Prologue

Café Milena, Prague, Czech Republic –Saturday 5th December 1998 4.59 pm

I was standing by the window watching Death outside in the snow when the Devil walked into the room. I moved to greet him, but he hadn’t come for me – instead the fur-clad figure approached a group seated at one of the many café tables, and anointed a laughing child on the nose with a sooty thumb.

Momentarily relieved, I turned back to the window. I wiped away the condensation with my coat-sleeve, cupped my hands about my face and pressed my nose against the icy, stale-smelling glass. Outside the snow was falling thickly and silently through the night air. Illuminated by light from the window it streaked downwards like a shower of falling stars, giving me the sickening sensation that instead of the snow falling it was the café that was soaring heavenwards.

Through the maelstrom of swirling flakes I could just discern, seeming to hang unsupported in the air like two wheels of fire from some Biblical vision, the interlocked golden dials of the Orloj, the ancient astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall tower that stood opposite the cafe across the square. Above the gilded dials, though now only visible in the brief moments when the dizzying fall of snow seemed to quiver, halt and change the direction of its descent, stood the carved wooden image of Death that I had been watching intently before the costumed Devil had interrupted my vigil. Even through the thickening snow I could see the carving was beginning to move.

I had seen this spectacle many times before, but tonight it filled me with rising dread. I watched as the wooden image was jerked into an imitation of life, if such a word can be properly used of Death, by hidden chains and pulleys. With his right hand he was shaking a bell, whose slow, metallic tang-tang-tang had roused from sleep twelve carved apostles hitherto secreted behind two shuttered windows further up the clock-tower, which were now making their shuffling oblations to the cheering crowds below. This mechanical dumb-show – a prologue to the striking of the hour – had taken place on the hour, every hour, for over half a millennium. Tonight, I willed it to cease, as if by doing so the flow of time itself might halt and the fateful hour never arrive. But I was powerless to stop its approach. With every shake of Death’s bell I felt weaker. I knew that as the new hour struck the figure of Death would invert the hourglass he held in his other hand – and my time would be up:

'Meet in the Café Milena at 5 o’clock…’

Why hadn't I left, merged into the crowds, in the two hours that had elapsed between the making of this arrangement and now? He would never have found me. I could have easily escaped – found the police (though what exactly I could have told them that wouldn’t have sounded insane I didn’t know) – or just got a taxi to the airport. Why hadn’t I run? Why didn’t I leave now? There might still be time, I thought. No. I wouldn’t run. That didn’t appeal to me. It didn’t fit in with my sense of destiny. But more importantly there was her. I had to know the truth. Had her actions been genuine, her expressions of desire authentic, or had even these been part of the perverse game that I was becoming increasingly convinced had been orchestrated here over the past few days at my expense?

These growing suspicions were founded on nothing more tangible than the few hurried words she had whispered to me as we had parted that afternoon. If I had understood their meaning correctly then they rendered suspect the actions and intentions of all I had met in the last week – including my own. The situation reminded of those strange images consisting of seemingly random dots or textures that if one observed with a de-focalized gaze suddenly formed into a 3-dimensional figure such as a rearing stallion or a star. Similarly the veiled thrust of her words allowed me, in horror, to review the events of the last few days, and to perceive, in the seemingly random and spontaneous play of day to day occurrence, the existence of a hitherto hidden pattern: the unmistakeable and perfectly exacted plotline of a medieval legend of which I, a PhD student of Medieval European Literature at one of England’s lesser universities, was intimately familiar. If this was the case, and not just the product of my over-heated imagination, then someone, or something, had been manipulating me and every situation I had been in from the moment I had arrived, if not before; an unseen stage manager pulling my chains and pulleys as surely as those of the cadaverous automaton opposite. And I had no doubt of the identity of the hidden master of ceremonies.

I looked over the crowds below, trying in vain to catch sight of him – hoping to see what sort of mood he was in from the manner of his approach. But from this height and in this weather it was impossible. In the main expanse of the Old Town Square, to the right of the clock tower, the crowds seemed to be capering around the large illuminated Christmas tree that towered above the wooden market stalls as if it were a flame at the centre of a Witches’ Sabbath, a ‘Danse Macabre’ choreographed by the grinning skeleton opposite. Amongst them I could make out more people dressed as devils like the one who had entered the café a little before - many being led in chains by mitred bishops and winged angels – all costumed revellers on this the eve of the feast of St Nicholas. If he was in costume, too, I would have no chance of recognising him. Yet still I looked.

I realised now that his choice of this date was more than coincidental. Tomorrow morning children would wake to find their shoes either filled with sweets from the bearded Saint or, if they had been especially bad, a piece of coal from the Devil, of which the sooty mark on the nose, such as I’d just witnessed being dealt, was a forewarning. In the past these naughty children would have been threatened with a beating, too, though the angel would always intervene before the devil was able to strike a blow with the birch-rods he carried. Tonight, if the newfound knowledge of my situation was correct, I too would be judged. And how would I fare? I had no doubt my punishment would be much more severe than a sooty, or even bloody, nose. If only he’d given me time to explain, I thought. But I knew I wouldn’t get the chance now, not tonight. Tonight the Devil had the upper hand. And my angel, it now seemed increasingly likely, far from interceding on my behalf had been in his service from the start; she had been the bait in his cunningly laid trap.

Despite the venom in her parting words, I still could not fully allow myself to believe that she, too, had been anything but an unwilling player in this farce. Perhaps, I thought, fingering the green silk handkerchief she had given me earlier, she had been forced, threatened, to behave this way. But the more I considered this the less likely it seemed.

I shook my head, trying to clear it of all thought. I had to think rationally. Perhaps her final words had meant nothing, or I had misinterpreted them. If I were at home in England now I would no doubt have been able to laugh at this pantomime as a product of my all too fertile mind, or derangement of the same due to the drinking of too much cheap absinthe; but here, in this ancient city burdened with the great weight of age and history, on this night of masks and mischief, I could not sufficiently rise above the prevailing mood of paranoia to think clearly – it was drawing me in, drowning me. I had no objective viewpoint from which to discern whether this was really happening or whether I was wrongly imposing this pattern upon the last 6 days in the same way that some people saw animals in the clouds, or the face of Jesus in the scorch marks on a tortilla. The problem was that if this wasn’t my own invention, and I had truly been embroiled in a carefully and shrewdly scripted re-enactment of a mythical event, then I was in grave danger. For the legend, as I understood it, dictated that tonight I would be judged – and if found wanting would not survive the ordeal.

From the clock-tower a bugle sounded – a harsh mechanical blast that drew my attention back to the yellowed wooden skeleton, in time to see him invert his hourglass. With the blast I felt a visceral tremor, a liquid feeling in the guts, and I knew he was behind me. I turned.

He was standing at the doorway dressed as St Nicholas – wearing a white mitre and a long curly white false beard, obscuring the features and any telltale sign of what emotion they bore. But I knew it was him by the dark creased eyes, and the thick square-rimmed spectacles. He approached. His voice was neutral.

‘Your costume, Herr Mayhawke.’

He had thrown something down on a nearby table that at first resembled the russet-coloured pelt of a dead animal. For a few seconds I just stared at it – then picked it up – it was a black devil’s mask and a long fur-lined cloak.

‘For some reason I expected you to come as the Devil.’ I said, with false bravado. His false beard raised a little as, I guessed, he smiled beneath it and then he laughed – a natural, unforced laugh and he lifted the fur cloak onto my shoulders over my long coat. “I thought I had been the perfect host, Thomas!”

The cloak went on easily, and the cloth devil’s mask covered my whole head. When I found I could not see I tried adjusting the mask, but the eye holes, I soon discovered, had been stitched. I was, save for a sliver of a view of the floor afforded by the loose-fit of the hood, blind.

‘Hurry. He is waiting.’ he said and I felt my hands taken, and swiftly and expertly bound in a light but strong metal chain. All around me I could here muffled laughter from the café tables. Someone shouted a comment and laughed – and my captor replied in Czech, laughing too. Then I felt the chain tighten as I was lead, haltingly, through the café and down the flight of stairs that led to the lobby and out into the cold.

Despite my predicament, as I was drawn through the crowds, my footfalls creaking in the powdery snow, I found myself smiling wryly at the ingeniousness of my host: Only on this night, I thought ruefully, could one be publicly masked, bound in chains and led openly through busy city streets with any protestations and cries for help met with indifference or laughter! And so I chose to walk silently to my judgement, one chained devil among many, on this, the eve of St Nicholas.