Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street

Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street

by Heda Margolius Kovaly


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This rediscovered masterpiece captures a chilling moment in the stifling early days of Communist Czechoslovakia.

1950s Prague is a city of numerous daily terrors, of political tyranny, corruption and surveillance. There is no way of knowing whether one’s neighbor is spying for the government, or what one’s supposed friend will say to a State Security agent under pressure. A loyal Party member might be imprisoned or executed as quickly as a traitor; innocence means nothing for a person caught in a government trap. When a little boy is murdered at the cinema, the ensuing investigation sheds a little too much light on the personal lives of the cinema’s female ushers, each of whom is hiding a dark secret of her own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616956455
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/15/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,135,897
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 4.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Heda Margolius Kovály, a Czech writer and translator, was born in 1919 in Prague to Jewish parents. Under a Cruel Star, Kovály’s memoir of her time in Auschwitz and the early years of Czechoslovak communism, was first published in 1973 and has since been translated into twelve languages. Her crime novel, Innocence, is based in large part on her own experiences in early 1950s Prague. Kovály died in 2010 at age 91.

Alex Zucker has translated novels by Czech authors Jáchym Topol, Miloslava Holubová, Petra Hůlová, and Patrik Ouředník. He has received an English PEN Award for Writing in Translation, an NEA Literary Fellowship, and the ALTA National Translation Award. Alex lives in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Visit his website at

Read an Excerpt


I got off the tram at Můstek and walked the rest of the way. It was a windy day in early spring, the kind when a person ought to be out in a field or in the woods, and every moment not spent boxed-up indoors is precious. Even though I was in a rush, I took the time to stop and look at a couple of shop windows.
     So what? No use driving myself crazy over another minute or two. I was in for a tough shift today anyway. Me, always so careful to stay out of conflict and keep to myself. Of all people, why did the boss have to go and pick me?
    A curtain of shadow dropped behind me as I stepped into the cinema lobby. I swiveled my head to look at the display case for Fotografia, the state-run photography studio. A bride in a veil holding a bouquet. The same one for six months now. When they first put her up she looked beautiful. Now her blissful smile had turned as sour as yesterday’s milk. A moment in time, snared in a lasso, strangled as it tried to escape. To the left, set in a long blank wall, was the gray-painted metal door that led to the projection booth. I stopped a moment, hesitating.
   Janeček, poor guy, was in for a tongue-lashing from the boss, and maybe the head office too. Twenty-eight and single, with six years’ experience as a projectionist, he had turned up four months ago with a recommendation from the job placement office. Didn’t talk to a soul. None of the ushers had managed to break him. Those girls tried every trick in the book. Especially Marie. She was eating her heart out having an unmarried man within reach who wouldn’t climb in the sack with her. Janeček was a good worker, too, punctual and polite. God only knows what got into him yesterday. Must have mixed up the reels or something. The movie started halfway through, in the middle of a chase scene: cars speeding around the curve, tires squealing, faces flashing past. At first the audience figured it for an unusually creative opening sequence, but then the whistling started. The boss was out of town at a conference for three days. She called after the screening to see if everything went all right, and when Marie told her about the slipup, the boss asked to talk to me.
   “Listen, Helena, tomorrow’s my last day of meetings. You’re the only one there with any brains. Will you talk to Janeček for me? He won’t take it so hard coming from you. Try to be tactful, but make sure you get the message across. Either he does his job right or I find a replacement. There’s plenty of projectionists out there, and good ones too. You think he drinks? Take a look around the booth, if you don’t mind. I’m sure if he’s got any bottles up there, he’ll clear them out before I get back. All right, thanks for handling this. I’ll give you a call back tomorrow.”
   As soon as someone flatters you for your brains, you know trouble’s coming. Marie could get through to Janeček much better and quicker than I ever could. What did brains have to do with it? But the manager had asked me, and when the boss told us to do something, we jumped. It never even crossed my mind to tell her no.
   The manager was so self-assured she didn’t even hide the fact that she was over forty. Though she easily could have. She was still a knockout, and the way she dressed, when she crossed the street, every eye was glued to her, as tubby Ládinka, our homeliest usher, said with a sigh every time. The boss’s husband was a famous surgeon, and the looks he gave her after twenty years of marriage were the kind most gals only get about two months before their wedding and three months afterward. She didn’t work for the money, of course. She did it because she felt like it, so every door was open to her and people fell all over themselves to get in her good graces. Everything she did was like some precious gift to the world; for her, the cinema wasn’t the daily grind it was for the rest of us working stiffs, for whom the job was just a way to earn a living. But in spite of the gap between us, in spite of the boss’s imported dresses and the big shiny car waiting for her out in front of the cinema every night, most of us didn’t envy her. Somehow she gave the impression it was all in the natural order of things. People tend to think of happiness like a cake: if one person gets a bigger slice, it means less for everyone else. But our boss seemed to be one of those creatures that can only exist in a state of happiness and prosperity, like a deep-sea fish that can only survive at the bottom of the ocean and anywhere else it would die.
   If it was true, as I’d always believed, that life was like a game of bridge—to win, you needed to know the rules and how to play the game, but you also had to be dealt a decent hand—then the boss got all the trumps. But besides that, or maybe in spite of it, she was a wise woman, and fair, and all of us ushers were grateful for that, so we bent over backwards to do what she asked. Which was why right now I was obediently trotting down the hall to that ugly gray door, even though it was the last thing on earth I wanted to do.
    If only Janeček weren’t such an oddball. The only person he was on friendly terms with was Josef, Marie’s eight-year-old nephew, her sister Žofie’s son. Žofie worked shifts in a factory, so Josef came to see Marie practically every day. And of course for a boy like him a film projector was the greatest thing since sliced bread. It was just “Hi, Marie,” and whoosh, off he went, up the stairs to the booth. It was good for the kid. At least he wasn’t just loafing around, and he might even learn something useful. The two of them got on surprisingly well. Janeček never talked down to him either, always spoke to him man to man. He must’ve been a good person, at heart, to like kids like that.
    Well, here we go.

I opened the door without knocking to find Janeček standing there, leaning against the wall. I hoped he wasn’t drunk. Better get this over with quick.
   “Hello, Mr. Janeček. The boss called to say the conference won’t wrap up till tomorrow. She heard what happened yesterday and wanted to know if you could explain.”
   Janeček didn’t even blink, just stared at a dusty table littered with a half-eaten roll, a dirty rag, a big pair of scissors for cutting film, some empty movie reels, and assorted other junk. Strange little cubbyhole, I thought uneasily. I’d go off my rocker in here after a week. Murky light, rickety floorboards, dirt on every surface. Janeček acted like he didn’t even notice. Must have a pretty good hangover. He looks like death warmed over. Jesus, I’ve got to get out of here, this guy gives me the creeps. Did he even hear what I said? Why isn’t he answering? Maybe he’s too upset.
   “Try not to take it too hard, Mr. Janeček. These things happen. Just let me know what to tell the boss when she calls back.”
   Janeček kept his lip buttoned.
   “After all, it’s not a catastrophe, right? I mean sure, you made a mistake, but it can happen to anyone. It’s not a matter of life and death.” I forced a laugh. What was I babbling?
   Janeček gazed blankly past me at the wall. Finally he dropped his eyes back to the cluttered tabletop and snapped: “You tell the boss this. Tell her anyone can make a mistake. We wouldn’t want anything worse to happen. And tell her I can guarantee it’ll never happen again. You make sure you tell her that. Tell her it’ll never happen again, I guarantee.”
   “Well, all right. In any case I’m sure she’ll want to speak with you when she gets back. Just be careful from now on. And forget about it, you know? It’s not as if someone got shot.”

Thank God I’m out of there, I thought as I left Janeček in the projection room.
   I nodded to the box-office girl and unhooked the rope barring access to the stairs. I walked downstairs and turned down the hall toward the staff cloakroom to change into my uniform. Even before I reached the door, I could already hear the voices inside, cackling and chattering over each other like barnyard hens.
   Good lord, at it again with the nasty gossip. Another one of those days.
   I opened the door. Marie stood in the middle of the tiny room, her eyes red, with bags underneath so big you could put groceries in them. She was sobbing at the top of her lungs, a man’s handkerchief bunched in her hand. Whenever she had a serious cold, or a serious heartache, she used a handkerchief left behind by one of her ex-lovers. The other ushers stood in a circle around her, mouths agape.
   “For God’s sake, girls, what’s going on in here?” I said. “It’s half past two, you should be out on the floor, we’ll be opening the doors soon.”
   “You’re not gonna believe it,” Líba said. “Marie’s nephew is missing!” The whole commotion started back up again.
   “Will all of you just shut up for a minute? Now tell me, Marie, what happened?”
   “Well,” Marie whimpered, “Žofie had a shift yesterday afternoon, so her boy Josef said he was comin’ over here. Sometimes I don’t feel like draggin’ him all the way over the bridge to Žofie’s and makin’ the trip back home again, so he just brings his schoolbag with him, sleeps over at my place, and goes straight to school in the morning. So when yesterday he was a no-show, I just figured he went to stay at the Musils’, since he’s friends with their son, little Petr, from school, and his mom works at the factory too, so when she’s home sometimes she takes the boys, and when Žofie’s got the morning shift Petr comes over to her place. So, like I said, I figured Josef was at the Musils’ and Žofie figured he was with me.”
   “So but this morning . . .” tubby Ládinka jumped in. Of all the girls she had the lowest tolerance for awkward moments of silence. “This morning Žofie calls Marie here—”
   “—and she says, Hi, Marie, thanks for takin’ my boy last night. You know if he got his math homework done? And I say, What’re you talkin’ about? Josef never came over, I thought he was with the Musils. And she says, Jesus, are you serious? Anna’s got a sore throat and dropped Petr off at her sister’s, so where could my boy be? She goes tearin’ over to school and no sign of him there. She already called the police. Nobody’s seen the kid since yesterday afternoon. Last one to lay eyes on him was Vejvodová, in the food mart ’cross the street. She says he stopped in around half past one for an ice cream bar, and his schoolbag’s still at home.”
   “That isn’t entirely correct, Miss Vránová,” said a voice, and everyone turned to see a powerfully built, tan-faced man in a dark suit with a silver crew cut standing in the door. His eyes, round and bright, stood out against his dark skin like the opening in the lens of an old-fashioned camera. He wasn’t tall, but his frame filled the doorway.
   He took a step inside. “I’m Captain Nedoma,” he said, pausing before he went on. “Miss Šulcová saw the Vrba boy in here yesterday afternoon, just before two. Right upstairs here, at the snack bar. He bought another ice cream.”
   The silence was so complete you could hear everyone breathe.
   Then tubby Ládinka stammered: “But, but, the box office girl doesn’t even come in till two. The only one here before then is . . .”
   “That’s right, normally there’s only one person here before two p.m. We’ve informed your manager. They’re driving her over from headquarters right now. The Horizon will be closed for today, but don’t anyone go anywhere. You can have a seat in the smoking lounge. Comrade Dolejš here will wait with you. Miss Vránová, you stay here.”
   He jerked his head into the hallway and a blond beanpole of a man emerged from behind him with a badly healed broken nose and a suspicious bulge in his jacket.
   We marched single file out of the staff cloakroom and—right face, hut!—turned into the smoking lounge. The beanpole settled in on a hard chair in the corner, looking as if he planned to spend the rest of his life there.
   All of us lit up as if on command, even the girls who didn’t normally smoke. The folds under tubby Ládinka’s chin started trembling. Mrs. Kouřimská turned her back to the officer, crossed herself, folded her hands in her lap, and shut her eyes.
   Marie, our resident authority on matters of love, had this to say about Mrs. Kouřimská: “She’s livin’ proof of how stupid guys are. Look at her: not a lick of makeup,
sweaters faded and washed out, skirts worn through at the seat, and still looks like she just stepped off a pedestal at that whatchamacallit in Paris, the Loover. Ever since she got widowed, though, she’s been all on her own. Just sits out in the park on Žofín every night in summer, watchin’ the young lovers neck out the corner of her eye.”
   It was true. Even at fifty Mrs. Kouřimská radiated the kind of eternal beauty you don’t see too much in this world, so it tends to scare people off. It was unfamiliar, almost mysterious. None of us would ever have dreamed of calling her “Karla.” We treated her with respect, and called her “missus,” the same as the customers.
   Sitting in the smoking lounge at the Horizon with the door shut, you couldn’t hear anything from the next room over, let alone from upstairs. We thought it was impossible, but we perked up our ears all the same, sitting on the edge of our seats. It felt like something might happen at any moment—maybe Josef would come bursting in, laughing about how scared we all looked and, boy, did he put one over on us, or suddenly there might be a scream or a gunshot. When you’re that wound up, you always expect some kind of loud noise, something to match your inner tension, to balance it out and calm you down so the earth can settle back into its regular rotation.
   But the only thing that happened was the manager walked in, pale and on the verge of fainting, followed by the man with the silver crew cut. They said we could all go home now. And that was that.
    There wasn’t a trace of Marie in the cloakroom, and a bunch of cops in uniform stood at the top of the stairs. The door to Janeček’s cubbyhole was propped open, and inside, two handyman types in plainclothes were bent over the floor. Next to them sat a stack of pried-up floorboards, the same ones I’d felt wobble under my feet a few hours earlier.
  The next day it was all over the papers:

Twenty-eight-year old Jiří Janeček, previously convicted for sexual offenses, lured eight-year-old Josef Vrba into the projection booth at the Horizon Cinema and attempted to sexually assault him. When the boy resisted, the suspect stabbed him to death with a pair of scissors for splicing film and hid the body under the floor. The suspect, who was just released from prison five months ago, did not resist arrest. The boy’s mother had a nervous breakdown and is currently receiving treatment in the hospital.

Our manager may not have had a breakdown herself, but she sure came close. She called me into her office and brewed me a cup of coffee with her very own two hands.
  “My God, Helena, forgive me! I sent you in there with that insane killer and the whole time he had a dead child under the floor and heaven knows what was going through that head of his when you—he could’ve . . . Lord have mercy! And poor little Josef, such a nice boy, always so cheerful . . .”  We sat together a good long while, crying into our coffee.
  Twenty-nine years ago, by some terrible accident, two cells that should never have met joined to create something that should never have existed—a little slip of nature, happens all the time. And as those cells divided and grew and multiplied, that little discrepancy crystallized inside them. Maybe it was something you could see. Maybe a little black dot, the size of the head of a pin, and if I were a brain surgeon I could point to it with the tip of my scalpel and say to my assistant: “There, you see? That tiny spot on the cortex? That’s the death of Josef Vrba, age eight, of Prague.” So you see, we can’t blame Mr. Janeček. He wasn’t any more responsible than the pair of scissors he used to commit the awful crime. The whole thing was caused by that little dot on his brain.

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