The Bavarian Gambit
I stood on edge of the bridge and looked down at the dark, churning water of the river over forty feet below, my heart pounding in my chest, my toes dangling just over the edge. The man pointing the gun at me laughed and said, “Go ahead and jump. It will save me a bullet.”
How did I end up here?
FOUR MONTHS EARLIER
“The river moves fast, but the water’s depth can be deceiving,” said Prague’s #1 Best Tour Guide into her bullhorn as she competed with music pumping from an accordion being played by a nearby street musician. “It is only about three meters deep. For you Americans, that’s about ten feet,” she added.
I stood in the middle of the Charles Bridge in Prague and looked out at the river, wondering what secrets might lie beneath its surface. I didn’t dare get near the edge. I hated heights. I hated this ancient stone bridge and the ridiculous tour guide describing the statues that adorned it. Mostly, I hated the fact that my mom had packed us up and moved us halfway around the world. I didn’t belong here.
The tour guide – maybe not the #1 best in Prague, but who sure seemed like the most knowledgeable to me – continued her rehearsed speech, “In the year 1357 on 9 July at 5:31am, King Charles the Fourth laid the first stone of this famous bridge. He was a very superstitious person. He was into astrology, and chose this date because–”
“Isn’t this view amazing, honey?” whispered my mom into my ear, “Can you believe we’re even standing here? In the middle of Europe!”
I flashed a smile to match her excitement. No, I couldn’t believe it. In fact, I had to find Czechia on a map when she announced where we were moving two weeks ago. I swept my thick brown hair across my forehead and looked back down at the coursing green-brown water, which mirrored the color of my eyes. I couldn’t help but feel as if this river had swept me away from my whole life – everything I knew. My smile fell.
My mom didn’t seem to notice. She was too excited by the view of Prague castle. In spite of myself, I had to admit that the afternoon sun made the castle glow as if it were made of pure gold.
“When this tour is over, we’ll head straight to the Ambassador’s residence and get unpacked,” my mom sighed pleasantly, “I always dreamed of visiting a place like this. I never imagined that one day I’d actually have the opportunity to live here. I’m so excited!” she said, taking my arm and gently shaking it, as if she could conduct her excitement into me like an electric current.
“And we’re walking, we’re walking,” boomed the tour guide’s voice. She held a white umbrella high over her head with ‘#1 Best’ branded in bright rainbow letters on it, so the herd of tourists wouldn’t lose her. I hung back from the crowd, but dutifully followed. I knew what this meant to my mom – especially after everything that had happened. I had already made up my mind that I would keep my mouth shut for her sake, regardless of what was going on inside of me.
If there’s one thing Phoenix Walker knows, I thought, it’s how to keep a secret.
“I guess this is the house,” said my mom as we peered through the bars of an enormous wrought iron gate. She pointed at the national emblem of India on a sign attached to the high concrete wall with peeling pale yellow paint that bordered the property.
From where we stood at the end of an impossibly long driveway, the Ambassador’s residence looked less like a house and more like a castle straight out of a spooky story. On each side, tall pointed spires sat atop gray stone towers that blocked out the late afternoon sun, casting long shadows across the estate. I thought that in addition to the bridge named after him, maybe old King Charles built this relic in the year 1357 on 9 July at 5:31am, too.
“Guess there’s no welcome wagon,” my mom said with a shrug. Chills shot up my spine as the gate screeched in high-pitch protest when my mom shoved it open. As if this place needed a creepier vibe.
We started to drag our luggage up the driveway, beside an old terraced garden that featured dried-up fountains, yellowing shapeless topiaries, cracked stone benches, and statues that looked like they belonged in either a museum or a dump heap.
I pooped out about halfway up the winding drive and decided to take a breather. Sitting on top of my suitcase, I probably looked like one of the gargoyles perched on the eaves of the residence like demonic guards keeping watch over whatever secrets lie within. My mom pushed on ahead, still energized by her sense of adventure.
I scanned the estate, taking in my surroundings. Two giant oaks overlooked the residence on one side near a tall stone wall that bordered the back of the estate. I thought I saw something near the top of them, but they were pretty far back there. I was just about to stand up to get a better look, when I noticed a strange old man lurking in the shadows in a grove of trees on the other side of the garden.
He wore a rumpled green coat that looked as if he’d slept in it every night for about twenty years. His graying hair was greasy and untamed. His weathered face possessed cold, penetrating eyes that stared stonily at me. I quickly found my second wind. I glanced up the driveway at my mom, who was still dragging her suitcase, cursing herself for not buying a new one with wheels. When I looked back, the man had disappeared. I got up and hustled up the driveway, glancing over my shoulder every few seconds.
I caught up to my mom at the steps leading up to the front entrance. I was just about to tell her about the old man when a black town car glided up the drive and pulled alongside us. The tinted rear window slowly rolled down halfway. A deep silver-tongued voice from inside the car slipped out the window like a wisp of blue cigar smoke, “You must be the new cook.”
My mom straightened herself up and replied, “Yes, I’m Hannah Walker and this is Ph–”
“The servant’s entrance is around back,” interrupted the voice, which had a refined quality to it. “The driver will meet you there.”
With that, the darkened window raised shut and the car slipped past us, disappearing around the corner of the residence.
My mom turned to me and said in her best imitation of the voice from the car, “Pleasure to meet you, too, sir. We are so honored that you would grace us with your disembodied voice through the window. Would you be so kind as to bend over so I can attach my lips to your fancy pants?”
“Mom,” I said, laughing at her impression. “That’s your new boss. Behave!”
“Certainly, Master Phoenix,” she intoned in the same voice.
The Driver, who introduced himself as Rajesh, opened the door to the servant’s entrance with a warm smile, and offered to help with our bags.
“And where is Mr. Walker?” asked Rajesh, looking behind us.
“He’s…not in the picture,” replied my mom with a quick glance at me.
“I’m sorry,” said Rajesh.
He led us down a dingy basement hallway and up a narrow staircase.
“You’ll get used to Ambassador Chowdhury,” he said in an apologetic tone to my mom, “He is a proud, but fine man.”
“Well, we got the proud part down,” said my mom.
The stairs led us to the kitchen, which was nothing like the outside of the house. It was nearly the size and caliber of the commercial kitchen at the hotel where my mom used to work in Washington D.C. Everything was white tiles and gray grout. The middle of the room was dominated by an island with a marble countertop and a sink that was bigger than some bathtubs I had seen. Copper pots of various shapes and sizes hung from hooks above it. A shiny stainless steel ventilation hood rose above the stove, like a giant inverted funnel. Along one wall was a walk-in fireplace big enough to park a small car inside it.
“The Ambassador doesn’t care much for external appearances, but he has a passion for food, drink, and entertaining. Matter of fact,” he looked at his watch, “he always takes an evening drink in his room after work before the dinner party starts, so I can give you a brief tour of the residence.”
“Dinner party?” inquired my mom.
“Ah, I see you were not informed,” replied Rajesh with a sigh, “On Fridays we usually host a dinner party. Small affair, maybe a dozen guests or so. Once a month, it’s a larger gathering – diplomats, embassy staff, esteemed guests, and so on.”
“Good to know. Well, they can eat whatever we’ve got in the pantry tonight,” she said.
Rajesh led us out of the kitchen to the dining room. The table looked like it could seat about thirty people comfortably. The crystal chandelier that hung down from the twenty-foot high ceiling sparkled like the sun glinting off water at just the right angle. The dining room was off the main foyer, where a wraparound staircase worked its way up to the second floor. Off the other side of the foyer was a parlor with huge Corinthian columns holding up the ceiling, which was a grid of sunken wood panels that looked to me like a giant fancy waffle. The room itself contained crimson Chesterfield sofas, brown leather chairs, and a grand piano. What really caught my eye, though, was a large marble chessboard set up in one corner. I wondered if there would be anyone to play with me.
Rajesh led us up the grand staircase and around the open balcony, past several rooms (one that I could’ve sworn was a ballroom). We eventually came to a long hallway with dark wood panels. We finally stopped at one of the rooms, which Rajesh informed us was my mom’s. He laid her suitcase on the bed, while she walked over and opened the heavy curtains to let in some light.
“Perfect,” she said. “And where is Phoenix’s room?”
Rajesh looked at his shoes uncomfortably.
The top floor resembled the exterior of the house more than the rest of the inside. It was nothing more than a half-finished attic full of cobwebs, large wooden crates, giant oil paintings collecting dust, and furniture covered in white sheets. My “room” was just a bed, desk and dresser separated from the rest of the attic by a brick and mortar wall.
My mom was having none of it. “This is ridiculous! I’m going to give the Ambassador a piece of my mind about this. A kid can’t have a room like this.”
“Mom, it’s fine,” I said, “I actually think it’s kinda cool.”
“Phoenix. You can’t possibly be serious. What if there are bats?” she said, looking at Rajesh to back her up.
“I’m sure it’s okay, Mrs. Walker. It’s not our place to question the Ambassador. Plus, we haven’t had a bat in here for over a year.”
She flashed Rajesh a look of horror, who suddenly became fascinated with a button on his shirt.
“It’s okay, Mom. I mean, when will I ever get an entire floor to myself again?” I flashed a winning smile at her, which I knew always got her to relax a bit.
“Are you sure, honey? Because there’s gotta be at least twenty rooms in this house that we walked past that look like they’re sitting empty,” she said.
“It’s fine,” I lied, convincingly.
She looked at me, opened her mouth to say something, then decided against it. She shrugged, “I guess it’s settled then. Lead me back to the kitchen, Rajesh. I better get started on this surprise party.”
“Oh no, not a surprise party, ma’am. All of the guests are expected,” explained Rajesh.
She laughed and linked her arm through his. “Looks like I’ll need to teach you about sarcasm, if we’re going to get along.”
As they started down the stairs, I plopped down on the bed and stared at the exposed beams in the rafters. A creepy old man in the woods? Half an attic for a room? And possibly bats?! This is not fine. This is very far from fine.
I sighed and figured I might as well start unpacking. I took the clothes out of my suitcase and placed them in the dresser. Everything fit in the top drawer with room to spare. I discovered that I had a stowaway hiding at the bottom of my suitcase. It was a small book with a hard red cover and JOURNAL printed in gold letters. I opened it and read the note written in the unmistakable loopy handwriting on the inside cover: “For documenting the adventure! Love, Mom” I sat down at the desk, turned to the first blank page and looked around the room for a minute. Finally, I wrote:
My name is Phoenix Walker. I’m nobody. I have no friends. The truth is, I don’t know who I am. But I know I don’t belong here.
I stared at the page for a minute, then added:
And I have a secret.
A big one.