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Junior Sergeant Slonský polished the single silver star on each epaulette and thought himself lucky he still had them.
He slipped on his uniform shoes – actually, his only shoes – and resisted the temptation to have a slug from a bottle just to start the day. When his wife Věra left him he was filled with feelings he found it impossible to describe. How could she just run off with that leather-jacketed poet (so-called, because nobody seemed to have read anything he had written) and left him alone?
Over two years had passed during which Slonský had made no effort at all to “pull himself together”, as he was frequently ordered to do, and apart from brief periods of sobriety not unconnected with disciplinary hearings he had devoted himself wholeheartedly to Mother Vodka’s teat. But things were changing, and he had three people to thank for that.
The first was his old school friend Valentin. Valentin was no slouch in the alcohol department, as one might expect from a journalist, but he had been moved one day to remark that he was concerned with what was happening to his old mate. The idea that someone actually gave a toss whether he lived or died made a strong impression on Slonský, with the result that he tried to stop drinking each night before he fell off the stool. Slowly he cut his consumption, switched to beer rather than vodka – which, curiously, he had never really liked that much – and occasionally ate a sausage rather than having a liquid lunch.
The second was his colleague Pavel Mucha. Mucha and Slonský had started in the police around the same time, and sometimes bumped into each other when they were on patrol. Slonský liked Mucha, who was shrewd, observant, and one of those people who can instantly see where the flaw in a new procedure lay. It was Mucha, for example, who had complained to their captain that while officers of the Veřejná Bezpečnost, the police force they both served, were entitled to free travel on the trams when in uniform, and plain-clothes officers had passes to ensure that they could travel unchallenged too, there was no method by which officers who were following someone incognito could avoid having to pay the fares. As a result, a box of pre-paid tram tickets turned up. You had to sign for them, of course, and give your service number, but since they didn’t check these until after you had left anyone could get a stack just by giving a bogus name and number. Mucha had taken it upon himself to try to fill Slonský’s time off with diversions that kept him out of bars. They had gone skiing together, hiking together and Mucha had even fixed Slonský up on a date with his wife’s sister out in Kutná Hora. That had not really worked out, possibly because Mucha had spent many hours describing her as an interfering bag and drawing attention to her exuberant use of make-up which, he said, gave her the look of a colour-blind circus clown, thereby predisposing Slonský not to fall for her charms, but at least he had tidied himself up and put on a collar and tie for once.
Then there was his new work partner, Junior Lieutenant Lukas. Newly promoted after some years languishing in the lower ranks due to his obstinate refusal to do anything underhand or unethical, Lukas had been given his new status on the understanding that he would keep an eye on Slonský, it being the opinion of their boss that Slonský had something about him, provided he kept off the sauce. There was something about Lukas, his desire for order, his decency, his new wife and immaculate little flat, his willingness to see the good in people that Slonský ought to have thoroughly despised, but somehow on a personal level they got on. Lukas had covered for Slonský when he had turned up for work still the worse for the night before, but at the same time he had let him know that he was letting his colleagues down, not by shouting or swearing, but by telling him he could do better. It had not happened again; not as often, anyway.
Slonský would never forget that day. Thursday, 15 March 1973. He and Lukas were in their car, Lukas driving, having pulled rank in the interests of staying alive, Slonský tucking into a sausage to keep himself going until lunchtime. The radio crackled and they were ordered to go to the old town to investigate a robbery with violence. The shop manager had been killed.
The shop turned out to be a jewellery store at the higher end of the Prague spectrum for such things. That is not to say that it would have shone with any particular lustre in Paris or London, but by the standards of Seventies Prague, it was a cut above. For a start, all the bulbs in the window lights were working.
They began by encouraging people to move away from the door and go about their business. This was not too difficult when you had a uniform and a gun since there was a widespread belief that nobody would ask how you used them. Entering the store they saw a young woman drinking coffee between fits of crying. She stood at once and put the cup down, so Slonský could see that her hands were shaking.
‘You found the body?’ he asked.
With some reluctance she led the way through to the back of the shop, then down a flight of iron steps to a basement area. Unusually, the steps were painted and free from rust, as was the iron grille and gate that gave entry to the vault. A single electric light bulb shone brightly in the centre of the ceiling and illuminated a man in his late fifties who was lying face down on the floor. His feet were about three metres away, and his head further away than that. It is strange how the sight of blood wakes you up, thought Slonský, particularly when it is not your own.
‘Open the door please,’ said Lukas.
‘I can’t, I’m afraid,’ she said. ‘Comrade Sýkora must have the key. He couldn’t have got in without it.’
‘And did he always lock it behind him?’
‘Not if he was coming straight back out. But he was going to do a stock check and I suppose he didn’t want to be disturbed.’
Slonský was puzzled.
‘There can’t have been much of a robbery if the door is still locked,’ he remarked. ‘You can only just get your hands through these bars, and I’m guessing he wasn’t strangled, given that you can see a nasty dent in the side of his head where the blood is running down.’
‘We thought something must have been stolen,’ she said, reaching down to the ground against the wall opposite the door. A small dark blue rucksack was there. ‘See – whoever it was came equipped to take things away.’
‘And nobody admits that this is theirs?’ said Lukas.
Lukas hitched up his belt and tried to look decisive.
‘Very well. Please close the shop and have the staff and any customers who were inside stay here for questioning. We’ll be up in a minute.’
The young woman mounted the stairs, and left the two officers in the basement.
‘We’d better ring for the crime division,’ said Lukas.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Slonský mused. ‘What can they do that we can’t? And I could do with a bit of merit on my record.’
‘You’re taking a chance,’ Lukas told him. ‘If we mess this up I’ll get a reprimand and you’ll be sleeping under a bridge somewhere.’
‘Maybe,’ Slonský admitted, ‘but it looks pretty straightforward to me. I’ve just got to work out who did it.’
‘I think I know how.’
‘Come along, Slonský! A man is physically beaten to death in the middle of a locked room for which he, apparently, has the only key, there’s no weapon there and you know how it was done?’
‘If we can ever get this door open you can go inside and I’ll show you how. I won’t actually kill you, of course.’
Lukas looked at his watch.
‘We’d better start questioning them.’
‘Fine. If you get them ready, I just need to splash my boots.’
The shop staff lined up in order of seniority, which was not an ideal criterion for determining the usefulness of their evidence. Comrade Květon obviously believed that as assistant manager he should go first. The remaining staff were left in the shop area while the interviews were to be conducted in the staff room, which Slonský had located when he went to wash his hands.
‘Do you have a key to the vault?’ Lukas asked Květon.
‘No, Comrade Lieutenant. There is a second key in the office safe for which Comrade Sýkora had the combination. In his absence we can telephone head office which has a duplicate key and a copy of the combination. I have telephoned and asked them to send someone.’
‘Did you see or hear anything unusual? A cry of pain, for example.’
‘The only thing was that the bars rattled. I thought Comrade Sýkora must have fallen against them, but it only happened once, briefly, so we thought no more about it until Comrade Holišová went downstairs to tell Comrade Sýkora he was wanted on the telephone.’
‘She is the young woman who found him?’
‘That is correct. We heard her scream and ran downstairs. You know the rest.’
‘Actually we don’t,’ said Slonský. ‘Who was first down the stairs?’
‘I’m not sure. It wasn’t me. It is inappropriate for a man of my position to run. Probably one of the young men.’
‘Who are?’ Slonský continued.
‘The taller one is Comrade Brandner. The other is Comrade Drobný. You’ve met Holišová, and the other female comrade is Ledecká.’
‘Six of you. That’s quite a high staffing level for a store of this size,’ Lukas observed.
Květon looked at him indignantly.
‘That is because we are expected to give a high level of personal service. This store is a major contributor to the state’s finances, thanks to sales to wealthy tourists.’
‘That’s also why you have some very valuable items,’ Slonský interrupted.
Slonský dropped the small rucksack on the table.
‘You know the stock here better than anyone. If you filled that with the smallest, choicest pieces, how much would it be worth?’
‘Are you suggesting―’ he began.
‘I’m suggesting nothing. I just want to know what was at stake.’
Květon closed his eyes as if visualising the stock room.
‘You’d want small things rather than large, and not too delicate to reduce the risk of damage. And I’m assuming the thief had to work quickly,’ Slonský proposed.
‘Brooches and rings,’ Květon announced. ‘You could take whole pads of rings and the brooches are kept in trays in a cabinet. You could collect the lot in five minutes.’
‘And their value?’ Slonský asked.
‘Who knows? Maybe a quarter of a million crowns. Of course, they wouldn’t get that easily. Our pieces are quite distinctive and there are very few people who could afford even one.’
‘But those rich tourists might?’
‘On the black market?’ said Květon. ‘Which doesn’t exist, by the way,’ he added hurriedly.
‘Spare us the party line,’ Slonský said.
Květon was dismissed.
‘Whom shall we speak to next, do you think?’ Lukas asked.
Slonský seemed lost in thought.
‘Hm? Oh, doesn’t matter really. Tell you what, let’s talk to all of them. You go first, you’re the lieutenant.’
They mounted the stairs once more.
Slonský formed everyone into a semi-circle before dropping a black rucksack on the floor.
‘Whose is that?’ he asked.
There was no immediate reply.
‘Isn’t that yours, Comrade Drobný?’ enquired Brandner.
‘Yes, I suppose it is. But I thought I left it downstairs.’
‘You did,’ Slonský told him. ‘I borrowed it a moment ago. Don’t worry, I haven’t taken anything out. How could I? It’s empty, apart from your lunch. Which is still there, by the way. Which is your station, Comrade Drobný?’
Drobný pointed to a counter where bracelets and bangles were displayed. Slonský ambled over, but kept talking as he went.
‘The middle of March is an odd time to do a stock check, isn’t it? I’d have thought it would be done at the end of a month.’
Květon looked embarrassed.
‘There were suggestions that there had been some unexplained shortfall in the last count. We were ordered to repeat it. That is why the Comrade Manager said he would do it personally.’
Slonský was crouching behind the counter.
‘He didn’t trust the rest of you to do it properly, is that it? But how could one of you smuggle things out of here? Aren’t you checked at the end of the day?’
‘Of course. Unless two or more of us were in league, nothing could be removed.’
‘No. But they could be secreted for later.’
Evidently having finished his examination, Slonský stood up and rejoined them.
‘Almost lunchtime,’ Slonský beamed. ‘I don’t know about you but I’m quite peckish. Crime gives me an appetite. But I don’t think you’re too hungry at the moment, are you, Comrade Drobný?’
Drobný made a dash for the door, but Lukas collared him and in no time Slonský had his arms pinned behind his back so Lukas could apply the handcuffs.
‘What has happened here?’ Květon asked. ‘Drobný? Is this true? Did you kill our beloved Comrade Manager?’
Drobný scowled. ‘Beloved Comrade Manager? You were scheming to get his job, we all knew he and Comrade Holišová were closer than they should have been; you were trying to get posted somewhere else, Brandner. We sell these trinkets to rich foreigners who can spend more in an afternoon than we can spend in a year. And why do they buy them? Because they’re cheaper than elsewhere. And why’s that? Because the powers that be have decided not to charge their full value because we need dollars and francs. Selling Czechoslovakia down the river.’
Lukas posed the obvious question. ‘How did you do it?’
Drobný shook his head. ‘I’m saying nothing. Let your fat mate tell you, if he can.’
Slonský strode across the room and squeezed Drobný’s cheeks with one large hand.
‘I am not fat. Just well-padded. It’s genetic.’
He let Drobný’s face relax, reached into his pocket and laid two pieces of metal on the counter.
‘That’s how it was done, and that’s why it failed. When I was a lad my grandfather used to take me out to his summer hut. We’d go fishing together, maybe try to take a rabbit or two. Times were hard after the war. Poaching was rife, but you daren’t take a gun, so he’d use one of these.’
Slonský pointed to a piece of dark metal about fifteen centimetres long, shaped like a tall mushroom. A cord was threaded through a hole in the smaller end.
‘It’s a throwstick. Very accurate at ten or fifteen metres, and that head might be two hundred grams of lead. Not many rabbits hopped again after Grandpa hit them with one of these. And from three metres they’re petty lethal to shop managers, aren’t they, Comrade Drobný? Then when you’ve killed your prey you just pull on the cord and it comes back to you. So the killing was the easy bit. One good biff, and he won’t get up. And it’ll go through the bars with room to spare if you’re close to them when you throw it.’
Drobný turned away.
‘But that’s when it all went wrong. Sýkora didn’t know who had been pocketing items, but he must have thought that whoever it was might try to interrupt his count, so unusually he locked the door behind him and put the key in his pocket. Things couldn’t easily disappear from up here, could they? It would be spotted and checked against the sales. You must have picked them up when you came down with him to restock your counter. And you didn’t take bracelets because that would point to you. I’ll bet he usually put the key in the inside of the lock, didn’t he? That’s why you brought these big tweezers I found under your lunch. You could reach between the bars just enough to turn the key with these – except that the key wasn’t there. In frustration you rattled the bars, then you realised it might give you away and ran to the staff room so you could appear to be returning from the toilet if anyone came.’
Slonský enjoyed the circle of bemused faces, none more open-mouthed than Lukas.
‘You left your little rucksack, but you still had the big one you were going to hide the little one inside. If the little one were found before you left it wouldn’t incriminate you, because everyone knew you had a black one, not a blue one. I suppose the plan was to pack the rucksack and just march out before anyone realised you weren’t coming back. Searching you is fine at the end of the day, but it won’t work if you don’t stay till then and you don’t care who knows you did it because you’ll be off with more valuables than you can imagine.’
‘Wouldn’t he be stopped at the border?’ Lukas asked.
‘Quiet border crossing, bored guard, maybe slip him a nice piece for his wife or girlfriend and next thing you know our friend Drobný is in Austria.’
Slonský looked around at the stunned expressions of his audience.
‘Right,’ he said at last. ‘If you get him in the car, I’ll get us some lunch.’
Read more about author Graham Brack here.