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Lisa Unger

Die For You

© 2009

For Elaine Markson…

My unflagging supporter, fearless champion,

and wonderful friend.

Prologue

A light snow falls, slowly coating the deep-red rooftops of Prague. I look up into a chill gunmetal sky as the gray stones beneath me are already disappearing under a blanket of white. There’s a frigid hush over the square. Shops are closed, chairs perched upside down on cafe tables. In the distance I hear church bells. A strong wind sighs and moans, picks up some stray papers and dances them past me. The morning would be beautiful in its blustery quiet if I weren’t in so much pain-if I weren’t so cold.

The side of my body that rests against the ground is stiff and numb. With difficulty, sore muscles protesting, I struggle to sit. I use the back of a park bench to pull myself to my feet. With the harsh wind pulling at my cuffs and collar, I wonder, How long have I been lying on the freezing stone, in the middle of this empty square? How did I get here? The last thing I remember clearly is a question I asked of a young girl with tattoos on her face. I remember her eyes-very young, damaged, afraid. I asked her:

“Kde?” Where? She looked at me, startled; I remember her darting eyes, how she shifted from foot to foot, anxious, desperate. “Prosim,” I said. Please. “Kde je Kristof Ragan?” Where is Kristof Ragan?

Distantly, I remember her answer. But it’s buried too deep in my aching head for me to retrieve. Get moving, a voice inside me says. Get help. I have the sense that there’s an imminent threat, but I’m not sure what it is.

Still, I find myself rooted, leaning heavily against the bench, afraid of the tilting I perceive in my world, afraid of how hard that stone will feel if I hit it again. I am wearing jeans. My leather jacket is unbuttoned to reveal the lace of my bra through a tear in my sweater. My chest is raw and red from the cold. My right pant leg is ripped open, exposing a wound that has bled down my shin; I am having trouble putting weight onto this leg. My feet are so cold, they have gone completely numb.

The square is empty. It is just after dawn, the light gauzy and dim. A tall Christmas tree towers, its lights glowing electric blue. Smaller trees, also decorated, are clustered about, glinting and shimmering. The square is lined with wooden stalls erected for the Christmas market, the ornate black lampposts wrapped in glowing lights; wreathes adorn windows and doors. The fountain, dry for winter, is filling with snow. Old Town Square is a fairy tale. I think it must be Christmas Day. Any other day the tourists might already be strolling about, locals heading to work, bachelors stumbling home from a late night of partying. I used to love this place, feel as though I was welcome here, but not today. I am as alone as if the apocalypse has come. I’ve missed the action and been left behind.

I make my way slowly toward the road, holding on to the sides of buildings and benches, careful not to stumble. Tall spires reach into the sky; moaning saints look down upon me. I catch sight of myself in a shop window. My hair is a rat’s nest; even in this state, vanity causes me to run my fingers through it, try to smooth it out a bit. There’s a smear of mascara under each eye. I lick my finger and try to rub it away. My jacket is ripped at the shoulder. There’s a bruise on my jaw. I am angry at the woman I see in this reflection. She’s all ego, sick with her own hubris. I release a sharp breath in disgust with myself, creating a cloud that dissipates quickly into the air.

I move on, unable to bear my own reflection any longer. Up ahead I see a green-and-white police car. It is small and compact, barely a car at all-more like a tube of lipstick. I wish for the blue and white of a Chevy Caprice with screaming sirens and two tough New York City cops. But this will have to do. I pick up my pace as best I can, lift a hand to wave.

“Hello!” I call. “Can you help me?”

A female officer emerges from the driver’s side of the vehicle and moves toward me. As I approach her, I see she wears an unkind smirk. She is small for the bulky black uniform she wears. Her hair is dyed a brash, unflattering red but her skin is milky, her eyes an unearthly blue.

“Do you speak English?” I ask her when we are closer.

“A little,” she says. Uh leetle. She narrows her eyes at me. Snowflakes fall and linger in her hair. A hungover American stumbling through the streets, her expression reads. Oh, she’s seen it a hundred times before. What a mess.

“I need help,” I tell her, lifting my chin at her disapproval. “I need to go to the U.S. Embassy.” She’s looking at me harder now, her expression going from some combination of disdain and amusement to outright suspicion.

“What is your name?” she asks me. I see how she slowly, casually rests her hand on her gun, a nasty-looking black affair that seems too big for her tiny white hand. I hesitate; for some reason I’m suddenly sorry I flagged her down. I don’t want to tell her my name. I want to turn and run from her.

“Please show me your passport,” she says more sternly. Now I see a little glimmer of fear in her blue eyes, and a little excitement, too. I realize I’m backing away from her. She doesn’t like it, moves in closer.

“Stay still,” she says to me sharply, pulling her shoulders back, standing up taller. I obey. There’s more dead air between us as I struggle with what to do next.

“Tell me your name.”

I turn and start to run, stumble really, and make my way slowly, gracelessly away. She starts barking at me in Czech and I don’t need to understand the language to know I’m in deep trouble. Then I feel her hands on me and I’m on the ground again; this small woman is amazingly strong with her knee in my back. She’s knocked the wind out of me and I’m struggling to get air again with her weight on top of me. I can hear my own desperate, rattling attempts to inhale. She’s on her radio, yelling. She’s pulling my hands behind me when I feel her whole body jerk as her weight seems to suddenly shift off of me. I hear her gun drop and clatter on the stones. I scurry away from her and turn around. She has fallen to the ground and is lying on her side, looking at me with those shocking blue eyes, wide now with terror and pain. I find myself moving toward her but I stop when her mouth opens and a river of blood flows onto the snow around her. I see a growing dark stain on her abdomen. She’s trying to staunch the flow with her hand; blood seeps through her thin fingers.

Then I look up and see him. He is a black column against the white surrounding him. He has let the gun drop to his side, is standing still and silent, the wind tossing his hair. I get to my feet, never taking my eyes from him, and start to move away.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask him.

He comes closer, the muted sound of his footfalls bouncing off the buildings around us.

“Why?” I scream, voice echoing. But he is impervious, his face expressionless, as though I’ve never meant anything to him. And maybe I haven’t. As I turn to get away from him, I see him lift his gun. Before he opens fire, I run for my life.

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