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The Infant of Prague
By Bill Granger
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In the majestic silence of Chartres cathedral, Deveraux–code name November Man–receives his assignment: help Czechoslovakias’ cultural liaison cross over to the West. A hard enough job, even without the added complicatin of an act of God.
For in a humble Chicago parish church, the sacred statue of the Infant of Prague is found weeping real tears. A visiting Czech child star actress, transfigured by the wondrous event, declares, on live television, her intent to remain in American in the name of Christ and freedom.
Only an operative as cynical and seasoned as the November Man can sense the sinister link between two dramatic, yet apparently unrelated defections. A miracle has plunged him into a vast global adventure. And it will take a miracle to get him through it alive.
Table of Contents
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The Cathedral of Our Lady in the town of Chartres possesses a statue of the Virgin which is more than 500 years old and some believe it is a miraculous icon. In the course of Christianity, various icons, places, or particular natural resources (springs, wells, even certain rocks) have been deemed by some to have miraculous properties.
In 1987, a Greek Christian church in Chicago claimed to possess a wood painting of the Virgin which wept.
Czechoslovakia is considered among the most skilled weapons producers in the Eastern Bloc and has routinely supplied weapons to revolutionary groups in the West—notably, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Irish Republican Army.
Prague has gained favor in the West as a film production site because of the city's beauty and the favorable exchange rate.
THE AGE OF FAITH
Everyone in Chartres knows the story of the eccentric Englishman.
Thirty years ago, he came to the village southwest of Paris to see the wonderful cathedral. All the tourists came in their season. The giant continental tour buses pulled through the narrow market streets and clogged the curbing near the cathedral, and all the tourists went to the great church with their cameras and green and red Guides Michelin. All summer, the tourists mingled with the students and the pilgrims and took photographs of the cathedral and dropped coins in the box for the restoration of the cathedral. They could buy postcards depicting the church and little stickers for their car windows that showed they had come to Chartres.
The Englishman did none of these things. All that summer he would go quietly alone to the cathedral with a notebook and pencil. He made sketches and paced off distances in the church and wrote long passages about all he saw and felt and thought.
He studied the cathedral because it was a beautiful thing.
When it was autumn, the mistral began to blow down through France and touched the Côte d'Azur and colored the leaves on trees along the Seine and Loire and sent the tourists fleeing to their warm homes. Autumn cut down the farm fields around Chartres and autumn rain turned the bare earth black. And the Englishman stayed on past the season for visiting Englishmen.
Each afternoon, during the quiet time, he sat beneath the great rose windows of the cathedral entrance and contemplated the arching lines of the buttresses and the narrow, vaulted ceiling that soared so far above his head. Some said he studied the church so hard that he began to see the act of faith actually frozen in stone raised eight hundred years before, in an age when the earth was low and naked and even kings were often cold and hungry in their castles.
The Englishman knew the naked history of the place. How the old church in Chartres burned for a fourth time eight centuries ago, and how the people of the village found a blessed relic of the mother of God in the ashes and saw this as a sign to build the new, great church on the same holy ground. The bishop and the abbot approved this interpretation of the sign and the workers of Chartres began the work of a century, to lift a cathedral by cunning labor over the low, flat fields.
In time, the people of Chartres realized the Englishman would not leave the cathedral and they accepted him as part of it.
He stayed in the season and beyond it. Autumn gave way to the holy days of November, when death and the triumph of souls are honored in masses and benedictions. The light shifted in the coming winter sky and the days were gray and brief. The light that came through the immense windows of the cathedral changed every day and made the shadows in the church reveal more of itself. The Englishman would sit and stare at the altars and the statues of the saints and the great nave and the chancel and the red lamp in the sanctuary and see everything past that had come to this moment of beauty.
After a time of silence and study, the Englishman began to speak of the cathedral. He would gather a few students or pilgrims or even tourists around him and he would let his hands soar to point out the glory of the flying buttresses that lifted the walls to the sky. It was wonderful to hear him speak of the cathedral and how it was made.
He is still there. In the afternoons, he speaks in the church with his light, English voice filled with affection and humor. He describes the past as if it were an old friend, and he reveals the secrets of the cathedral with his lifted hand. The listeners are always different and what they hear they hear for the first time. The Englishman has written several little books about the cathedral and they are sold in all the shops; he spends his days as a student and pilgrim and an explainer of beauty. It is a simple life, everyone agrees. When he speaks of the church, it is as though he describes his beloved.
The Englishman lifted his hand.
He pointed to the rose windows in the great stone wall above the entrance of the church. The gesture carried dignity, like the finger of Adam reaching toward the finger of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The day was full of autumn clouds and sudden rains. The light fell delicately through the stained glass.
Hanley stared at the Englishman and held his green guidebook in his left hand. He had been waiting for twenty minutes and he had attached himself to the small group of travelers gathered around the Englishman. He felt annoyed because his overcoat was heavy and wet and because someone had kept him waiting.
Then he saw him at the side door.
The second man moved from the brief opening of daylight to the shadows to the half-light of the candles on the side altar. The candles were lit as prayers. They illuminated the ashen face of the second man, and Hanley turned away from the group and crossed the center aisle of the church.
The second man stared at him. Hanley gestured back toward the group on the other side of the church. "He's been here thirty years," he said. "Studying the church, talking about it. Thirty years. It's hard to believe a man would give up thirty years for this."
"Did you learn anything?" Devereaux said. There was an edge of sarcasm that made Hanley frown.
"Nothing that I couldn't have read about in a book," Hanley said. "The English are strange. They're always producing someone like him."
"Why are we here?" Devereaux said. He and Hanley turned away from the center of the church and stared at the marble of the side altar. The candles made their harsh winter faces seem softer. Hanley put down the green guidebook on the metal poor box. When he spoke again, he scarcely moved his lips at all.
"I was wrapped in French security in Paris," Hanley said. "Then I received a signal and there's a matter, a simple matter really, that we have to act upon right away."
"So you dragged the reluctant pilgrim to Chartres," Devereaux said. His voice was low and flat and bleak as November fields.
"I gave security the slip, went out the back way of the hotel—"
"Hidden in a laundry basket?"
"Sarcasm," Hanley said. He had been pleased with himself for slipping the French security agents assigned to "observe" him while he met in Paris with the other members of the Western Anti-Terror Committee. It had been as enjoyable as a game in childhood and now Devereaux was trying to spoil his satisfaction.
"Are we here to pray or to merely observe the beauty of the church?"
"We are here because it is secure," Hanley said. His face was bland and round, as featureless as his voice. He was director of operations for Section and was no more at home in the field than Devereaux would have been in the bureaucracy in Washington. But the matter had come up suddenly, and even if it was simple, it had to be handled now.
"This is about a man who has interested us for a little while. He's a Czech and he wants to change sides. He has some bona fides to carry along with him and we think it's worth the chance."
"Worth the risk," Devereaux said. "Worth risking the neck of an agent."
Hanley frowned again. "There is no risk."
"Do I go to Prague?"
"No. Not at all. I said there is no risk. We've set up a simple train and you're the conductor. Your passenger leaves tomorrow night from Brussels. You conduct the train and the passenger to Zeebrugge. We'll have a boat waiting."
"Who set this up? Stowe?"
Stowe was the head of Eurodesk operations for the Section located in Brussels. Stowe was the logical connection for the business. Devereaux knew all this and wondered why Hanley insisted it was a simple matter.
"Stowe is not involved," Hanley said.
"You'll have to do better than that."
"I do not have to do better," Hanley said.
They waited for a moment. The statue of a saint stared back at Hanley's glare. Hanley lowered his eyes and his voice. "There is urgency and a need to involve as few people as possible."
"Who runs the train?"
"Perfectly reliable contractors in Brussels. They've been used before."
"Then why involve me?"
Hanley looked up. He seemed surprised. "But you're our man on the scene. That's obvious, isn't it?"
"Who's the defector?"
"Miki. Actually, Emil Mikita is the name. He's called Miki. A show-business sort of a person, they all have those kinds of short names. In Europe, I mean."
"Is he going to play you in the movie?" Devereaux asked.
"Humor," Hanley said. He felt compelled to identify remarks and moods of others in order to minimalize them. He never realized that Devereaux thought he was merely showing slowness of wit.
"Miki is the contact man between the State Ministry for Tourism and Films and a wide range of… Western entertainment interests," Hanley said. "He is the fixer, you might say, the man who gets things done. He's well known in some circles."
"How nice for him," Devereaux said. He rested his large hands on the communion rail that fenced off the small side altar. The candles reminded him; the lingering damp in the stone walls, the unblinking statues, the scent of burned incense in the church reminded him. The trouble with living into middle age was being reminded by all sorts of things of childhood, the time before you discovered the way things would turn out.
"He's in Brussels for an affair, something about the International Society of Filmmakers. He's supposed to get an award. Apparently, everyone makes movies in Prague now because of the costs and because the city looks… well, European. The way Europe used to look."
Devereaux said, "He travels abroad?"
"All the time. He's very connected. Sort of an impresario."
"Who works for the government."
"That's the way they do things over there."
"He goes to New York," Devereaux said. "Why doesn't he defect in Bloomingdale's?"
Hanley pursed his lips. "There are complications."
"I thought it was a simple matter."
"Your name was selected by… by the director." Hanley referred to Mrs. Neumann, the new Section chief.
"I'm flattered," Devereaux said. "How much more complicated does it get?"
"The complications are all outside, they don't involve you."
Devereaux turned. He stared at Hanley and his gray eyes glittered in the candlelight. There was something dangerous in those eyes and Hanley wanted to turn away but he could not.
"The complication is outside," Hanley repeated. "Our competition at Langley. Langley was interested in Miki before we were. Perhaps they tried too hard. Miki has made it clear that he doesn't trust Langley in this."
"But he trusts Section."
"Is any of this certain? Or is Section depending on astrology again?"
Hanley winced. It had been an unfortunate matter and no one mentioned it anymore. Somehow, a clerk rose to GS-15 inside Section. He had complete clearance to the level of Q. And he was in charge of processing new code names for the permanent files of senior field officers. Instead of making random selections, however, he studied astrology charts and imprinted all the agents with names that—given their birth dates and other astrological data—"augured well for Section." So one became Aries and another became Tuesday and another was called Midnight. And the man who spoke to Hanley now was known on the permanent files as "November," though he used other names as well.
"There is a certainty that the risk of snatching Miki is small, compared with potential rewards. He's a top man in the Prague bureaucracy and he knows secrets and we want them. All Miki wants is a snatch—this is not a defection. He wants to be obliterated by us and buried in an empty grave."
Devereaux sighed. "A new name and identity. The country is going to become full of people with new names and new fingerprints, and no one will ever know who they really once were."
"Miki is afraid of Langley and that makes him all the more important to us," Hanley went on. "He hints he has a bit on Langley's dealings with the Czechs as well."
"Hints," Devereaux said. He used the word with contempt. He was tired of Hanley, tired of traveling. They had telephoned the number in Lausanne and the message had been waiting for him in a folded-up copy of the Journal de Genève at the train station. He had traveled all night and all day, doubling back on himself to make certain he was safe. And Hanley had merely slipped out the back door of a Paris hotel to do the same thing.
"And what if it's not what it appears to be?" Devereaux asked. The tone of his voice had not changed, but Hanley felt on guard.
"There is no risk," Hanley said.
"Everything is a risk. Did Miki dictate the terms of his escape?"
"Not the terms. He doesn't know the train or the route. He only knows the time. Twenty-one hundred tomorrow at the Grand Place in Brussels. You'll be out of it less than two hours later. And back home to sleep in Lausanne."
"You want him for what he might have on Langley," Devereaux said, falling into the Section slang term for Central Intelligence Agency. "Just another bit of interagency competition."
"The pig that doesn't fight doesn't get to feed at the trough," Hanley said. "Everything is competition in the end."
"And what if the business fails? And Miki is part of a trap? Who gets the blame?"
"It can't fail," Hanley said. In the silence, they could hear the clear voice of the Englishman behind them. He was describing the work of lifting stones upon wooden scaffolds to the top of the church.
"Who gets the blame if it fails?"
"Whoever kidnapped Miki," Hanley said.
There it was between them. November was the sleeping agent, stricken from active files, and yet he was useful in a situation like this. Once a spy, always a spy; it was the rule and they both knew it could never be broken or altered in any way.
"Not Section," Devereaux said then. He had the truth at least. Stowe and Eurodesk Section were bypassed because what was about to happen in Brussels would never be traced back to Section if things went wrong.
"No, not Section," Hanley agreed. "We would never be involved in a business like that." He opened his Michelin guide and took out the instruction sheet written in clearspeak. He gave the paper to Devereaux. "You can drop this in the water font by the door. It's dissolvable."
That's holy water, Devereaux thought. The thought was not voluntary and he flinched from it. It was what he would have believed as a child. That was the cruelty of memory, to keep the faith of childhood alive even in the autumn bleakness of middle age.
Devereaux looked up from the candles and Hanley was gone and the voice of the Englishman echoed in the vast cathedral. He stared at the piece of paper. Then, almost with reluctance, he made his own way toward the side door. He paused at the marble font and stared at the stale water that was blessed by one of the priests. When the faithful came into the church or left it, they dipped fingers in the water and made the sign of the cross.
Devereaux opened the door to the last light of afternoon. It was raining. He had crumpled the paper up at the last moment and shoved it deep in the pocket of his coat.
THE AGE OF REASON
The statue began to weep on Monday.
Wally, the church custodian, was the first person to notice the tears. Shortly after school opened, he crossed the concrete courtyard from the school to the church to make sure the heat had been turned down after the morning schedule of Masses. Wally was a tall, shambling man who wore flannel shirts in summer and winter and always carried a black-handled screwdriver in the back pocket of his wash pants.
He was not a Catholic, but he had been attached to St. Margaret of Scotland Church for so long that everyone assumed he was. He had watched the change of rites and rituals over the years with the eye of a connoisseur: The Latin Mass, with its bowing priests and whiffs of incense, had changed into an English-speaking, homey rite that involved much shaking of hands, playing of guitars, and a new, low altar shaped like a dining room table. Wally thought he did not like the new way as much as the old, and this thought was on his mind the morning he checked the thermostat in the church. At least, that is what he said later.
At first he thought one of the radiator pipes on the side altar had burst and sprayed the statue with hot water. Then he got close to the little statue and saw that the water was only on the painted face. No, it was more precise than that: Wally knelt on the base of the side altar and peered closely at the face of the statue of the Christ Child. Tears, he thought. The statue was weeping. The thought was so profound that Wally nearly fell backwards off the altar where he knelt.
Wally had few yearnings but one of them was an ordinary man's desire for fame, however fleeting. He always listened to radio call-in shows in his unofficial "office" in the basement of the church, and he frequently tried to call his favorite programs when they proposed some provocative question. His best moment had come one November when he expressed the opinion that Ronald Reagan was the best President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had held the airwaves for a full forty-five seconds that time.
Now, recovering from the miracle, he went to his office in the basement and began to make the calls that would lead him to fame. He called the Tribune and the Sun-Times, and at both places the response was unenthusiastic. They took his name and telephone number and said "someone" would check it out. The news radio station said much the same thing in different terms and so did the woman who answered the telephone at Wally's favorite television news station. By chance, he was connected with Kay Davis at a second television station on his sixth try.
Kay Davis did not believe him either, but it was Monday morning after a gloomy, arid weekend and she sat at her desk in the newsroom and saw Hal Newt glaring across at her as she listened to Wally.
Hal Newt did not like Kay Davis very much anymore. It was nothing personal. Kay Davis was a mistake and they both knew it now. That's what he had told her in different terms at lunch Friday and she had chewed on the words all weekend.
She had come to the Chicago station with promise two years before. She had been a success in Des Moines, and when she left the Des Moines station for Chicago, they had written about her in the local paper. Hal Newt had brought her in and sold her to the station manager, who, in turn, oversold her success story to the director of the owned-and-operated stations of the network. As it turned out, Hal Newt had been too optimistic and the station manager, Al Buck, held it against him because his enthusiasm had made Buck lose face in New York.
Whatever sold margarine on the local news in Des Moines did not do the same thing in Chicago. Kay Davis, like the other starring faces on the local news, had a "book" that outlined her acceptability rating by the faceless public. Her book was a failure. Her book said men liked her but not in a sexy way—she came across as too cold and calculating. Women, on the other hand, found her too sexy for her own good. "If it was just reversed, we'd be looking at a whole different book," Hal Newt had said over lunch Friday. And Kay Davis had spent the weekend after that terrible lunch thinking bad thoughts.
Wally told her that a statue in the church was crying. She half-listened to him and stared across at Hal Newt and thought she would start screaming if she had to sit in the newsroom all morning.
And so she went to the church.
Two of the vans used by the news department—and dubbed "Actionmobiles"—were in the repair shop and a third had been dispatched to the Chicago Bears training camp in Lake Forest. So Kay Davis took a ride to the church in an ordinary car with Dick Lester, the technician with the camera and sound box. Dick Lester asked what kind of a story it was and Kay Davis said it probably wasn't a story at all. She just had to go someplace.
By the time they got to the church, Wally had gotten around to telling Father Hogan about the weeping statue. Frank Hogan had crossed the same courtyard from the rectory to the church and beheld the water stains on the plaster face of the Christ Child. When Wally told him about the lady from the television station coming to St. Margaret of Scotland, Frank Hogan was horrified.
He barred Dick Lester's camera from the church. "We can't have a circus going on here," he explained on the church steps, and when Dick Lester seemed intent on pushing the priest aside, Kay Davis intervened. She told Dick to wait and said she wanted to see the statue for herself. The priest, smiling at the pretty, familiar face of the TV reporter, asked her if she was a Catholic.
"Yes, Father," she lied and he let her into the church.
"You know the statue, of course," he said as he led her up the left-hand aisle to the side altar.
"Yes," she said.
"The Infant of Prague," he said. He looked worried.
"The representation of the Christ Child as ruler of the world."
Wally stayed at the church door, instructed to keep Dick Lester out.
Kay Davis stared at the little plaster statue and saw the stains on the face. The Infant of Prague was a child dressed with lace cuffs and collar, holding an orb surmounted by a cross. The Child wore an ornate, bulbous, Eastern-style crown on his head. She stared at the statue and saw what she did not expect to see. She thought she saw tears at the eyes.
She blinked and did not speak.
"I thought it was the steam pipe, myself," Father Hogan said. "There doesn't appear to be a leak. But you have to be suspicious about these things. You know, something like this can reflect badly on the Church."
And on the priest who calls it a miracle, he thought.
A miracle, Kay Davis thought, thinking of Hal Newt and her bad book and the endless lunch last Friday at Arnie's. She had wanted to get drunk when Hal Newt explained about the book and about how it was probably his fault and that he had "rushed" her instead of "grooming" her acceptance by the public. As it was, she had polished off three very dry vodka martinis.
"This is wonderful," she said to Father Hogan.
"Well, it is certainly out of the ordinary," Father Hogan said.
"But it's wonderful," she said. "You have to let people see it."
"The church is open to all."
She shook her head. "No! I mean really see it. On television."
"That's where you would come in," he said.
"Why not, Father? I'm a Catholic," she said. And I need a miracle right now.
"I don't think… I think I need some advice on this. I better get in touch with the chancery office," he said. He thought about the Cardinal in that moment. The Cardinal was very big on social responsibility, racial justice, and the rights of the unborn. Somehow, he didn't see the Cardinal being overjoyed about a miracle at St. Margaret of Scotland Church. It was corny and flashy, something you might expect from one of those fundamentalists on television.
In the end, Dick Lester made do with shots of the exterior of St. Margaret and Kay Davis standing on the steps of the church explaining the miracle of the weeping statue. She also gave Wally fifteen seconds of fame on camera for being the person to discover the weeping statue. Father Hogan declined to be on camera because he was wearing his off-duty wardrobe, consisting of a green Izod shirt and yellow slacks.
It was just as well.
Kay Davis got a full sixty seconds on News at Five, which perked her up. The station lost the segment for News at Ten but—miraculously, said a sly Dick Lester—it was revived and expanded into a ninety-second featurette on the morning news.
The Cardinal's liaison man was on the telephone to St. Margaret of Scotland rectory shortly after morning Mass on Tuesday.
Had Father Hogan seen the news on television? asked the Cardinal's man.
Yes, the previous night, said Father Hogan.
Had he seen the statue itself? asked the Cardinal's man.
Yes, he had.
Well, what did he think of it?
Think of what? asked the parish priest.
The miracle, said the Cardinal's man.
Well, Father Hogan replied, it appeared there was a liquid-like substance to be seen on the face of the statue of the Infant of Prague.
And what part did Father Hogan have in alerting the news media to this phenomenon?
None at all, Father Hogan protested. He explained that Wally the custodian had created the stir. He added that Wally was not even a Catholic, although that had not come out in the television report.
A silence lay between the chancery office and the rectory of St. Margaret's for a moment, and then Father Hogan had asked what he should do.
"Do what you think you should do," said the Cardinal's man.
"But can I get some guidance on this?" Father Hogan asked.
"In what way?" asked the Cardinal's man.
"Well, I was thinking, maybe the chancery could issue a statement," Father Hogan said.
The ball came smashing back to his own court: "The chancery was not even informed of the… phenomenon… until the Cardinal saw the news this morning on television."
So he watches TV news in the morning, Father Hogan thought. You'd think he'd have more important things to do than that.
"I certainly should have informed… someone," Father Hogan said.
- On Sale
- Oct 28, 2014
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing