The location the Professor had chosen for their meeting was at the top of a hill that dominated the western Prague skyline. It was Wednesday morning and Conrad moved with a degree of urgency, conscious that he had a plane to catch later in the day. He was intrigued to find out what the Professor had to say that was so important it required a meeting away from prying eyes. Using his guidebook to locate Petrin Tower, he had been pleasantly surprised to discover that the top of the hill could be reached by a funicular railway. He found his way to the station at the foot of the hill and purchased a ticket. A couple of minutes later he was seated in a single wooden carriage as it was hauled by cable up the steep track to the top of the hill, revealing an increasingly panoramic view of Prague the higher it climbed.
Leaving the station at the top of the hill, Conrad walked out into a carefully sculptured public garden that vaguely reminded him of an English municipal park. He followed the pathway until he reached the extraordinary edifice that was Petrin Tower. It resembled a shrunken Eiffel Tower, which is exactly what it was modelled on. According to his book, it was sixty metres high and getting to the top involved climbing 299 steps. There was a café at its base that occupied half of the ground floor. Before entering, Conrad had noted a large seating area outside where already a number of the tables were occupied. Close by, under some trees, more unaffiliated seating was available. A busker with unwashed clothes and matted dreadlocks played guitar and sang not very well to no one in particular. A Tom Petty song, Conrad recognised almost subconsciously, sung in English with a strong American accent. Turning away, he went in the main entrance and bought his ticket before following the sign to the stairs.
Given the nature of the structure, the staircase was one long spiral. After a short climb, he arrived at an observation platform. Looking out, he was already high enough to be able to see right across Prague. On any other day he might have wished he had his camera with him, but not today. Whilst the altitude was enough to provide an interesting view it was, in reality, only hinting at the spectacle to come being a mere third of the way to the summit. After a moment’s break to catch his breath, he resumed his upward journey. The stairway was protected by an outer barrier that came to his midriff, the upper part being open to the elements. He settled into a steady climbing rhythm, although this soon slowed and his breathing deepened. The higher he climbed the more the wind whipped his face with what he considered unreasonable force. Finally he emerged at the upper platform which, he noted thankfully, was fully enclosed and protected from the harsh wind. Walking round to the opposite side of the platform from where he had emerged, he found Professor Stebbings, the only other occupant, who stood gazing at the centre of Prague and the river.
‘Come, look at the floods. This poor city has certainly suffered,’ the Professor spoke without turning around.
Conrad joined him at the window and followed his gaze. Looking down it seemed to him that the river was on a larger scale than the city it ran through. As he took in the scene below him, he realised it was an illusion created by the fact that water was swirling around some of the buildings and trees on either bank making it look larger than the brain dictated it should.
‘How did you know it was me?’ Conrad asked.
‘I watched you approach, observe.’
Stebbings moved to the windows on his right. Conrad followed him and looked directly down. He could see the funicular railway station and the path he had taken to the tower. There were tiny figures moving around, he could pick out a couple of teenagers with their arms wrapped around each other, a mother with two children, the busker he had heard at ground level, a few others but it was impossible to see detail.
He looked at the Professor quizzically who, as if anticipating the next question, produced a small pair of binoculars from his coat pocket.
‘That’s why I chose this place,’ he explained, ‘I’ve been before, when I came to Prague with my wife. It’s a perfect place to meet because it’s possible to see everyone who approaches. I am hoping you weren’t followed.’
Conrad looked at him sharply.
‘Why would anyone follow me? I’m just a music journalist.’
‘Well, let’s just check what we have here,’ said the Professor, ignoring the question and raising the binoculars to his eyes. He spoke as though he were in his laboratory about to conduct a routine experiment.
He looked at the people far below for a couple of minutes. Eventually he spoke.
‘There’s a man down there on his own I didn’t notice earlier, he could be suspicious. He’s gone into the base of the tower now so I can’t see him anymore.’
Stebbings turned to face Conrad.
‘You really can’t be too careful,’ he stated emphatically, ‘I’m used to it, you see. In my work I know I’m being watched pretty much all the time. We were probably seen talking last night and that could mean that either one of us is now under observation, or possibly both. I’m afraid by talking to me you have raised your head above the parapet.’
Conrad was astonished at the calm manner in which the Professor spoke, clearly taking it for granted that their movements would be tracked.
‘But…but that would mean it’s our own people doing the following…’ he stammered.
‘We can never be sure where the biggest threat comes from,’ Stebbings replied, enigmatically, ‘now, have you heard about your friend Silver?’
‘Don? No, I’ve tried calling him but without success…’Conrad paused, taking in the Professor’s phrasing, ‘what do you mean…heard about him?’
‘I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news,’ Stebbings said solemnly as he withdrew a folded copy of the previous day’s Daily Telegraph from his capacious coat pocket.
‘This was delivered to my room today, but I actually saw a brief report on the BBC News channel yesterday,’ he explained before rustling through a few pages until he found the obituary section. He handed the newspaper over to Conrad. There, writ large was the headline “Donald Silver b. 1961 d. 2002” complete with a recent photograph of his friend.
In a state of shock, Conrad scanned through the article looking for an explanation.
‘“Collapsed from a suspected heart attack in a lift at Broadcasting House”’, he read out loud from the article, ‘this is appalling, just…’
Suddenly the words dried up and, for a moment, the emotion of the situation caught up with him. Why was his life so regularly punctuated by sudden death?
‘I’m sorry, it must be a horrible shock,’ Stebbings sounded genuinely sympathetic.
‘A heart attack,’ Conrad intoned, disbelievingly, ‘I know he wasn’t the fittest, but he was only forty-one…’
‘If it was a heart attack…’
‘What do mean?’ Conrad looked at the Professor sharply.
‘There’s more I have to tell you,’ Stebbings sounded tired, resigned almost, but there was a hint of desperation in his voice that focused Conrad’s attention totally.
‘I am, Mr Conrad, what is known in the media world as an accredited source. Given my work as a microbiologist specialising in biological warfare, I have access to information that many in power would prefer stayed buried, well away from being public knowledge. Every so often I provide people in the media whom I trust information of a highly sensitive nature and let them decide whether or not it is in the public interest. Don Silver was one of my main contacts. As an accredited source my credentials are recognised, but I remain anonymous otherwise my position would be seriously compromised.’
‘But what has this got to do with Don’s death?’ Conrad interrupted, impatiently. The Professor held his hand up.
‘Please bear with me. As I told you when we first met, I spoke to Don last Saturday. He was about to go public with information I gave him that would be damaging to some very powerful people. He died just before he was due to go on air, I don’t believe from natural causes.’
‘It was at the BBC, it says so here,’ Conrad indicated the newspaper he still held, ‘nothing untoward could happen there for God’s sake!’
‘There are desperate men playing a high stakes game, Mr Conrad, anything is possible. He and I were both aware of the risks and took all the precautions we could. I believe Don somehow got careless. Now I am potentially at risk and, I’m afraid, you might well be too. The only way out, as I see it, is to get what I told Don into the public domain. That’s where you come in.’
‘Me! I don’t understand.’
‘You’re a journalist, you knew Don and, most pertinently, you’re here, now. I can tell you what I told Don and you can go public with it.’
‘I’m a music journalist, Professor Stebbings, not an investigative heavyweight like Don. I don’t have access to his kind of outlets.’
‘Speak to his producer at the BBC; I’m pretty sure he can be trusted.’
Although he felt the situation was getting beyond his control, Conrad considered this last suggestion was at least practical.
‘I suppose I could do that. So what is this information you want me to pass on?’
Stebbings turned away to look out over the rooftops and spires of Prague once more before replying: ‘First of all, if you aren’t prepared for the possible dangers you face, then I suggest you leave now.’
Conrad was silent for a moment, before he replied in a quiet voice.
‘Don Silver was a friend of mine, so I’m not going anywhere.’
Stebbings looked at Conrad appraisingly for a few moments, before once again looking out of the window. He put the binoculars to his eyes once more and scanned the ground below.
‘No sign of the man I saw earlier, if he’s on his way up we only have a couple of minutes.’
He lowered the binoculars and turned to face Conrad.
‘This conference is a sham aimed at bolstering the international view that Iraq is dangerous and unstable and capable of launching weapons of mass destruction. What has been going on over the last two days is an attempt to obfuscate, in dreary technical detail, the actual facts. The truth is there’s no evidence of such weapons or the capability to manufacture them anywhere in Iraq as far as my fellow weapons inspectors and I are concerned. But how can we be sure when, most of the time we’re not even in Iraq? What I told Don Silver was that, previously, when we were supposed to be in Iraq we were, in fact, sequestered away out of sight in Saudi Arabia. It will be the same this time. This afternoon, after the conference finishes, we will be transported straight to the airport and put on a plane for Frankfurt and from there on to Saudi.’
Conrad stared at Stebbings, almost open-mouthed in surprise.
‘But all those television pictures of you all visiting factories and the like…’
‘All fake,’ Stebbings replied, tight-lipped, ‘carefully stage-managed for the cameras.
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