Published in November 2021, Andrew Pratt’s first novel is called In the Heart of Prague (Honza Book 1). It is the first in a series of modern-day crime detective stories set in Prague, Czech Republic.
The novel’s protagonist is Jonny Fox, a recently retired DCI from London’s Metropolitan Police. Jonny visits Prague on vacation but soon becomes embroiled in a murder mystery.
How to Enter
The competition to win a signed copy ended 30th April and Andrew has kindly donated three copies of his book to winning entrants, Ramona, Helena and Tristan. However, you can still read Chapter One below and then decide if you’d like to order In the Heart of Prague (Honza Book 1) from Amazon:
- UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Heart-Prague-Honza-Book/dp/1800741901/
- DE: https://www.amazon.de/-/en/Andrew-Pratt/dp/1800741901/
- US: https://www.amazon.com/Heart-Prague-Honza-Book-ebook/dp/B09MTVVSLL
Chapter One – Old Town Square, Prague
Monday, 15th March 2010
The afternoon sun bathed Old Town Square, Staroměstské Náměstí, in warmth, creating near-perfect lighting fit for a picture postcard. Tourists ambled slowly across the cobbles, lost in their leisure and absorbing the fine architecture, only interspersed by the few local businessmen striding across the square, briefcases in hand and heads down at the beginning of the working week.
Jonny stopped at the restaurant, pausing to savour the view, and sat down at his usual table in the corner of the terrace with a good vantage point. His usual table implied some long-standing relationship to the restaurant, but this routine had materialised quickly, with five visits in as many days since his arrival in Prague. Jonny was a creature of habit, deciding what he liked quickly and then sticking by it.
The restaurant wasn’t as busy as it had been the previous day, the attraction of a city break as the weather was improving having swollen the crowds in the centre over the weekend. Everywhere in Prague seemed to have suddenly become busy with the start of the season. But deep down, Jonny was also quietly content. Whereas the tourists milling around would mostly be in and out of Prague in a few days, he had three months to explore this famous capital. He was looking forward to learning the ebb and flow of the city: the best methods and times to travel, how to avoid the crowds and, of course, developing his own list of secret haunts. The Old Town Square was central to one of the most picturesque and popular tourist attractions in Europe, if not the world. Now that he had finally visited Prague, he wanted his relationship with it to be more exclusive, not overshadowed by hordes of tourists blindly following a guide waving an umbrella.
Without even realising what he was doing, Jonny automatically started scanning the restaurant, his seemingly in-built radar system always on full alert.
Three Englishmen in their mid-thirties were sat on the far side of the terrace finishing their lunch, relaxed friends enjoying time away. One of them was proudly wearing a football shirt, as seemed to be expected of any Brit abroad these days. Jonny didn’t recognise the team strip but assumed it was a Czech team, probably purchased here whilst on holiday. The only other people on the terrace were an elderly couple Jonny recognised as German. They were huddled together for extra warmth despite the beautiful spring weather; the lady had a blanket on her lap, and they were sharing some hot chocolate and apple strudel.
Inside the main restaurant, through the folded patio-style doors, he could see only a few tables occupied for a late lunch. A young family were seated along one wall, the parents trying hard to entertain their pre-school children. In the corner a young couple were holding hands across the secluded table, away from prying eyes. Two middle-aged Scandinavian-looking couples had just arrived and were being shown to a table in the centre of the restaurant, near the open doors.
Jonny sighed, knowing he would probably never lose the compulsion for assessing his surroundings. The job had taught him so much about spotting potential dangers before they materialised, nurturing his innate talent and honing his detection skills. His successful police career had provided him with mostly good experiences. But it was the bad incidents which were etched on his memory, especially the cruelty one human being could inflict on another, and they had left a firm imprint on his natural reactions. Sometimes, though, he just wished he could relax and switch off like other people.
Sitting there on the terrace, he knew nobody would mistake him for anything other than a tourist. And probably a British tourist. After all, the UK was where he was born and, apart from summer holidays abroad, was where he had spent all his forty-four years. Average height, medium build, thinning dark hair and pale skin weren’t exactly distinctive, certainly not identifying him as the outdoor type, but he had been told over the years that he had smiling eyes and an attractive thick-set jawline. Even his holiday attire was universal and modest: plain blue shirt, chinos and a linen jacket. He had never stood out. In fact, he’d never wanted to, instead feeling more comfortable blending in with the crowd. The irony was that he had become an expert in assessing everyone and everything else around him in search of the guilty.
Feeling comfortable and anonymous, as he liked it, Jonny gazed out across the square, noting the expanding group of tourists waiting for the hourly strike of the astronomical clock. The square was both a hive of activity, with the mix of enthusiastic tour promoters and acoustic buskers, but at the same time the space was large enough to be quiet and calming. This perfectly matched the requirements of the supplementary reason for his extended visit: to recover from the significant events of the past year, and try to release the hold that his last case still had on him.
Lost in the scene, he was just starting to contemplate how one can get used to something so easily, when he was interrupted by an approaching waiter. Standing to attention, the waiter stood dressed for admiring comments in a bohemian costume of patterned white shirt, velvet waistcoat and black trousers.
“Dobrý den,” the waiter greeted him.
The waiter suddenly recognised him. “Sir, hello again. What can I get for you?”
Jonny took a deep breath. “Já si dam kavu s mleku. Děkuju.”
The waiter smiled at Jonny, impressed. “You have been practising your Czech.”
Jonny shrugged off the complement. “It’s not impressive, really. I just remember some Czech words from my mother.”
The waiter finished writing the order on his pad and looked up, expecting Jonny to continue.
“Well…” Jonny was going to explain, but clocked the waiter’s watchful gaze. “Actually, it’s rather a long story. Maybe another time.”
The waiter nodded and smiled warmly. “No problem, sir. I’ll attend to your order. White coffee coming up!”
As the waiter walked away, Jonny couldn’t help feeling a bit awkward. He didn’t want to be categorised as a show-off, but he felt he needed to try out the Czech words he remembered. He felt he owed it to his mother, or at least his memory of her. The trick was to find the right balance, demonstrating a willingness to learn whilst also showing respect for the complex language. With a little help from the phrase book, of course.
Jonny picked up the newspapers he had bought and considered them, one in each hand. For some reason he’d decided to buy both a British newspaper and a Czech newspaper at the Kiosk near the square. He’d always fancied himself as a newspaper reader but, even at weekends, when many people relaxed by reading the newspaper over brunch, he was rarely off duty and there just never seemed to be the time. For the choice of Czech newspaper, he had been completely lost. In the end he’d picked a tabloid with plenty of pictures and shorter words. Whilst probably not the best written newspaper, he hoped it might help him learn some conversational Czech during his stay.
Having put the newspapers on the spare chair for later, Jonny again looked out across the sunlit square. It was certainly worthy of its majestic label and he was already aware that the simplistic beauty of the space had a hypnotic pull. The astronomical clock was rightly the central attraction, but he was becoming very attached to the imperial Gothic church, The Church of Our Lady before Týn. The church’s two steeples imposed over the square from behind the main buildings lining its perimeter. Whilst he definitely wasn’t an expert on architecture, even he knew this regal building must be one of the most perfect sculptures in the world; the balance between grandeur and exquisite detail up the height of the towers made it hard to take your eyes away from them.
“Your coffee, sir.” The waiter carefully placed the coffee on the table, turning the saucer so the logo on the cup faced Jonny.
“Děkuju,” Jonny replied, followed by a slightly apologetic, “Thank you.”
“Prosím.” The waiter smiled and walked back into the restaurant.
Jonny took his notepad out of his jacket pocket and, using the pencil stored in the pad, wrote himself a reminder to find out if visitors were allowed to climb the towers of the church. The written prompt filled up the last line on the page, completing his first full page of places he wanted to visit in Prague. He knew it was time to get his act together and start exploring the hidden secrets of the city, rather than just strolling around the city centre all day.
Staring at the notebook in his hand halted all notions of leisure activities. To be precise, it was the remaining stubs from the torn pages which caught his attention. Never one to tolerate waste, he had taken the almost new notebook with him when he’d left the Metropolitan Police at the end of the previous year, pulling out the few used pages and putting them through the office shredder for security. Now the notebook was his only remaining personal possession from nearly twenty-five years in the Force. Jonny smiled to himself at the haphazard nature of prized possessions and their hidden meanings.
Jonny had promised himself he would not think back over his last case, but the notebook suddenly brought back a flood of memories. Having spent hours in counselling at the end of his service, he believed he’d managed to suppress the hopeless feeling of having failed the last victim’s family. But even though he had talked to the counsellor for hours, opening himself up more than he’d ever done before in his life, he still sometimes thought he saw the dead woman’s face in a crowd. She seemed to appear from nowhere when he least expected it: turning the aisle in the supermarket, or maybe getting off a train. The face belonged to Alison Bryce, the last victim of the serial killer, Bill Sutherland. Sure, Jonny knew he had caught Sutherland in the end, but he also knew that if the case had been resolved quicker, Alison would still be alive. Nobody else had spotted the clue to Sutherland’s identity, but this point was irrelevant; Jonny knew he had taken too long and he’d have to live with it for the rest of his life.
Raised voices from the table of Englishmen snapped Jonny out of his self-torture. A relaxed lunch between friends seemed to have escalated into a bitter feud. The smaller, stocky man, wearing a denim jacket, was talking loudly and gesticulating across the table at the taller, muscular man in the football shirt. Jonny discreetly craned forward to hear, his senses heightened, but couldn’t make out exactly what was being said across the table.
Attempting to assess the dynamics, he noticed the third man was trying to act as peacemaker. Looking concerned, he was talking calmly and extending his arms, using hand signals to try to pacify both men. The call for a truce seemed to be working, the verbal contest subsiding although words were still being exchanged. Jonny watched them, trying to read the facial gestures and determine their intentions. He was dismayed to realise he had unconsciously shifted his position, ready to step in and defuse the situation. Why can’t I just have a peaceful life?
Just as other people in the restaurant, including the waiters, were starting to notice the stand-off, the situation escalated with a battery of noise. The smaller, angry man raised himself from his chair and leaned menacingly over the table, his finger jabbing the air between him and his adversary. The scraping sound of his chair being pushed back was followed by a volley of abuse.
“You’re a bloody liar! Always cheating everyone. You need to be taught a lesson!”
The target of the abuse sat motionless in his chair, the smirk on his face intended to ridicule the argument and belittle his aggressor.
After a brief staring match, the man in the football shirt said, “I’ve had enough of this.” He stood up, knocking his chair backwards, and stormed off through the terrace into the restaurant. He walked through the open patio doors and towards the restrooms.
Everyone in the restaurant had watched the drama unfold, but calm soon descended once the man had disappeared from view. Jonny noted the assured way he had strode off, evidently annoyed but still in command of the situation. His two other friends remained at the table, the seated man attempting to coax his angry friend back into his chair. The man eventually sat down when he realised everyone in the restaurant was looking at him, the feeling of embarrassment overcoming his sense of injustice.
Jonny was sure the show was over and relaxed his body position. His experience at reading body language and facial expressions told him the angered man felt aggrieved or wronged, but was unlikely to take the matter further. If he was right about the dynamics of the small group, this man, the one who first shouted, was weaker than his antagonist and would probably be the first to apologise when the other man returned from the restrooms.
Finally picking up his coffee, Jonny reflected on how pleased he was to be away from it all. He had loved his career, well, most of it, and was proud to have achieved the rank of Detective Chief Inspector. He was also proud to have been instrumental in putting some downright disgusting people behind bars. He also knew that his temperament and unconventional policing techniques had tried the patience of many colleagues, and was abhorred by some of his superiors – he’d been hard to work with and even more difficult to live with.
He’d known from early in his vocation that he had the ability to think like a criminal, something that was difficult to instil into a police officer. Sometimes his instinct and gut feelings were the only ways he had got one step ahead of the villain. He was as diligent as any detective, following up any and all leads, but he knew the breakthrough in a case was often only possible if you could look at the evidence from a different perspective. He wasn’t sure what it said about him as a person, but it had made for a successful career.
His decision to take early retirement turned out to be as easy as it was unexpected. One year before, he was basking in the glory of solving numerous, high profile cases, the next he was doubting everything: his reasons for dedicating his life to catching criminals, his own perceived failure to catch Sutherland before he had killed all his planned victims, and the incorrect balance of work with the important relationships in his life, especially his only daughter. I am only killing myself, and for what? Now the big decision had been made, he was free to look ahead with fresh eyes and enjoy the next chapter of his life. And he felt he was in the right place. This was a country he’d been aware of all his life, it being his mother’s birthplace. She had never wanted to come back and he’d never felt the inclination to visit before, but now the time was right.
Jonny’s contemplations were broken by screaming from inside the restaurant. Expecting some intensification of the previous episode, he turned but saw only the same two men still sitting at the table, talking calmly. It was a woman screaming. Following the sound, he saw a young woman standing in the middle of the inside restaurant, looking distraught and screaming uncontrollably. Focusing his sights, he recognised the same woman who, minutes earlier, was looking flushed with love and enjoying a romantic lunch. Jonny instinctively stood up and scanned his field of vision. The young man rushed over to his girlfriend, as the other customers and staff looked on, concerned but unsure how to react.
The young man didn’t know what to do, either. The relationship was clearly new and he didn’t have the knowledge to understand the signs of her distress nor how to deal with them. He tried patting her arm and providing soothing words. She just screamed again. After trying to comfort her without success, he resorted to the only action he felt could help and tried cuddling her. She still screamed, her body shaking uncontrollably. A waiter approached them cautiously, aware of the impact the scene was having on the ambience within the restaurant.
“Madam, are you hurt?”
The young woman wailed. “No!” she shouted, gulping for air, trying to breathe between screams. “Someone’s been murdered!” She pointed dramatically in the direction of the restrooms and buried her face into her boyfriend’s chest, crying loudly.
Jonny had watched the scene unfold with incredulity and familiar contempt. He wasn’t a police detective any more. He was trying to move on with his life. And he was only here for a quiet afternoon coffee. All he could mutter to himself was, “Oh, shit.”
Copyright © Andrew Pratt 2021