As he was leaving campus, David let pass by a group of his students on their way from lecture. He stood behind the heavy door for a moment, observing the outside world through the glass window-panes. At the opposite side of the street was parked his Ford Mustang and nothing indicated that something was wrong. The vehicle was exactly where he’d left it in the morning, on the roof and windshield a fresh blanket of snow. It snowed all morning, but now the sky above the roofs of the majestic buildings of his alma mater glistened in blue. The year ninety-eight was becoming interesting. An azure-colored day, ripe for cross-country skiing. They could go with Alice. They’ll take a sled for Kačenka, that’s a great idea. Shake off the stress a little. Hopefully it’s all behind them now. The Alternative Clinic now shows its positive side. Soon he’ll be able to reduce his hours in surgery and his lecturing hours, too. For the summer semester, he’ll choose the hours he wants. David was smiling and nodding to himself. Yes, the world is a bright place after all. Finally he’ll also be able to find time for his charitable work for disabled children. For a second, he felt almost ashamed that he’d devoted so much time to the clinic. The clinic is gaining in popularity and brings in revenue. That’s a signal for greater popularity and increased activity. It’ll be fine. Everything will settle.
David stepped out into the gorgeous winter day and headed toward his car. He swept away snow enough to open the door and grab the broom. Students were passing by, greeting him, some deep in thought and others laughing. Those were the ones who’d completed their exams before the deadline, he figured.
“I hope that you’ll stop for us when we’re hitch-hiking, professor,” giggled two young students from his lectures.
“That’s why I’m clearing away the snow,” said David cheerfully. A day as it should be. Yes, in the afternoon they’ll go cross-country skiing; Alice deserves a break too.
He drove out. The drive was pleasant, allowing him to clear his head. Everything will be great from now on.
One intersection, a second one, a left-hand turn, strange. A white Škoda was close behind him the whole time. Is it following him or not? He continued, glancing in his rear-view mirror frequently now. He found himself on a straight and clear segment of the road, further from the busy centre. The Škoda still in tow. What does this mean? At the next intersection David was hoping for a green light, but the Škoda signaled and David slowed down. The light turned red, so he stopped. Is it the police? Did he do something? Speeding? It’s possible.
The Škoda slowly pulled up beside him and from the rear window someone extended a hand. They were giving him something. David opened his window, and before he was able do anything else, someone threw an object from the front window inside the vehicle. He missed. The object struck the door-frame of Dr. Říha’s car and rolled to the ground. David looked at the snow-covered road and felt a chill down his spine. The thing was smoking. A metallic cylinder that was smoking, almost imperceptibly. He didn’t wait for the green light, bolted into the intersection and left behind the Škoda that immediately broke into pursuit. In the mirror David saw an explosion. He didn’t hear anything – he was quite far at this point – but understood. The traffic situation did not permit for him to fully unleash the horse-power under his hood. The road was slippery, winding, and heavy traffic all around him. The Škoda appeared immediately behind him. Who’s in there? Four? Or three of them? His heart was pounding. He pressed on the gas pedal as soon as it was at least a little bit possible. He got to a shorter street, the engine thundering as the vehicle picked up power. In the rear-view mirror appeared the pursuing car, launching from behind the curve and chasing Říha’s Mustang. He took a right turn and wanted to continue, but was halted by a sign and a construction dug-out. He slowed down, waited for an oncoming Renault to pass, but before he could step on the gas again the Škoda was at his bumper. David darted out and now he was disregarding traffic regulations completely. He has to shake them off. The streets were not ready for such a car chase, but Říha knew that he had no choice. Until now, he only knew such situations from the movies. But in real streets, in the actual seat of his own car, when his wet palms clutch the steering wheel and he is actually being followed and hunted, it is something entirely different. Říha talked to himself quietly: “straight there, right signal, but I’ll take a left…what is it?...who…go, go…bug off, bug off…ok now…right…right…good good, very good….” He realized there’s no point in losing time and distracting himself by checking the rear-view mirror. Just straight ahead, regardless of what’s behind. Just go! Bit further, a little further still, now he’ll take a short detour and quickly slip into the far left lane.
Only now did David glance in the rear-view mirror. What? Where are they? Did he get rid of them? As he was alone in the car, David shouted loudly: “Good!” clenching his right fist and hitting the steering wheel.
He eased up and only then his hands began to shake. He took a deep breath, as it all started to hit him. Fuelled with adrenaline, he hadn’t fully realized what was happening. He was acting on instinct.
Now he reached for his cell and called home.
“Where are you, David, I was starting to worry.”
“Oh nothing. You’re ok?”
“Yes, I am. Did something happen? Don’t tell me something else with the clinic.”
“No, no,” but it didn’t sound convincing, “everything’s fine. I was thinking we could go out and enjoy the snow. Grab cross-country skis and a sled for Kačenka.”
“It’s up to you, David. If it’s not too late already.” David looked at his watch. Three-thirty? That’s unbelievable!
“Ok, I’ll just come home then. I have had a long day today, anyway. Are you alright, Alice?”
“Yes, why wouldn’t I be?”
“David, what is it? Is something wrong?”
“No, I just worry. That’s all. So I’ll be home in a little bit.” He wanted to end the conversation before Alice would begin to ask questions.
He turned on the radio and tried to forget about it. Maybe it was supposed to be just to scare him. And what if it was just a prank, unrelated to his clinic and to him? A coincidence. Maybe it was just a coincidence and he started to panic. Even so, certain words kept coming to him like a tape recording; words to which he should probably pay some attention. It was Štěrba, who recently told him with an unpleasant smile: “…it’s thanks to you, rich folk, that us proletariat are visible. So I’m actually thankful to you that you finally showed me where I belong….”
When they were scrubbing in last week before surgery, Aleš Martinec joked: “….the O.R. nurses can fashion an ‘alternative’ scalpel made of flint….” Is it just jokes, or no? Humor that’s healthy, or malicious?
And what was it that Franta Stárnský said the other day? It was on Saturday, when they were rehearsing with Dixidem. He was folding up his clarinet, when he lamented: “…if alternative music made as much money as alternative medicine, I’d convert today.”
Říha wasn’t sure if he was being overly sensitive. People often poke at each other sarcastically. Yes, he has money, but is that really the common trigger for all that he’s going through? It’s bizarre. And then Janík. Jirka Janík. How can he know that the clinic’s building, because of its location and adjoining land, has a financial value much higher than the price that he’d paid? That was simply the set price – David didn’t come up with the price-tag. It also wasn’t the purpose of his investment. Actually, how could Janík even know this? Or is it just his common sense and he’s deducing all this? Probably. Anyone with eyes can see the place is valuable. But still, how does he know how much he’d paid for it? Maybe David himself mentioned it. Of course. They probably discussed it at some point. What else?
Dr. Říha pulled up in front of his building, got out of the car and shut the door. Something drew his eyes to the back seat – opening the door again he grabbed a letter. At that moment, he didn’t know that Alice was watching him from behind the curtain. Red writing. How did it get in the car? It was locked. Or wasn’t it? Perhaps he forgot to lock the door. His fingers were trembling as he was opening the envelope. He pulled out the folded letter and read. Alice could see that David was reading, and understood that it hasn’t stopped. But she didn’t know what he was reading. David slowly folded the letter back into the envelope, stared at it for another minute and then he returned it to the car. He didn’t even want to bring it home. This Alice really doesn’t need to know. It’s up to him to make a decision. He’s the captain of the ship and he has the responsibility.
David felt like throwing up, as he was climbing up the stairs to their apartment. He wanted to shake it off, snap out of it, but it was too strong. The text kept returning before his eyes.
IF YOU DON’T LET GO OF THE CLINIC, YOUR DAUGHTER WON’T FIND HER WAY HOME FROM SCHOOL.