by the enemy!”
“What’s all this about my daughter? You bastards will pay for these words!”
“You have already paid for them with your daughter, senator! How will the people of Karlovy Vary sleep, knowing their representative cannot protect his own daughter?”
“What insolence, you animals! I am beside myself! You will both suffer for this, you hear me?”
“Please!” I interrupted. “Senator, please, it is I, Kazimir, but I mean no harm. I’m not drunk or mad, except mad with vengeance, like you—I mean, like you should be.” Damn my tongue.
“There is proof, sir,” Dimitri cut in. “You can validate our story and satisfy your doubts immediately. Call for Dominika. If you find her at home, then we will accept your punishment freely,” Dimitri finished and looked at me strangely. My face felt hotter and my eyes grew wet.
“Good Bronislav,” I said. “If your daughter is not at home I fear the absolute most—I mean I fear the worst for her! She has been bewitched by the Soviet general Igorek, senator!” It was poorly said, but to the point, and I saw Bronislav’s face change.
“Did you say—Igorek?” His voice shook. “Igorek—the general? No. He wouldn’t dare sing peace to me and the senate while violating my child in the night.” His eyes looked unsure. “Did you say you’ve seen her—actually seen my Dominika with that Russian wolf?” He turned away from us. “Dominika! Dominika, sweet child, answer me, please,” he called.
“She’s not in her bed,” a woman’s choked voice cried. “The general has stolen her from us. Oh!”
“Yes!” Dimitri said, pushing further. “It is the truth, we saw the truculent tyrant this very day, topping your innocent yew!” Bronislav’s face went white and I knew we really had him.
“Wife!” Bronislav roared. He was alive with murderous rage. “Wake my people, woman! Call ahead to the senate! Get my pants, damn it! Move faster! We will hang that bastard tonight, general or not! I swear this act will not go unpunished!” Bronislav disappeared from the window and we saw his wife, who could have been his twin, scurry past the window again and again, each time with something new in hand. We heard Bronislav’s constant flow of profanities, and all the while his wife reprimanded him with, “Language, sir!” and “Think of Simon!” But Bronislav appeared to be beyond watching his language.
Dimitri slowly pushed himself up with his cane. After he watched the window for a moment, he looked at me with a wicked snarl on his face, and I was scared. My look must have softened him because he relaxed his face and was Dimitri again.
“Sorry,” I said to him. My hands trembled as I drew out my flask and fumbled at its cap. “I forgot what to say, you know how I am with these things. I didn’t mean to get you involved.”
“No matter, kamarád,” he said softly. “You got him good.”
At his request, I gave Dimitri what I had in my wallet. He left me in the street with specific instructions on where and when to meet him. Good Dimitri.
Bronislav crashed out into the crisp night, along with several men I didn’t know. Each hand held a crude torch, makeshift bludgeon, dull knife or kitchen cleaver, and each mouth roared with injustice. I anticipated how sweet it would be to confront Igorek, with the whole town behind me. I imagined my speech to the Soviet dog. I would say, “You are not worthy of Karlovy Vary, and certainly not of my Dominika. You and your dogs are an evil, violent force, and now you will learn the wrath of Kazimir!” That sounded good. I needed to say it like that. I salivated, and grinned so wide that I received several odd looks from the people around me. I smacked my chest and crowed to the moon. Tonight, the beast will meet the mob.
“Do you know the way, Kazimir?” Bronislav said, clapping me hard on the back.
“Yes, senator, I know exactly where we can find the general. Shall I take you to him?”
“Yes!” The crowd roared.
“Then follow me to the devil, and let’s take back our town!” I cried.
“If only I had let you have my Dominika, boy. Lead the way, kamarád!” Bronislav said. At that moment, as we started along the Teplá River and headed straight for Igorek’s apartments with the swarm of kamaráds behind us, I felt as if I could do it. As if I actually had a chance.
The mob seethed through the streets like a furious flood that absorbed the inhabitants’ rancor in its wake. The pandemonium echoed through the town and the crude torches lit up the night.
“Out of your homes!” they cried. “Into the streets! Mutiny!” I lost all control of the people quickly, and I struggled to stay on my feet, but I was pushed to my knees and was almost trampled. Finally, I was able to pull myself up and swim to the front.
It was a short way to the apartments, but in the time it took to get there we had absorbed half the town. The tempest raged onward and I was shoved in the back onto my knees again and hit the cobbled road hard. I struggled to regain my footing as the mob raged on as one horrible mass, flowing without a leader. I steadied myself and swam to the front a second time.
“Kill the Soviets!” the mob cried. ”Mutiny! Mutiny! Kill the general! Kill them all!” I didn’t want to kill them all. I just wanted Dominika.
We were almost upon the general’s apartments when I spotted him in the street. The mob’s voice roared and I knew they, too, saw him. Igorek hulked motionless in the road, a giant monolith in the night. Dominika stood beside him, both her hands resting on his formidable arm. The light from the torches danced on their faces and they appeared united. As Igorek watched the maelstrom thrash before him, he seemed calm. Mikolas paced in front of Igorek and Dominika, like a juggernaut, with his chin out and his hand on his Nagant revolver.
“Good Czech people,” Igorek said, his voice cutting through the noise, “what is the meaning of your torches and violent words?” He spoke slowly and evenly. “What has the good people of Karlovy Vary in such an uproar? I would have the offender brought to justice immediately.”
My heart raged faster and I drew breath in short, stuttering bursts. I jerked my head around frantically. Where was my kamarád, Dimitri? I was frightened. When Dimitri left, he had promised to be with the general when I arrived. I wanted to melt into the mob and run so fast that my legs would stiffen and burn.
“You are the offender!” Bronislav cried from the head of the crowd. “You are the villain!”
“Kamaráds,” Igorek said. “I have served this state and its people well. We are in the midst of war, and I have but done my duty. I have kept peace in Karlovy Vary and I plan to keep it still. Of what impropriety do you accuse your protector? I would have it explained to me at once.”
Aneta passed the mineral spa every day on her way to Madame Fortenbra’s in the Market Colonnade, and when she was sent to retrieve important telegraphs for her father from the squat building with the large sign that read: TELEGRAF. Tending to important business made Aneta feel older, and she needed to be older. “With age you smile less,” she thought. She wondered if you learned things as you got older that made you not want to smile, and if she asked someone who didn’t smile much, whether he might be able to tell her what that unhappy thing was. Aneta decided that she would just pretend until she knew.
While Aneta knew where the spa was, she had never really looked at it until that day. She saw the patrons clearly from the street, through the towering albani stone pillars that only partially obscured the showers, and the throng of nudes. She didn’t mind the nudes—that kind of thing didn’t bother her—she just never had any reason to look until then. While she waited, she looked, and she saw everything.
She watched the two giggling nudes in the great steaming tub against the north wall, the waddling nude with a beautifully-colored towel, and the tall, well-proportioned nude washing his feet in the knee-high bronze fountain, and she frowned. “I don’t get it,” she said. “But someone must be making a fortune with it.”
“Aneta!” A hand grabbed her by the forearm and she sucked in breath as she whipped around. She saw no one so she looked down, but it was only Gera.
“Gera, you ass!” she said, drunk with relief.
“Sorry, milady,” Gera said with a graceful, low bow. “I’m like a cat—you know, hard to hear coming,” He lifted Aneta’s hand to his mouth and gave it a peck, then added a wink. “Dimitri says I would be good at es-pee-oh-nonge. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but you have to be the best at not being heard. Whatever it is, I could use it to fight the Russians—the bad ones, I mean, like the ones that took my place, you know? Dimitri might be a Soviet, but without him, I would be nowhere.” He smiled at her.
“You’re so stupid, Gera,” she laughed.
“You’re stupid,” he said. “Well, if I’m going to be insulted I guess this little secret meeting’s over.” Gera stuck his nose in the air and made as if he were about to leave, but he didn’t.
“Don’t go, Gera!” Aneta grabbed his arm. “You promised to tell me about my love!”
“Well, hell,” he said. “Only for you, darling.” He stroked her cheek with his knuckle. “I was able to track down your ‘wealthy’ love, but I’m afraid you won’t like what I have to say about him.” He didn’t look afraid.
“What do you mean? Don’t be cruel!”
“Your Kazimir is here,” he said, indicating the spa. “He washes clothes in the back while the patrons bathe.”
“He works—here?” she said. “But he’s one of the richest men in Karlovy Vary, he can have anything he wants, why would he work here?”
Gera shrugged dismissively, “I don’t know, but he does. Been working here for about a month. And from what I’ve seen, he’s not living like the richest man in town,” he sighed. “For all the washing he does, it’s surprising how his own clothes can be so dirty.” He smiled at her.
“I don’t believe you.” Aneta said quietly. “It doesn’t make sense. He was supposed to…. It doesn’t matter.” She turned her head away. “I deserve something good, dammit. Don’t I deserve it?” Aneta began to weep.
Gera’s mouth bunched in one corner. “Aneta, listen. I know you were hoping that he would save you from…all this, but he’s just one guy. I mean, there’s plenty of guys who would kill to be with you.” He looked at his feet.
“I can’t believe this is happening to me,” she said. “There has to be another reason for this. I bet my sister has something to do with it. That harpy just can’t release him, can she?”
“Listen,” Gera said, “He doesn’t really love your sister. He never has. Trust me, he used to talk about her like she was a thing—not a real woman, lovely and lively, like you are. It’s a mental thing that some guys have. I wish I could explain it better, but it’s not love. She’s no good for him anyway.”
“Am I no good for him?” she sniffed.
Gera couldn’t be mean. “No,” he said. “You’re good for anybody.” He kicked at the ground.
Aneta shook her head. All she could think about was her love.
“You’re different, Aneta,” he went on. “I promise you. And you know what? I bet I’m wrong about this whole thing anyway. You shouldn’t lose hope so fast.” His voice turned monotone. “It’s going to work out, Aneta, I’m sure it will.”
“Oh, obscene woman,” I moaned. “Oh, all-consuming agony. I know even less now if it’s possible. Damn that unseemly, lewd couple. Married? Damn me. Damn Igorek! You bewitched my Dominika with your foul lechery,” I sobbed.
It didn’t seem real, even so many weeks after that terrible night. I still felt engrossed in the pain, and nothing mattered after Dominika. “Dimitri, why would you tease me with fantasies that could never come true?”
The miasmal air stung my nostrils and I couldn’t tell what was sweat and what was steam.
“Wonderful Dimitri, honest Dimitri, kind Dimitri! How lucky I am for a kamarád like Dimitri!” I didn’t know what that meant. It was just anger and nerves and my heart beating and my ears being hot. “Damn it, Dominika, if only you had given me the slightest hint that you knew I loved you. But you must know it by now, you must.”
The wash-girl peeked over her shoulder, but continued to work out the stubborn spot in the same shirt she had been laboring over for the past twenty minutes. She was a handsome young girl, no more than fifteen, and a hard worker. The first day I started washing for the spa, she had matched each of my loads with three finished and pressed of her own.
The job was difficult and wet. I would haul the clothes to the wash tub and loosen up the dirt before the wash-girl did the real work. It was a good system for patrons. They would come and soak their stress away and drink the steamy mineral water, and we would make their clothes warm and soft.
I made about three korun a day, two of which I would bring to the market after work and give to the psychic, whom I would ask about my Dominika. Each day he replied the same.
“Your lady waits for you still,” he would say, “but she does not know it. Some day soon, she will be receptive to your love. When that day comes, I will tell you and you will go and claim her.” He would finish with a prayer and I would go off a little lighter in spirit.
If it weren’t for that wonderful man giving me hope each day, and the Becherovka I rationed to my flasks, I didn’t think I would have made it this far. Dimitri was gone. No one had seen him in town since he had left me alone with the mob, and the psychic could not see him. As angry as I was, I could use his help.
“Prominte…” the wash-girl whispered. I was holding up her work.
“Right, sorry.” I scooped out the heavy clothes with the iron poker and laid the steaming heap on the counter where she liked them. I wiped my forehead, but my soaked arm did no good. I walked back to the pile for another load, and when I got closer to it, I heard a familiar poke, step, drag. Poke, step, drag.
Then I could hear Dimitri, his voice echoing apologies as he pushed through the naked patrons. His voice grew louder and I knew he was headed toward the washroom. My mouth hung open and my eyes were very wide. I was suddenly panicked and looked around for something to do. I heard his poke, step, drag louder and louder. I grabbed half an armful of dirty clothes, rushed to the wash tub, threw them in, and stirred them with the giant tongs. I felt the wash-girl stare at me with that odd look she had. I didn’t hear Dimitri’s steps any more and I knew he was in the room. I kept my wrist resting on my hip as I stirred intently.
“Kamarád?” Dimitri said. I heard him come closer and when he reached me, I wouldn’t look at him.
“Kazimir?” he said. “Kazimir, I heard you were…working here?” He almost sounded sad. Good. I looked at his face. He was unshaven and thinner than usual. I kept my mouth tight and tried to hide my curiosity.
“You look pretty bad,” I said.
“I hate bath houses,” he said. “I’m sorry, kamarád.”
“Are you? What the hell happened to you, Dimitri, what the hell?”
“Things got complicated with Dominika. I had to leave.”
“What are you talking about? You decided that the time to go was in the middle of our insurgence?”
“I was ordered to leave by Igorek. When I found him at his hotel, I told him that a mob had formed and was crying mutiny. He told me he would handle the matter, but he also gave me an urgent assignment from Mother Russia. He sent me off that very moment.”
“What was the assignment?” I said. Dimitri shook his head and blinked. I didn’t like to see Dimitri like that, but I was still angry.
“Dominika said…some things.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“Nothing.” he said.
“I’ve no more money, Dimitri. What I had from the inheritance has been suspended in court. I’m apparently ‘unfit’ to manage my own money.”
“Dear Kazimir, I came to find you when I heard. I just got back last night and I tried to go to your apartments, but they were empty.”
“Listen, kamarád. I came to finish what we started, and to make things right.” He put his hand on my shoulder and I didn’t hear the wash-girl anymore.
“And how are you going to do that?”
“Mikolas?” I asked. He nodded. “What do you mean?”
“Your patience has finally paid off, kamarád. Igorek has fallen out of favor with your love, Dominika.”
“You mean they’ve been divorced? How? When? I knew that psychic was lying!”
“No, Kazimir, not divorced, not officially. Not yet,” he said. “But, how could she so soon after that night? Her reputation would be destroyed.”
“So what does this have to do with Mikolas?” I said.
“Now that Dominika is done with Igorek, her innocent eyes have begun to wander, and they happened to fall on the one person who spends almost as much time with her as the general. A man who smiles at her and kisses her hand. A man who is a lowly Czech traitor—”
“Mikolas!” I said. Dimitri smiled at me and patted my shoulder, and I could see he wanted to help.
“Mikolas, my kamarád. Igorek’s spell is broken and Dominika is free to love again, but you must act fast before she attaches herself too closely to that vile lieutenant. Now is the time to place yourself in the path of your Dominika and show her what her Kazimir can do for her.”
“Yes,” I almost shouted. I grabbed his arm and bared my teeth. “You tell me how, and where, and I will do it, kamarád, I will do it for my Dominika!”
“Gera, hurry up!” Aneta said. She waved her hand at Gera, who still crouched in the bushes on the other side of the alley. Aneta stooped with her back pressed against the side of the building and she could feel it hum with life.
“I’m coming,” Gera said. He wasn’t coming, though, and Aneta had to go and drag him to her side of the alley. “Shh, get off,” he said. “There are guards at the front of the hotel.”
“I know. Now, be quiet,” Aneta said.
“This is insane, Aneta.”
“You’re sure they’re in this one?”
“Yes, Hotel Petr.” Gera pulled a wrinkled paper from his back pocket. “Here, Room 203. Every night for the past week Mikolas has arrived at seven.” He indicated a spot on his notes.
. “And your sister gets here at seven-thirty.”
“What time is it?”
“Eight-eighteen,” Gera said, checking his wristwatch. “Your sister usually leaves around ten, if she doesn’t stay the night.”
“Listen, this is pretty nuts, Aneta. I’ve been watching this place all day. It is literally a hotel full of Russian military.”
“Where can we get up?”
“Where can I climb up, Gera? Please.” She leaned in and kissed Gera on the cheek, brushing it with her finger. “I need to do this. I need to help Kazimir see what my sister really is. I love him, Gera.”
“What about me, then?”
“I love you, too, but we’ve talked about it. I need to get out of here. I need to move to Paris and open my own business. We can’t do that, Gera. But Kazimir can let me do that.”
“What if he can’t?” Gera said. “What if he…doesn’t love you back?”
Aneta was quiet for a moment. “He will,” she said.
“All right, then,” Gera said, sighing as he straightened up and pointed somewhere further along the side of the building. “There. The room is on the second floor, so the climb’s not bad. Start with the wood supports for the planters, and then grab onto that window ledge. You’re going to have to pull yourself up, but I will help you, and after that, it’s like climbing stairs.”
“Okay,” Aneta said. “I think that’s okay.”
Gera led Aneta to the right spot and Aneta started to climb, breaking thin branches as she did.
“You all right?” Gera said.
“Yes, I’ve got it,” Aneta said. She reached up for the ledge but was just short of it. Gera stepped forward and, holding Aneta around her outer thighs, hoisted her up until she grabbed hold of the ledge.
“I’ve got it!” Aneta said.
“Good. Now put your feet on me. You just need to get up there.” After some effort, Aneta was securely on the ledge and saw then how easy the rest of the climb would be.
“Perfect. Thank you, Gera.”
Gera stared at Aneta and then smiled. “Well, I hope it works out, then.”
“I know it will.”
“All right, then. I love you, Aneta.”
“I know, Gera.”
Hotel Petr’s windows glowed warmly in the night and the light’s reflection made ripples in the Teplá River behind me. I saw silhouettes of the general’s guests dance past the light, and it made the red flowers in the sills flicker like flames. The Russian and Czech flags hung together above the entrance to the lobby where two Russian soldiers stood at attention.
I reached into my coat pocket and felt the cold bayonet. It was heavy and I had to move my flask, which Dimitri had kindly filled, to my opposite pocket to balance the look of the coat. Dimitri was taller than me and the shoulder seam of his soldier’s tunic hung down my arm. I kept my hand on the blade as I approached the soldiers.
“Good evening, men,” I said.
“Vítej! Vítej!” the soldier on the right said when he saw me. He was a short, stocky man and he grinned broadly at me. I saw that both soldiers’ faces were red. The one on the left had his eyes closed and his head to one side, and he may have been asleep. The stocky soldier blinked and looked down at my red tin star and at the coat that Dimitri had given me, and he counted the stripes.
“Oh, officer,” he slurred. He gave what must have been a terrible salute, then reached into his breast pocket and produced a bottle of Becherovka.
“Pít, pít, kamarád!” he said and offered the bottle to me. Apparently this was how the Russians did these things.
“No. Thank you,” I said and touched my hip where the knife hung. “I brought my own.” The soldier grinned wider, nodded, and took a long swig from his bottle. He continued to gulp, as I pushed open the double doors and entered the den of the beast.
Of course they’re playing classical music. I should have expected that. It was all strutting and tiptoeing, and here and there, and soft and not. It made my stomach churn.
The lobby was too bright and alive with officers dressed in their formal coats, and for each Russian there were two or three scantily dressed Czech girls. The Soviets were celebrating the general’s peaceful occupation of Karlovy Vary and were going to present him with some new accolade. It made me angry that so many people seemed to like the general, but he was no longer my concern.
I pushed through the crowd towards the gold-trimmed elevators on the opposite end of the room, bombarded the entire way by the hot smell of vodka and lust, and several hard slaps on the back. The walls inside were a dull pink and the elevator operator’s costume complemented it well.
“What floor, sir?” he said.
“Second,” I said. He opened the iron gate and directed me into the car. He shut the gate closed behind me and pulled the lever to the golden “2” on the dial, and the car began its shaky ascent. The ceilings were high and the trip to the second floor seemed to stretch on for several minutes. I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out the room key that Dimitri had provided with the coat. It was attached to a golden plate with the number 203 etched on one side. I took out my flask and drew in half of its contents at once.
The car jolted to a stop at the second floor. I pulled the gate open and stepped into the colorful hall. The gold plaque in front of me directed me to the right, and as I turned I saw a girl sitting in a red dress with her back against the wall, sobbing into her hands. She was in front of Mikolas’s door. I cleared my throat and she choked a bit and looked up at me.
“Kazimir?” she said. Her eyes took me in and she smiled.
“What? Yes, who are you?” I said. I didn’t recognize her.
“Kazimir, it’s me, Aneta,” she said.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.”
“But…you’re here. I thought you weren’t coming, but here you are,” she laughed. “I knew you would come for my sister, and if you did I would be ready.” She patted down the front of her dress and twisted the skirt straight.
“Who is your sister? What are you talking about?” I said.
“You really don’t know me?” I didn’t. “I’m Dominika’s sister, Aneta. I know you very well, and I was waiting for you to come. My tramp of a sister is in there with that dog, Mikolas. Oh, I knew you would come!” She put her arms around my neck, but I pushed her back.
“Dominika’s in there? With Mikolas? That bastard!” I pushed the girl aside and my hands shook as I tried to fit the key in the lock.
“But, Kazimir, I love you,” she cried. But all I could see was that lock and all I could feel was rage. I drove the key home and shouldered the door, but it didn’t budge.
“Kazimir, no, she doesn’t love you, she—”
I turned and in a fury I slapped the girl hard in the mouth. She fell against the wall.“Shut up, you little whore! Get out of here, I don’t know you!” I was yelling and crying.
The girl had turned white and looked terrified. She shivered and held her face silently. “Leave me, you devil!” I raised my hand again. The girl winced and stumbled back. Her look disturbed me and she turned and ran.
It’s now or never. I turned back to the door and this time turned the key the right way and felt the lock give. I put my shoulder into it again and it swung open and banged against the inside wall.
Dominika screamed from the ornate bed and attempted to cover her nakedness with the white linens. Mikolas had one knee on the mattress and wore only his bed shirt.
The room went red and all I could hear was my heartbeat, even though I knew Dominika was still screaming. I tore at the blade in my pocket, but it was caught. Mikolas stumbled off the bed and groped for his pants. I felt the hotel rumble and I knew the guests would know something was wrong. I had to act. I wrenched the bayonet out, cutting open the seams of my pocket and catching some of my hip with it. My blood accented the blade. I looked at Mikolas and saw that he understood. Dominika screamed again.
That was it. That was the moment, the exact moment that I made the choice, and I chose love and honor over humanity. I charged the lieutenant.
“Murder!” Mikolas yelled and he took defense. I was blind, I thrust frantically but I never felt the blade touch. He was quick despite his size.
“Guards! Murder!” he shouted, but I kept on at him.
“A…h!” I yelled and stabbed faster, straighter, tighter. I felt no resistance, but my hand was warm and wet.
I was losing speed and I struck too slowly. He caught my arm and then he was behind me, and I felt something snap. Mikolas pushed my face into the mattress. I felt a fiery pressure in my side and I knew he had stabbed me. I wrenched and twisted. I wanted to pull my knees to my chest and cry, and run, but he had me by the shoulder, and he stabbed me repeatedly. I felt as if I were on fire. “Dimitri! God, Dimitri, help me, kamarád. Help me, brother!” I screamed. He stabbed me two more times and I knew it was over, I knew there was no hope. I knew that Dimitri had been captured, or killed, and that he wasn’t there.
But then he was there, and Mikolas cried out as his weight lifted off of me. I let myself slide to the floor. I saw Dimitri’s shape above me and I smiled.
“Dimitri. Help me up, kamarád. I can’t run, he got me bad. We have to get out of here, Dimitri!” I felt the ground shake harder and I knew the soldiers would be on us any second. I heard Mikolas’s death rattle and I knew Dimitri had gotten him. I coughed out, “Dimitri,” and blood got in my eyes. I blinked hard. “We’ve got to go, kamarád, you can’t be seen.” I wanted to leave. “Dimitri?”
Then Dimitri crouched next to me. It was easy, the way he moved, and I noticed he didn’t carry his cane. I could hear the soldiers in the hall and Dominika’s wails. Dimitri must have heard them, too, but he didn’t look away from me. “I love you, Kazimir,” he said, “What the hell happened, kamarád? This wasn’t—” He stumbled over the words. “I hope you know I didn’t intend this. Kazimir? We killed the wrong one, do you understand me? Dammit, Mikolas.”
My tongue felt fat in my mouth. I managed to open my eyes and I saw Mikolas was dead next to me. My kamarád, Dimitri, put his hand on my face and it was gentle. I didn’t understand. Again, I didn’t understand; I didn’t understand his words, I didn’t understand what had happened to me, I didn’t understand his eyes. Dimitri? I’d never seen Dimitri unsure until that moment, before he ruptured my lungs with his slender knife. I tried to gasp, but I choked. I held his hand and I felt the knife twist inside me. I tried to remember the events that had transpired, what had driven me to that room, and what I had done to deserve Dimitri. Then, all was red.
– END –