Prague, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
April 20, 1970
Josh Toms parked the Moskvich he’d borrowed from Gabe on one of Holešovice’s industrial alleys, just down from the warehouse that hid Kazimir’s boxing lair. He strolled past low-slung buildings that bordered the busy river port at the Vltava’s meander just north of the city.
Should have brought a pair of boxing gloves, or a gym bag, he thought. That would have given him a good excuse for others seeing him visit the basement again during his lunch break. He didn’t try any harder than usual to look nonchalant, nor did he speed his steps. He was merely heading to a run-down warehouse, alone, and he was certainly not carrying a strange package from another foreign agent without knowing what it was.
Wouldn’t that give Edith Lowell the pip, if she knew what Josh was doing. Frank, too. The package weighed his pocket down a little, though certainly not as much as a gun would have. The contents were harmless; Alestair had said so. A small gift for Kazimir: toys for his niece.
The toys smelled like cedar, lavender, and something metallic. The wrapping crackled.
Josh knew he wanted to trust Alestair. He knew that Alestair would never deliberately walk him into harm’s way. And he knew that Kazimir didn’t have a niece.
You come to the fight in a couple nights, Kazimir had said. Sure. Then Alestair had asked him to bring Kazimir a package, and Josh had said sure to that too. He had to go back to the warehouse anyway: He needed a confirmation on the barge and, as well as things had gone the last time he saw Kazimir, he didn’t have that yet. Doing things in person—friendly, like Gabe suggested—had worked well so far. So here he was again.
The gravel crunched beneath Josh’s shoes—new ones, still needed a little breaking in—and he smelled the river nearby before he saw it. The Vltava here flowed slowly around the land’s bulge, and the wind followed the water, carrying the scent of city metals mixed with thick, fishy river muck. The port intruded here too: tendrils of grease and the occasional gust of spices—paprika today, from the way it wrinkled Josh’s nose.
A repetitive clank-clank-clank set Josh’s teeth on edge as another burden was lowered to a barge somewhere out of sight. Ships’ engines stuttered to action. With a whistle, the distant Smíchov lock signaled an imminent opening. The port was busy. Josh wondered again at how skillfully Kazimir had positioned himself at the crossroads of industry and export.
A valuable thing for a man without a niece.
Josh kept his hands casually at his sides. Didn’t reach into his coat pocket to check that the “gift” was still there. Of course it was still there.
He turned the corner that led to the back entrance of Kazimir’s warehouse. He’d barely had time to knock when the door swung wide, and there was Kazimir himself, grinning.
“Joshua, you honor us again. You are early though. The fights are tomo—”
“I’ll be back for the fights,” Josh interrupted. All he wanted was to get inside. “It’s about our business arrangement,” he said, lowering his voice to a murmur, “and I have something from a friend.”
Kazimir’s face didn’t change, but the light in his eyes seemed to harden for just a moment, then it sparkled again. He laughed. “Excellent. Come in!”
The Czech led Josh down the stairs, through the back hall, and into the main room—a typical warehouse basement, except that this one featured a well-stocked bar and a fully outfitted boxing ring.
This afternoon, only a few wooden chairs and tables remained from the previous night’s fight. The bar’s thick layer of bottles glittered in the light that came through the high basement windows. The ring itself was as professional-looking a setup as might be found in any arena: six meters square, thick blue and red ropes cinched tight to padded posts ringing a plump canvas mat that had seen more than a few heads hit it hard.
At one of the tables nearby, Kazimir’s radio whistled and growled softly. The Czech bent to adjust the knobs. “There is a fight in the United States between Olivares and Castillo I wanted to hear. Can’t find the right—” Kazimir’s hand twisted the radio’s knobs again, left and right, the tiny machine like a toy in his hands. The garbled words grew clear. “Ah!” Kazimir clapped his hands together with thunderous delight.
“And he’s down!” The radio announcer said. “That’s the fight, folks! Olivares takes the bout in fifteen rounds. A stunner!”
“Sakra! Always the timing is bad for fights. Even rebroadcasts. You do not think you could talk to someone?” Kazimir smiled sadly at Josh.
“I don’t think so.” Josh shrugged. “Not any more than you can change the direction of the Vltava.”
“Up next,” the radio said, “a rebroadcast of a classic: Johansson-Patterson, 1959.” An incongruous Strauss waltz picked up in the middle of a beat and played weedily in the background.
Kazimir’s face brightened. “This one is also an excellent fight. They...