Prague, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
April 7, 1970
“Just what sort of place is this again?”
Edith stood outside Bar Vodnář, frowning. Somebody had emptied their stomach in the gutter, the yellow spume as yet untouched by spring rains. The investigator from Langley chewed her lip, staring at Gabe, then the puke, then Josh.
“It’s nicer inside,” said Gabe.
Edith’s frown turned into a moue of distaste. As she had all afternoon, she looked ready to call the whole thing off. Josh’s unusual enthusiasm for the outing had barely moved the needle on her inclination to get tipsy with them.
Why so hesitant? Don’t like the neighborhood, or is it that you don’t like the way this place makes you feel? Gabe watched her carefully. Their recent close call at Terzian’s apartment had mostly assuaged his concerns that Edith might be another double agent working for the Flame. But, then again, if she really wanted to sell her cover, blithely walking into a magical booby trap would do it. So the niggling doubt lingered in the back of his mind, alongside the hitchhiker. Are you hesitating because your idea of fun is going home to inventory all the spoons in your cupboard, or because the ley lines have your blood fizzing like a can of Coca-Cola that someone tossed down the stairs?
“Every city has the occasional drunk,” he said. “Don’t blame the bar for that.”
“Yeah. People throw up in the street all the time,” said Josh, looking straight at Gabe. Or on police officers, said the twitch at the corner of his mouth.
Gabe shot him a Look: You’re not helping.
“What Josh means, I think, is that it’s not putting its best face forward tonight.”
Jordan’s place was his trump card. If Edith were another Flame adept who’d infiltrated the CIA, the ley line nexus quietly thrumming under the bar should have set her hair standing on end. Before he’d achieved détente with the hitchhiker, trips to the Vodnář had always come with an unpleasant full-body tingle, like munching on aluminum foil with metal fillings. Taking a magical adept to a ley line nexus was like taking an alcoholic to a whiskey distillery.
Sometimes you could learn a lot by being a bastard.
He had to know where Edith stood. Was she an ally, a neutral party, or a dire enemy?
So Gabe watched her for twitchy fingers, nervous tics, beads of sweat on the brow. But she was cool as a cucumber. If anything, Josh was the more conspicuous of the pair, constantly licking his lips and stealing glances at her, as if screwing up his courage for a suicide mission.
Finally, she sighed. “All right. I’m trusting you two.”
“Great. First round’s on me.” Gabe opened the door. The smells of anise and incense wafted from the bar, as did a few measures of a Louis Prima song. “Ladies first.”
She frowned at that, too, but entered. And without so much as a catch in her step. The hitchhiker found her unremarkable. But it’d squawk if she reached for the ley lines.
The bar was about half full, typical for a Tuesday night. They wended past the dart players toward a table in the far corner.
“Is that a vintage Wurlitzer? How’d they get that in here?”
Gabe shrugged. “I don’t know how Jordan gets half the stuff in this bar, honestly.”
“So, hey, Edith,” said Josh, after they sat. He scooped a handful of peanuts from the bowl on the table. “I wanted to ask you something.”
His tone was light, but he looked like a man strolling to the gallows.
Oh, hell. I know what this is about.
Gabe stood, perhaps a bit too quickly. “I know Josh’s poison. What’s yours?”
“Gimlet, please. Gin, not vodka. The rail is fine.” Straight to the point, even when ordering a drink. But she’d swill the cheap stuff, for which his finances thanked her.
The music fell silent, the jukebox whirring as it changed out the 45 to trade Louis Prima for The Beatles. Here I stand, head in hand . . .
At the bar, Jordan didn’t return his nod, just reached under the bar and produced two beer bottles without saying a word. Then, after hearing Edith’s order, she silently stood on her toes and plucked a dusty bottle of Rose’s Lime Juice from the shelf. She didn’t speak, didn’t look at him.
“You’re acting like I just tracked dog shit in here.”
“Maybe you did, Pritchard.” She punctuated this with the thunk of a knife slamming into a cutting board as she sliced a lime to garnish Edith’s glass.
“Oh, come on. What have I done wrong now?”
“In case you’ve forgotten,” she said, fingertips brushing her bracelet charm, “this is supposed to be neutral ground. Neutral. Your little stunt earlier this spring cost me credibility.” She meant him and Tanya and Alestair, he knew.
“I don’t recall anyone twisting your arm.” Taking out Dom’s plane was the right thing to do, and you know it.
“Yeah, well, you’re officially out of favors.”
“I’ll make a special note in my diary.” He pulled out his wallet and flicked a few bills on the bar. “Keep the change.” He made to scoop up the drinks.