by Derrick Boden
Prague was cold. Colder than I remembered.
The arches of Charles Bridge cut deep shadows into the roil and tumble of the Vltava River. Dwarfed by the crumbling facades of Lesser Town, I leaned against a lamppost, sucking long pulls from a Davidoff. It was a silly idea; I hadn’t smoked in years, and every drag burned my lungs like the first time. But I’d been smoking that night, three years ago. The night Freddie disappeared. So I figured I’d do it all over again.
Lovers clung to one another as they stumbled across the bridge, puffing tandem bursts of steam into the night air. Laughing to stay warm, pausing to press chapped lips together. Freddie told me that night, her green eyes glowing in the candlelight of the basement bar, that Prague was the only city in the world more romantic in the winter. The promise of warmth piping from a hundred stoves. Pub windows fogged up from the whispers of a thousand finger-locked couples. Dvorak concertos drifting through narrow alleys lined with flickering gas lamps. “Medieval romance,” she said.
And then she was gone.
I ground the cigarette into the cobblestone, then took the stairs in threes up the bridge. By the time I reached the top, the nicotine had left me lightheaded. A patchy fog hung above the statues, lending credence to their judging stares. I turned my head away, anxious to avoid their verdict. It had taken me three years to come back; I was going to see this through to the end. I had to find out what happened to Freddie.
Every stone in the bridge was exactly how I remembered it, from the first time Freddie and I walked its length. Cassidy had just kicked me out—for the second time, but not the last—and I needed some distance. Something to clear my mind. Prague was cheap, and I didn’t need a visa to disappear here for a few months. The first time I set eyes on Freddie, I was stumbling through a jet lag induced haze, not four hours after my plane touched down. She was measuring ant trails along the base of the Saint Wenceslas statue, hair frazzled like an orange hedgehog. She caught me staring, and before I had a chance to stammer out an apology, she thrust a protractor into my hands. “Finally,” she said, as if she’d been waiting for me for hours. “Get ready.” So I did. Later that night, we drank absinthe with our legs dangling over the side of Charles Bridge, her face aglow in the city lights. What I didn’t know yet, was that beneath the frazzled hair and freckled skin, Freddie was different.
The chip rested inside the base of her skull. The doctors called it a neural relief processor, but she just called it “the chip”. It controlled a host of nanotech reconstructors that burrowed into her brain, repairing synapses and maintaining conductivity on the fly. Keeping her alive. The first time she explained it, I thought it was another one of her twisted jokes. I kept waiting for the punch line, but it never came.
The car crash had left both her parents dead, and Freddie tied to machines. Her dad had been a big-shot scientist in New York, and he’d signed the whole family up for every experimental procedure under the sun, in the event of a life-threatening condition. The cerebral reconstruction process only had five successful patients to-date. Freddie made it six, thanks to the goodwill of an anonymous investor. Her coma broke within a month, and she walked out of the hospital three days later.
But the chip was still experimental. According to her brother, the operation changed her—made her a different person. She joked that the chip had a mind of its own, that even though it was keeping her alive she still had to be careful, or it might take over one day. I thought she was joking at the time. “Cyber-woman,” she said with somber eyes. Then her lips twisted into a smile and she grabbed my coat. Her breath was spicy like licorice. “But enough about me.”
I leaned over the edge of the cold stone railing. It couldn’t be more than fifty feet to the water. People could survive that kind of fall. Couldn’t they? All the cops found was her necklace, clinging to the riverbank downstream. It was the same necklace she wore every day that winter. Just a piece of junk from the thrift shop, she said. A stainless-steel circle with rods running through the center at odd angles, like a surrealist’s impression of an astronomical clock. That was it. No body, no blood, no note. We were heading home late from Pod Kroka, and she said she needed to stop for something. “Wait for me,” she said at the foot of the bridge, and then she was gone.
I backed away from the railing. If I was going to find the truth, I’d better start at the beginning. Like so many nights that winter, our last night together started at the absinthe bar. So that’s where I headed.
Most absinthe bars in Prague were tourist traps, and U Víla was no exception. Uninspired nude art blanketed the walls. A holographic green fairy stood guard atop each table, beckoning hordes of English and American post-teens in from the cold. I never knew what Freddie saw in the place. But it was warm, and they knew us there. And Freddie liked it, so I never asked. Just like so many things.
That night we’d gone early, so it was nearly deserted. This time was much the same. Incense and licorice invaded my nostrils. The corner table by the window was vacant, and I half-expected to hear Freddie’s voice in my ear. “How about there?” As if we’d ever sat anywhere else.
A maze of faded tattoos moved behind the bar. Ingrid was working at a persistent smudge on a glass, the rag whipping about in her hand.
“Hey, stranger,” I said.
Ingrid’s crystal blue eyes widened. She leaned across the bar and wrapped me up in an awkward hug. She smelled of sweat and tobacco.
“Johnny.” Her accent had gotten thicker. “How the hell?”
“Good to see you, Ingrid.”
She poured me a frothy Staropramen, then got back to polishing. “Heard you got married.”
“She left me.” I took a swig of beer, trying not to think about where Cassidy might be by now. Somewhere better than I’d ever taken her, hopefully. “Said I couldn’t let it go.”
Ingrid’s gaze flicked across my face. “Seeing as how you’re back, I guess she was right.”
“Where’s Alex?” she said.
“Barcelona,” I said, a bit too fast. “Or so I hear.” Freddie’s brother never liked me, and I knew he must’ve blamed me for her death. I made a point of keeping track of him, for my own safety. After the first year, it became habit. Later, a strange comfort. Alex wasn’t even Freddie’s real brother—he was ten years older, from a wealthy English family. A sort of god-brother, no blood relation. “But what does blood matter anymore,” Freddie had said with a shrug. “Family is family.”
Ingrid raised a penciled-in eyebrow. “I know what today is. Why you’re here.”
I looked away, tried to pick out a painting to focus on. All I could find were breasts and fairies, so I looked back.
“Did you notice anything strange about her, those last days?”
Ingrid blinked. “There was always something strange about Freddie.”
“Yeah. I mean—”
“No.” Now she was answering too quickly.
“Ingrid, if you know something—”
“It’s not my place to spread rumors. About live people or dead ones.”
I flinched at the word “dead”. She must’ve noticed, because she put the glass down and leaned across the bar. Her fingers gripped the cuff of my jacket.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But everyone’s got secrets. I’m sure there’s things about you that she didn’t know.”
“None that killed me.”
Her gaze flicked toward the back of the room. “Not yet.”
“Ingrid, please. It’s been three long years. Help me out.”
She stared at me, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Her expression softened. She sighed.
“Third door on the right. Knock twice, then twice again. But if I were you, I wouldn’t get mixed up in that stuff.”
She turned her back and picked out another glass to polish.
I downed my beer and headed for the back.
The door was worn and the paint chipped, but the twin locks were brand new. An aluminum “2” hung from the center, like a room number in an old hotel. I knocked twice, then twice again. The latches clicked open. Light shone through the crack, followed by a sliver of a face. A bloodshot eyeball regarded me for an uncomfortable minute before the door swung open.
The doorman’s head was clean-shaven, but his beard was a tangled mess. His gut hung out from beneath a tattered shirt with the word “Godless” in big pink lettering. His lips curled into a smile, revealing more gum than teeth.
“Welcome,” he said in a slow, Moravian drawl.
I slipped past him, trying to avoid bodily contact. A thick haze hung across the room. Burnt incense clung to the air. Couches lined the walls, and the floor was a minefield of battered pillows. A handful of men and women lay sprawled about the room. In the far corner, a man with lazy eyes sucked from a long pipe. At his elbow, a metal tray held a sticky, black substance.
Through a doorway obscured by hanging beads, a man walked in. Our gazes met, and he paused. It was the guy from the park, the chess player. Once or twice, I happened by while Freddie was playing a round with him. She was a shark at chess, called it “a complex game of simple patterns”. I never saw her lose; she’d attract crowds of tourists during her more intense matches. Whenever she played, her expression went cold, as if possessed. I didn’t know if she even knew how to play, before the accident.
The man turned around and headed for the doorway.
“Wait,” I said.
He made as if he hadn’t heard me, and started to push through the beads.
“I’m here about Freddie.”
He froze. Nearby faces turned at the name, and I felt as if a spotlight had descended upon me. I strode across the room, picking my way between bodies and cushions.
“I need to talk to you,” I said.
He half-turned. His face was gaunter than I remembered, his lips thinner and the roundness of his eyes more pronounced.
He shook his head. “Freddie’s dead.”
The casual toss of the words turned my skin hot. “That have anything to do with you?”
The man waved me off and started through the doorway again. I grabbed him by the shoulder, and felt a roomful of gazes on my back.
“How do you know Freddie?” I said.
He sneered, showing a picket line of yellowed teeth. “Go to hell.”
I pushed him against the wall. His head cracked into the plaster, and he winced. Shuffling ensued from behind me. The big guy from the doorway drifted over and hung in my periphery, arms folded across his chest.
The skinny guy raised his hands. “She was just a customer.”
“Bullshit. Freddie was no junkie.”
He studied me, big eyeballs swiveling around in sunken sockets. “Said it helped her sleep. Let the dragon chase the nightmares away.”
I let out a slow breath. The whole time I knew Freddie, she barely slept. After our naked bodies slowed to a halt in the moonlight of her tiny loft, I’d fall asleep with her breath hot against my neck, her green eyes watching. In the morning, I’d find her dressed in one of my t-shirts, halfway through her third crossword, or studying patterns in the sea of courtyard pigeons below. Binders full of equations beyond my comprehension scattered across the floor. “Dream of me?” she’d say with a wink. She joked that the chip worked too well, that she had too much to think about. Two brains: one for the daytime, one for the nighttime. She’d finished the coursework for her doctorate in less than a year. Which brain had I fallen in love with?
He shrugged. “She wasn’t a regular. But we all knew her.”
“What happened to her?”
“I’m just a salesman.”
I grabbed him by the lapels. “If you gave her bad stuff—”
A pudgy hand clamped down on my neck from behind. The doorman’s face swung into view.
My gaze flicked from face to face. I slackened my grip, then spun and headed for the exit. At the threshold, I glanced over my shoulder. The skinny man was mashing buttons on his phone at a furious clip. He grinned at me, malice burning in his oversized eyes.
I slipped past the bar while Ingrid’s back was turned and ducked out into the night. The cold air hung heavy and damp in the alley, and in my lungs. Like rain, suspended in midair.
No way Freddie had died of an overdose. I was with her that night, right up to the end. She was as coherent as ever. There had to be more to the story. Our night had started at U Víla, but it hadn’t ended there.
“How about a beer?” Freddie had said on our way out of U Víla. The thought struck her like an epiphany, lighting up her whole face. On a cold night, beer meant Pod Kroka. Their heaters were always cranked the highest.
I hustled down the street to our old neighborhood spot. I pushed through the oak doors and descended into the pub. Loud voices and rolling laughter filled the air, as thick as the cigarette smoke. Promises of pork and dumplings wafted from the kitchen. Glasses clinked in a perpetual melody as round after round of beer made its way to the tables in the hands of bustling servers.
I walked to the back corner of the pub, where a lone table stood guard in the shadows. Our table, on most nights. I pulled up a chair. My fingertips grazed the tabletop, tracing familiar etchings in the wood. A frantic scribble of numbers lined the edge. Freddie’s handwriting. She’d been trying to explain societal probabilistic analysis to me, the night she disappeared. “It’s just pattern recognition,” she said, her eyes intense in the dim lighting. “Applied to societal behaviors, it gives us the ability to predict large-scale social events. Political power shifts, social unrest, riots, you name it.” It sounded plausible, but as usual she lost me in the numbers. I watched her lips move, captivated, thinking life would go on like that forever. Drinking and talking and making love until the end of time.
The men’s restroom door creaked open, and a pale-faced man loped out. He walked up to my table and squinted at me. His long head and receding hairline were an unfortunate combination, resulting in a massive forehead. His wrinkled button-down billowed around his skinny waist, although the sleeves barely came to his elbows. He glanced at my feet. I followed his gaze. Underneath the table, a backpack lay on its side.
“I’m sorry,” I said, standing. “I didn’t realize someone was sitting here.”
“You’re the American,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement. I nodded.
He glanced toward the exit, then looked back. “I’ve seen you with—with her.”
I leaned forward. “Freddie?”
“You knew Freddie?” I said.
He shifted from foot to foot, eyeing his backpack. He looked ready to abandon it, in lieu of suffering through this conversation.
“I’m Stepan,” he said, his voice barely audible over the surrounding din. “Charles University math department.”
“You’re in the doctorate program? The same one as Freddie?”
“Was. I’m a lecturer, now.”
I grabbed a second chair. “Please. I need to know what happened to her.”
He shot the chair a suspicious glance, eventually seating himself at the edge. He snatched his backpack, and I thought he was going to turn and run. But he stayed put, clutching his bag to his chest.
“I won’t be much help. She was just in our club.”
“Děti Matematiky. The Children of Math.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“I saw you with her, sometimes,” he said. “I thought you’d know about the club.”
I shook my head.
“She was a savant,” Stepan said. “Her computational skills—she was a walking calculator. And the pattern recognition—the cryptography, the sequencing…she kept getting smarter. The rest of us couldn’t keep up.”
“She was great at crosswords,” I said, before realizing how ridiculous it sounded.
Stepan glanced over his shoulder, his gaze lingering on the exit.
“We used to joke that she had dual processors,” he said. “A second brain. When that other brain got going…it was frightening. Eventually, she started attracting attention. Mostly about the cryptography, but also about her societal analysis work. Foreigners started showing up to the department, asking about her. Governments, corporations.”
I realized I was holding my breath, and let it out slowly. “Then what?”
He shook his head. “Her interests turned dark, those last weeks. Mind-control, secret societies, conspiracy theories. That second brain of hers was disturbed. She said she was trying to make sense of the chaos, trying to find the truth. She thought she was being controlled by something, or by someone. Scared the hell out of us. Some of the books she left lying around were…troubling.”
“Do you still have them?”
He shook his head. “There’s nothing left. The cops took everything. With the way she was acting, we assumed she killed herself.”
I was chewing on my lip so hard I tasted blood.
“Why are you asking about all this now?” he said. “It’s been years.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that it had taken me three years to work up the nerve to come back.
He glanced over his shoulder. “I’d better go. I don’t want to get involved in this.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but Stepan was already halfway to the door, clutching his backpack to his chest. I glanced down, let my fingers drift across Freddie’s scribbled equations. Troubling. One night close to the end, I remember waking before dawn. I got up for a glass of water, and found Freddie lying spread-eagle on the living room floor, eyes locked on the ceiling. “I’m counting to infinity,” she said. “Come join me.” Her eyes were vacant, her jaw slack. I lay down by her side, and she twined her fingers between my own. Her skin was cold. “What number are you at?” I said. She kept staring at the ceiling, unblinking. “One,” she said. “I’m still at one.”
I’d been too afraid to break the spell. I hung there, locked in her orbit, silent and oblivious, until one day she blinked out of existence, sending me drifting alone through space.
My gaze swept across the room, jostling a memory from our last night here. We were getting ready to leave, when Freddie sat upright. “I need some insurance,” she said. We’d been talking about her societal probability stuff, and I couldn’t make the connection. She went to the bathroom without another word. Two minutes later, she came out with a smile. “Ready to go?”
I walked to the women’s bathroom door. It was a one-holer, and light spilled from the crack at the bottom. I waited as casually as I could until a woman walked out. Then I slipped inside and locked the door.
I had no idea what I was looking for. The bathroom was barely large enough to turn around in with my arms outstretched. The soles of my shoes stuck to the floor. The mirror was scratched so bad, I could barely make out my own face.
The walls and ceiling were covered in graffiti, some dating back over a decade. It was an even distribution of English and Czech. The English proved to be nothing more than genitalia-derived slang, angsty poetry, and local phone numbers offering sexual favors.
Knuckles rapped against the door.
I checked under the toilet, behind the mirror, and along the grout of the sink. I checked in the paper towel holder and behind the soap fixture. Nothing. I put my hand on the doorknob, and froze.
My gaze locked on a square of block lettering beside the light switch. The letters were meticulously symmetrical, and perfectly spaced. The same way Freddie filled out her crosswords. It read: “Hradčanské náměstí 15, #325.” Was this her insurance? Was it meant for me, or for someone else?
More knocking erupted from the door, followed by an impatient burst of Czech. I snapped a photo of the address with my phone, then unlatched the door. The woman outside laid into me with a string of creative profanity. I mumbled an apology and headed for the exit.
Outside, the air had grown colder. I stuffed my hands into my pockets. Steam blasted from my nostrils. Hradčanské náměstí was in the Castle District, crammed with museums and souvenir booths. Freddie and I never spent much time up there. Still, it was all I had to go on.
I walked quickly, my shoes slipping against the slick cobblestone. The night was in full swing, and revelers darted from doorway to doorway, lungs filled with drunken laughter. I breezed through the bustling Malostranské plaza, past the massive dome of St. Nicholas Cathedral. The fog hung thicker close to the water, and I could hardly make out the curve of the narrow road leading up to Prague Castle. It was a steep incline, and by the time I’d reached the outer complex I was sweating beneath my coat.
A crew of workers was tearing down stage equipment after a night concert in the upper plaza. I slipped into the shadows along the fence, and crept down the alley past the edge of the Archbishop’s Palace. Near the back stood the unassuming entrance to the Sternberg museum. A plaque along the wall read: “Hradčanské náměstí 15.” The glass doors were closed. Inside, the foyer was dark.
I glanced at the photo of the graffiti. This was the place. The second number must’ve been an office, but where—
The clanging of metal echoed down the alley. I pressed against the wall and glanced around the corner. Three men were loading folding chairs onto a cart, from a service entrance along the side of the museum. The cart had tipped over, and the men were shouting at one another. Their backs faced me.
Before I had time to think it through, I ducked around the corner and slipped through the service entrance. The storage dock was deserted. I spotted a pair of double-doors, and pushed through. I stood in a long hallway. The building was dark, lit only by auxiliary LEDs and the occasional sliver of light from beneath an office door. I followed the signs to the stairway and padded upstairs. The third floor looked much like the first: more hallway, more offices. Pipes groaned through the walls. Muffled voices crept from beneath closed doors. The blood pumped in my ears.
I followed the hall around a bend, and soon I stood before a door with the number “325” emblazoned beside the jamb. My hand sweated against the doorknob. I drew in a deep breath, then walked inside.
A long, cherry wood table dominated an otherwise sparse meeting room. Twelve high-backed seats lined the perimeter of the table. Before each seat was a plain black binder and a sharpened pencil. Traces of coffee and bourbon clung to the air. Voices filtered through a closed door at the back.
I opened a binder. An unused notepad sat on the right. On the left, a single sheet indicated: “Meeting Minutes.” The rest of the page was blank.
I opened the second binder, then the third. No variance. Inside the fourth, an envelope had been slipped inside the notepad. I tugged it out. The words “Society of Clay” were stamped on the front. Beneath that was a circle with lines cutting through the center at odd angles.
My mouth went dry. It was the pattern from Freddie’s necklace.
The back door swung open. A large, goateed man walked in. His eyes widened when he saw me.
“What are you doing here?” His voice was deep and thick; his accent was startlingly English.
I turned and ran.
“Wait!” he said, keeping pace behind me. His booted footsteps carried down the hall. I tore open the door to the stairs and scrambled down. The man’s shouts echoed through the stairwell. Halfway down, I tripped and landed hard on my side. The air rushed from my lungs.
I stumbled to my feet. The man was a half-flight back and gaining. I scrambled down the stairs, struggling for breath. I shouldered through the door and into the loading dock.
The workers were still outside hauling chairs. I grabbed the top chair as I passed, and hurled it behind me. My pursuer let out a grunt as his legs tangled in the chair. I tore down the alley and through the courtyard, not stopping to catch my breath until I was all the way down the hill, back in Malostranské plaza. I ducked down a side road and pressed my back against the blackened doors of an old church.
I stood panting until my breathing and heart rate had slowed. Then I opened my clenched hand and smoothed out the envelope. My fingers shook as I tore it along the seam.
Inside, a scrap of paper bore the letterhead of the Augustine Hotel. Written in neat cursive were three names: Ludvig Fletcher, Beatrice Stokes, and Armando Del Rio.
I pulled out my phone. A hasty internet search of “Society of Clay” produced erratic results: mostly conspiracy theory blogs and rambling anarchist sites. I pulled up some related searches, and tried connections with the three names from the paper. I skimmed through page after page of text, until my gaze landed on an excerpt from a medical journal.
“An anonymous individual has contributed another substantial cash donation to the Neural Life Foundation and their cerebral reconstruction project. The Foundation is hopeful that the donation will be enough to support procedures on three victims of traumatic brain damage: Beatrice Stokes, Armando Del Rio, and Ludvig Fletcher. Although the donation was anonymous, some believe it to be tied to the Society of Clay, an elusive investment group from Cambridgeshire. The Society has recently been linked to a rash of criminal activity across Eastern Europe, although no formal charges have been brought against them. The cerebral reconstruction procedure was popularized by the first successful recovery from catastrophic brain damage—”
Hands—at least four pairs—grappled me and dragged me to the ground. My back slammed against the cobblestone. Before I could let out a cry for help, a gloved hand fed me a mouthful of cloth. Fabric stretched across my eyes, and everything went dark. I flailed, connecting with an elbow, then a foot. I slipped my arm free, but four more hands clamped down again, this time harder. Pain lanced up my shoulder. I gasped for air. After another futile burst of resistance, I relented. They dragged me across the ground until my spine felt ready to burst. It was all I could do to keep my head from slamming into the stones.
A door creaked on rusted hinges. The cold night air gave way to the confines of a basement, or a garage. The air was stale and damp. They hauled me off the ground, and strapped my wrists and ankles to a wooden chair. My muscles ached, and my temples throbbed. Fingers rifled through my pockets.
Footsteps receded. Others approached. Calloused fingers pried the gag from my mouth. I panted and wheezed in the darkness.
“Who’s there?” I said.
“I’ll ask the questions.” The man’s accent was Slavic, but too harsh for Czech.
I held my breath.
“Johnny Black.” I could hear him rifling through my wallet. “Redondo Beach, California. All right, Johnny. How much do you know?”
I chewed on my lip. “Just the names on that paper.”
“It’s the chip, isn’t it?” I said. “That’s why you’re doing this. That’s why you killed Freddie.”
The man shifted in the darkness.
“What is it?” I said. “Some kind of artificial intelligence you were cultivating inside her brain? Is that how you were controlling her? She found out, didn’t she? She outsmarted you.”
The silence hung all around me.
The man cleared his throat again. “If I said yes, would you be satisfied?”
“Yes. Well, no. I mean—”
“Why are you here?”
“To find the truth—”
I choked on my response.
“You’re here to absolve yourself of blame. To make yourself feel better about something that happened years ago.”
I swallowed. “No, I—”
“I don’t have the convenient answers you’re looking for. I don’t know what happened to your girlfriend.”
I sat stunned, trying to find the words to continue the pursuit.
“You’re in over your head, Johnny. I suggest you leave town. Tonight.”
“Who are you?”
“I represent a government.”
“You’re not the Society of Clay?”
The man chuckled, a slow and derisive laugh. “No. We’re after their leader. Does the word Maharal mean anything to you?”
I coughed. The name was well known around these parts, but not for anyone living. Freddie told me the story once. The Maharal was a big-shot rabbi from the sixteenth-century. Supposedly he created a golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River, and used the automaton to defend the city. Eventually the golem slipped from the rabbi’s control, so he killed it. Something like that.
“No,” I said.
“Then you might make it out of Prague alive. Before that girl’s past catches up with you.”
A ball of cloth muffled my words. The man left me in silence. Soon more footsteps returned, and hands grappled me. After separating me from the chair, they hauled me outside. Another grinding slog through the streets left me propped against a cold stone wall, alone. I pried the blindfold and gag free.
I lay in a swath of shadows at the bend of an alley. Across the way, an old statue clung to the wall of a hotel. The statue depicted a hulking juggernaut, part man and part machine. His eyes were deep, triangular gouges, and a Hebrew inscription ran the length of his forehead.
I rubbed my aching wrists. The Maharal. Leader of the Society of Clay. Silent investor of the cerebral reconstruction project. But was his golem Freddie, or the chip itself? Had she slipped beyond their control, or was everything she did part of his plan?
I staggered to my feet. My legs and back ached. I drifted through the alleys for at least a half hour before stumbling onto a familiar street. A few turns later, I stood at the base of Charles Bridge. It was late, and the city slept.
I trudged up the steps of the bridge. The fog had grown thicker. Like smudges on a faded canvas, the lights of Prague Castle shone through the mist. I leaned against the cold stone railing and drew in a lungful of air. My fingers found the Davidoffs in my pocket, and I sparked one to life. My lungs burned.
I caught a hint of Freddie’s musk, mixed with the swell of tobacco. The cigarette tasted like Freddie’s lips, the first time she kissed me. “I kissed you,” she said with a grin, as if the words made it more real. I smiled and said nothing, as I so often did. Hoping the moment would last forever.
The voice was as thick as the fog, undercut by a subtle English lilt. I didn’t turn. I didn’t have to.
“Alex,” I said. “Been a while.”
“I think we both know how long it’s been.”
“Heard you moved to Barcelona.”
I turned to face Freddie’s brother. He had that same damn jacket on, the one with the high collar that he swore made him look smarter. Same damn squished face, too, that he was afraid made him look like a fool. Guess even a fool was right half the time. His hands were jammed into his pockets, and the bulge on the right couldn’t have been anything but a handgun.
He took a step closer. “You shouldn’t have come back.”
I took a long pull from my Davidoff, blasting smoke over his head into the fog.
“What did you hope to accomplish?” he said.
I opened my mouth to respond, and it all caught up to me. This night. That night. All the nights in between. The opium, the Children of Math, the societal analysis. The mind-control and the Society of Clay. I reached my hands into my pockets, but they came out empty, save for a crumpled pack of smokes and a lighter. No cell phone, no envelope. No proof that any of it was real. No proof that Freddie ever existed at all.
“I don’t know,” I said.
The gun shifted in Alex’s pocket. A flash of gold glinted against his collar. Freddie’s necklace, the one with the Society of Clay insignia. Comically fragile, dangling from his thick neck.
“Where’d you get that?”
He looked down. “The coroner.”
I motioned toward the handgun. “Whatever happened, that’s not going to make you feel any better.”
All the air hissed out of Alex. “I’m not here for revenge.”
I took another drag from my cigarette. That’s when I remembered. Freddie’s necklace wasn’t gold, it was stainless steel. The coroner had said he couldn’t release the evidence, since the case was never closed. Alex never liked how close Freddie and I had gotten, and now I knew why. I was interfering with his plans.
“The Maharal,” I said. The word hung between us, heavier than the fog. Despite the gravity of the situation, I couldn’t help but grimace at Alex’s chosen handle, ripped shamelessly from regional Jewish lore. Alex was a blue-blooded Anglican from Cambridge — he’d probably never even seen the inside of a synagogue. The name’s historic weight wasn’t lost on me, though, nor was the severity of its implications. I guess that was the whole point.
“You should’ve left the past in the past, Johnny. Now you’re just another loose end.”
The stone railing was cold against my back.
“What happened to Freddie?” I said.
His gaze flicked away, and his eyebrows twitched. When he looked back, his expression was impassive. But it was too late. Freddie’s fate was painted in that twitch, as clear as Alex’s guilt. I wasn’t just a loose end; I was a reminder of what he’d done. I came to Prague to find the truth. Alex was here to bury it. I guess we both succeeded.
The fog deepened the gunshot, carrying it low across the water like rolling thunder. The momentum carried my body over the railing, toward the black silk waves of the river below. It was a long, slow fall—one that had started three years prior, on a night just like this one.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Freddie whispered in my ear. “Just you and me.” She laced her fingers between mine, and drew me to my feet. She led me out into the cold night air, her body pressed against my side. I smiled and said nothing, hoping the moment would last forever.
“The Night Golem” (© Derrick Boden) was published in Issue 8 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.