Vienna, 13 January
Jack hurried out of the BBC studio after his early morning TV interview. It was his only engagement that day and the hire car Rebecca had arranged to take him to the airport was already waiting outside.
Contacting Professor Popov personally had been impossible. The Nobel laureate’s schedule was almost as hectic as Jack’s, with speaking engagements and receptions all over Europe. All Rebecca had been able to find out was that Professor Popov would be in Vienna that day, addressing a group of prominent physicists at the university. Jack was hoping to somehow catch up with him there.
Sitting in the back of the limousine, Jack opened his briefcase and began to sort through the meagre material. He had to admit, when he looked at everything objectively, it didn’t amount to very much. Most of it was a hunch, and to sell a hunch was never easy. However, he had decided to borrow the bracelet from Rebecca. What if it was in some way connected to Anna? It was the only item found in the secretaire and it was in surprisingly good condition, suggesting a fairly recent origin. He would show it to Professor Popov, just in case. But first, he had to find a way to meet him.
Trying to talk to people who don’t want to know you is part of every journalist’s lot. The challenge was simply to find that one window of opportunity that would invariably present itself, and climb through before it closed. That needed ingenuity and luck; especially luck. Unfortunately, that day all the windows appeared to be firmly shut with typical Austrian efficiency. Security at the university was tight and Jack couldn’t get near the conference building. With Islamic terrorist paranoia sweeping across Europe and Vienna’s reputation as a safe conference venue at stake, the authorities weren’t taking any chances. Policemen armed with machine guns patrolled the grounds with sniffer dogs and all approaches to the building had been sealed off.
Jack didn’t speak German but he had to get a message to the Professor while he was still in the building. It was his only chance – Jack had to return to London that evening. Then he remembered something he had pulled off at the United Nations building in New York in similar circumstances – with spectacular success. An old CNN fox had shown him a tried and tested journo trick: how to get a message to a delegate he had never met, without going through security.
Jack walked over to one of the benches, cleared away the snow and sat down. Here goes, he thought, opening his briefcase. He took an enlarged photo of the desktop showing the inscription – ‘Anna Popov Help 07’ – out of the case and scribbled the words: ‘Please call to discuss. Urgent!’ on the back. Underneath, he jotted down his name and mobile number, slipped the photo into an envelope, but didn’t seal it. Then he hurried across to the young policeman standing at the barricade.
Fortunately, the man spoke a little English. Jack showed him his Australian press ID and explained that Professor Popov had dropped an envelope as he was getting into his car at the hotel. Jack knew that by passing the envelope to the young officer, he had made it his responsibility to do something about it. The important thing was to leave it there and walk away.
Jack looked at his watch. ‘I have to run,’ he said, turning on his heels. ‘Please make sure he gets it. He’s a Nobel Prize winner …’
Well, it’s on its way, he thought. Fingers crossed I’ll get a call. All going well, the envelope would move up the ladder of command and find the Professor.
At first, the policeman had been reluctant to do anything. However, with the words ‘he’s a Nobel Prize winner’ ringing loudly in his ears, he changed his mind and took the envelope to the officer in charge.
Professor Popov called Jack two hours later.
‘If this is some kind of sick joke aimed at getting an interview, forget it!’ he said curtly. ‘Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just hand the photograph to the police and be done with it.’
It took all of Jack’s eloquence and powers of persuasion to convince the Professor to give him five minutes of his time. The Professor agreed to meet Jack at five, and gave him the name of his hotel.
Professor Popov stepped out of the lift and looked around. Although Jack recognised him instantly from the Nobel Prize photograph, the Professor was much smaller than he had expected. The closely cropped hair, the round, steel-rimmed glasses and pointed goatee made him look like a Russian revolutionary of the 1920s. The only thing missing was the starched collar and cravat. Jack walked over and introduced himself.
They found an empty table and sat down. During the next few minutes, Jack described where and how he had acquired the secretaire. Hinting that Anna could perhaps still be alive, he began to hypothesise about the inscription. At first, Professor Popov listened politely. Soon, however, he started to fidget in his seat, took off his glasses and began to polish them meticulously with his handkerchief.
‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, Mr Rogan, but isn’t this pure speculation? The police investigation was extremely thorough and lasted for more than a year. In the end, the case was closed. There were no leads. No clues. Nothing. You cannot imagine what my wife and I have been through. I’m sure your intentions are good, but I cannot allow this to give us false hope only to be disappointed again. We have already endured a death of a thousand cuts. To have to face it all again would be too much to bear,’ said the Professor quietly. ‘Please, try to understand.’ He pushed the photograph across the table towards Jack and stood up.
‘Before you go, Professor, there’s one more thing …’ said Jack, reaching into his pocket. ‘I also found this, hidden in the secretaire.’ Jack placed the silver bracelet on the table in front him.
At first, the Professor just stared. Then he sat down again, looked at the bracelet more closely without touching it, and paled. Covering his face with his hands, he sat in silence.
‘Did this belong to your daughter?’ asked Jack quietly after a while. The Professor didn’t appear to have heard him and Jack had to repeat the question.
‘You’ll have to ask my wife that. My former wife,’ the Professor corrected himself, his voice sounding hoarse. Pulling a pen out of his pocket, he reached for the envelope on the table and wrote down a number. ‘Now, if you would excuse me, my driver is waiting.’
Professor Popov stood up and handed the envelope to Jack.
Confronted by something too painful to remember, but impossible to forget, the celebrated Nobel laureate looked like a broken old man.
‘Thank you, Professor,’ said Jack, holding out his hand. ‘I will do that.’
For an instant, the Professor hesitated, then reached out and shook Jack’s hand.
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