Reflections in Prague, 1993

Dorothy Marcic

Originally Published in 1993

Fighting back the urge to cough, she entered the dark room which hung ominously with the weight of smoke so that you seemed to be looking at everything through a gauzed lens.  The building was old–to her at least, though not by Czech standards.  Even though Andrea’s parents had fled Czechoslovakia in 1948, she herself was born and bred in the good old US of A.  Since her parents had spoken Czech at home, she was able to pass in the “old country” as a native, if she didn’t have to speak too much.  She hoped within a few weeks her language skills would be indiscernible from the natives.

It wasn’t just the murder which brought her here to the place her parents could never stop talking about, the place they had left, their hearts almost irretrievably broken when they were forced to leave their family and homeland.  Sure, they made a new life for themselves, did quite well actually, and always talked about “looking to the future and building a new life.”

“Sometimes,” her mother would begin with that far-away look in her nearly misted eyes, “You just have to go on and not look back.  Otherwise, it’s too painful and you can’t appreciate the NEW.”  She always said the last word with a special emphasis, as if that one word could in itself convey the meaning of a different existence, a different universe.

Still, there always seemed to be an underlying sadness deep within them.  Sometimes it hung in the air, just as the smoke was now in that dim restaurant.  It showed most when letters came from “home” (they still called it that, even though they hadn’t been back for over 40 years), particularly the one telling Papa his own father had died.  The man Papa had barely had time to say goodbye to after he escaped from jail–the man Papa had never seen again had died and now any hope of looking in his face was gone forever.  Papa did not talk to anyone for three days.  He sat in his favorite chair and gazed into the air.  They saw him once reading through some old letters, no doubt from his parents.  On the second day he went out and tended to his garden, the one place which reminded him most of “home.”

On the fourth day Papa appeared at breakfast and announced matter-of-factly, “Life goes on.  We knew when we left it wouldn’t be easy.”  And that ended that, in a way.  Her father had always been pragmatic, yet with a certain idealism attached to it.  That’s actually what got him into trouble in 1948 ending in his arrest.

Yet at that moment Andrea wanted to forget the sadness of her parents’ past, of the country’s past and concentrate on her work here.  Find the murderer.

Since the Velvet Revolution–which resulted in the overthrow of communism and the election of a playright president–crime had increased dramatically.  People knew the controls were now more lax, and everyone had previously gotten used to breaking the ridiculous rules of the oppressive regime.  Some continued to “break rules” by becoming criminals.  Yet murder was still rare over here.  And even though crime was more common, it was still barely visible compared to the States.

“Prosim,” offered the waiter who hovered near her, his fat belly covered up with a soiled white apron, the kind with strings which wrap around the back and tie in the front.  This was not what you call a high-class restaurant.  In fact, it was pretty much of a dive, even for the Czechs and was located in a small (weren’t they all?) exurb of Prague, in Celakovice.  It looked to be more of a tavern, a place for lonely men to hang out every night, escaping their lack of domestic bliss, a place which only offered food as an afterthought.  But she needed to visit all the places the victim (it sounded so impersonal to her, yet that’s what Stephen Dobrovsky was) had frequented, as they say.

The waiter seemed confused to see her there, probably because she was the only woman.  When she asked for dinner, “obed,” he seemed relieved and a flush of color appeared on his face as he ushered her to a corner table, removed the ashtray billowing with worn butts and hastily brushed off the scattered ashes, as if chasing them away with his hands.  Then he scurried off to bring a menu, which was, of course, only in Czech.  The food was cheap, less that a dollar for a meal.  But then again, this was no Club 21.

Why would Stephen have come here, she wondered as she watched one overly inebriated man try in vain to win at an ancient video game, his hands never quite making the push at the right time.  Two other men sat over in the corner, staring at her.  And why not?  She didn’t fit, didn’t belong.  Not only were the rest men, but OLD men.  So how could Stephen have fit?  What was his design?

Stephen had come regularly over here after the revolution with the first wave of Americans, of which there were two types.  Those trying to contribute something to the newly forming society and those wanting to cash in.  She wasn’t quite sure which one Stephen was, though common sense told her it must be the first.  After all, he was a respected professor of East European Studies, one who had written several famous books and numerous articles on the subject.

Before the revolution he had made a few trips to collect some data for a study he was doing on economic conditions in the country.  The communists had allowed it, assuming it would be favorable towards them.  Fortunately for them, it was never published until early 1990, after the revolution, and to call it scathing would not be an exaggeration. Of course, it was written in the most proper of impersonal and scholarly language.  Yet beneath the cool exterior, one could discern the negative judgment towards the now-defunct regime.  That’s what they told her anyway.  Andrea herself had no way of knowing if that was how economic articles were supposed to be.  Her work was that of “Private Investigation,” though she had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and had taken two economics courses.

And what possible motive could anyone have to kill this man of great intellect?  Or was it some random violence?  Her inner sense told her no, for Czechoslovakia had not yet developed so far as to adopt that aspect of American “civilization.”

She pondered all of this as she smelled the pungent odor of the deep brown gravyed goulash placed before her on the small square table, as she tried not to notice all the eyes gazing upon her.

How ironic that her parents had fled in 1948 because of a brush with “the law” and now she, the first one to return after all these years, was searching out a person who had broken the most grievous of laws.


By luck (though really, she didn’t believe in the concept–usually you get what you deserve) she was able to get the very same room Stephen had stayed in at the hotel.  Czech’s generally have enough superstition that a simple explanation of “my lucky number is 209” will get the desired key.  The woman at the reception desk did not seem to think there was any thing odd in this request, but merely reached behind her and brought her hand back with a key attached to a red disk labeled “209.”  She looked at Andrea with the warm and kind smile which shy people give all the while they hold some back until they know you better.

Andrea had to be careful not to let on what her real purpose was.  Therefore, she signed up for one of the courses taught at the training center Stephen had worked with.  “Starting a New Business” seemed pretty innocuous and she figured she could skip a class here and there during the two-week time and perhaps stay on a few days extra.

The first problem was how to send periodic reports to her employer without being found out.  The consulting firm which had arranged Stephen’s seminars in Czechoslovakia had hired her to determine if there was any motive related to the courses.  No way would they want another of their consultants to end up dead.

Andrea worked her way past the hordes of workmen to find her room.  Evidently the building had already gone through privitization, moving from state to private ownership, for that was the only time one saw such activity in remodeling.  Such was the reason all the buildings before the revolution were so worn out, so barren.  It was as if some looming grey cloud hand hung over the entire country, casting a dull and colorless shadow on everything.

Drills digging into concrete made those high screechy sounds, while hammers pounded away with fiercesome force as she pushed the key into the door.  The smell of construction dust was all around and she was happy to close the door and try to shut it all out, somehow.

Throwing her things with abandon on the floor, Andrea flung herself eagerly on the soft bed.  It had what Europeans called “featherbeds,” which were thick comforters filled with goose feathers.  Very warm in the winter, but maybe too much so for this comfortable spring.  She was tired, no exhausted really, from the flight over the Atlantic, where the plane had been so packed with people she wondered if they’d run out of oxygen.  Even Manhattan subways during rush hour didn’t feel so crowded.  Naturally she got little sleep on the overnight flight and now she fought the urge to close her eyes.  It was a losing battle.

She awoke in the half-light, her throat parched, her head aching.  The clock said 7, but was that morning or evening?

New York Times – Mystery – Dorothy Marcic