A dreary old police cell; empty, cold, just a wooden old table with a decanter containing water and two tin mugs.
Along one of the walls was a wooden bunk bed with paillasses for a matrass and one 'horse blanket' per person.
In the corner was a sort of 'bucket with a toilet-seat/lid' combination where you could do your need.
The only view - well, if you could call it that - was a look at the frosted tree tops of a spruce and a leafless birch against a grey sky.
And that was all they were able to spot through the high-level window of the Czech police lock-up.
The window had bars on the outside, of course. As if one could work his way up there and escape.
The expectancy of having to celebrate Christmas in here did not exactly make them cheerful.
And what was to happen afterwards was outright frightening.
Chris looked weary at Erik, Erik looked weary back. He sighed
He never expected this when he plotted to kidnap a Velorex three-wheeler from the Czech Republic.
It all seemed innocent enough. But it did not exactly turn out the way he expected.
And the Czech Republic of 1998 appeared to be quite different still from the familiar west.
Despite 'perestroika', 'glasnost', the fall of the Berlin wall and reunion of east- an west-Germany.
"What was it again the police chief said ?", Chris asked.
"There will be no judge available before Christmas, so he'll keep us here a week at least before we can be brought to trial ?
I doubt if it would do us any good if we were on earlier anyway", he continued, "the chief said that for these kinds of offences, we could easily get 3 to 5 years in prison! What a nightmare...".
Erik kept silent. He inhaled thoughtfully from the last part of his cigarette which he could just about hold in his fingers without burning them.
His tobacco was nearly finished too.
For a while he did not know what to say. He felt totally responsible for the situation that he, and worse still his mate Chris found, themselves in now. If only he had kept Chris out of it.
But that is just crying over spilt milk. It all seemed so logical, easy and fun, he thought.
Last summer Chris and his wife Eeva had been on holiday in the Czech Republic on their BMW R80-sidecar combo.
From the former GDR they went down through the Ertz mountains towards Prague, after which they continued through Slovakia into Hungary.
By chance, and without knowing about Chris's journey, Erik and his girlfriend Marie-Antoinette, Marie-A, as he always called her, also spent their summer holiday in the Czech Republic.
Not on their Guzzi this time, instead they had taken their bicycles on the train for a cycle-holiday in the south-west part of the Republic.
Marie-A kind of 'collected' three-wheelers and had beside a Guzzi V50 + sidecar, also a Piaggio three-wheel 'scooter pick-up type utility vehicle'.
Widely used in Italy in the past for small transports and deliveries, as used by mobile grocers, bakers etc.
Her great desire was to own a Czech Velorex three-wheeled car', powered by a Jawa 2-cylinder motorbike engine.
For the law it was a kind of sidecar combo so It could be driven on a motorbike-licence.
Much like the British V-twin powered Morgan 3-wheeler.
They were hoping to find one during the holiday over there, and indeed...
In a village cafe they met some farmer who had a whole Velorex sitting in his barn.
Speaking German of sorts, he told that he bought the Velorex as a 'vehicle for the disabled' when his hip was worn.
But now he had a new artificial hip, and he never used the three-wheeler anymore, so he was willing to sell it.
They agreed on the price, to be paid in German currency, and Erik promised to come and get the vehicle before Christmas.
He was very content to have found this marvellous Christmas present for his Marie-A.
When he met Chris again after holidays - "You what...? You've been to the Czech Republic too ?" - Erik asked him if he would like to join him
to collect the Velorex during Christmas holidays. No need for Chis to think about it, and so, a few days before Christmas, he put his travel bag in the sidecar and took off to Erik in the city of Zutphen.
Erik meanwhile had 'organized' a nice van, a Peugeot Boxer Diesel, from a nephew with a shop, and the two took off towards south Germany.
They were planning to cross the German/Czech border a bit beyond Regensburg.
Erik had explained to Chris that they could not just pick up the Velorex and take it to Holland in the Boxer. Since the vehicle was built before 1968, it was considered Czech 'industrial heritage', and could only be exported with a written permission of the National Historical Museum in Prague. You could properly forget about getting permission though, Erik explained, and so he had invented a scheme...
They were to take the Velorex apart before transport; he had found out that for individual (spare)parts or components the rule did not apply.
Therefor he communicated to the Czech farmer that they would dismantle the vehicle in the barn and then leave before Christmas eve.
The farmer was going to write a letter in Czech language, stating that Erik had bought Velorex parts.
He emphasized that the farmer should use the word parts.
And the farmer would also declare that Erik had paid for the parts, just in case the Czech customs should wonder...
The ride to the south-east went smooth, if not boring.
Be it that as they moved south, there was more and more snow, and the landscape became ever more wintry.
Occasionally one saw Christmas decorations in houses and the small villages, so you would not forget that it was the Christmas season.
Later in the afternoon they arrived in a small German border-village where they found a cosy and affordable hotel.
The next day in the Czech Republic, they only drove on country roads.
Thanks to the snowy white landscape and people ice-skating on canals and pools on the way it became a very pleasant drive.
And when they reached the village, they had no problem at all finding a hotel, before they went to the farmer’s.
Erik's reverie was disrupted by the sound of Chris's voice.
"It all went so well at the beginning, didn't it", the voice said, "and we did have a laugh as well at times, didn't we?
Well, until that second customs officer interfered that is, that blooming bureaucrat. I guess he was after a promotion".
It made them think back at how it began when they arrived at the farm in the outskirts of the village.
The farm reminded Chris a bit of the farmhouses in the south of the Netherlands; completely walled and with a big gate for an entrance.
The friendly farmer's wife gave them first a big mug of coffee, before they got to work.
Chris saw the Velorex 'live' for the first time and was wondering how a disabled person could possibly squeeze his body inside.
After they finished the coffee, they started to dismantle the Vehicle.
It was made of a sort of round 'cage-frame' made of tubes, that was covered with a skin of leather or canvas.
The skin covered the vehicle front to back so it had a roof to protect driver and passenger from bad weather.
Inside were 2 seats beside each other, behind which the Jawa 350cc 2 cylinder 2-stroke engine was mounted.
It drove the single rear wheel by means of a chain. It had two front wheels. The doors opened 'suicide style'; to the front.
The men stripped the skin first, removed the doors, took the seats out, engine, wheels, battery, petrol tank... etc.
When it started to get dark, the farmer came to tell them that they had done enough for the day.
"He said: "schlussta, schlussta", and he made horizontally 'cutting' gestures with his hands.
They understood this as a derivative of the German "schluss"; end/finish, and they stopped working.
The farmer's wife brought a little tub with hot water, 2 towels and a pot of, what looked like disinfecting soap.
The men however took a big quantity from their own pot with garage soap and to her surprise started to rub their hands without water.
The greasy dirt of their hands mixed with the 'Dreumex', to a grey/brown sludge.
She shook her head and clearly had no confidence in its result.
Both men then put their hands in the tub with water, and after a very short rinse they took their clean pink hands from the dirty water.
The woman could not believe her eyes and she vented a surprised "ÔÔôôôhh", as if she was going to faint.
She then started to laugh and murmured in Czech while she took the tub with water and the towels back inside.
The two friends had to laugh at her reaction.
Back in the hotel they first had a hot shower to get a bit warm again; it was icy cold in that barn.
They then went out in the little village full of Christmas decorations, looking for a place to eat.
On the way to the hotel they had seen a sign saying "fish restaurant" somewhere, which they tried to find now.
It didn't take long to discover the sign. They followed the directions on it and a few minutes later they found it... in their own hotel...!
The restaurant appeared to be part of the hotel.
They never noticed at arrival, but to the left in the entrance-hall was the counter of the hotel, to the right was the restaurant.
The next morning they got up early. They still had to work on the Velorex a few hours before it was completely taken apart and loaded into the Boxer. The frame, and in and around it the chairs, engine, wheels, petrol tank, and of course the 'skin' plus all the 'small stuff (cables, steering-wheel, etc.). It all fitted in the van, but the back-doors could not be closed; the frame appeared to be just a bit too long. So they secured the doors with straps.
Erik paid the farmer who in turn gave him the letter. On parting they gave farmer's wife the original Edam cheese they brought along.
The farmer's wife gave them a box of chocolate for 'on the way'.
They shook hands and Christmas wishes were exchanged and the men left for the German border.
On the way they stopped in a village at a building looking like the canteen of a sports club.
A sign on the wall claimed that it was a restaurant, so they decided to have lunch.
'Palacinke' appealed to them very much for lunch; little pancake rolls, filled with whip cream and fruit-jam, with powdered sugar 'snowed' on top.
It was a real Czech delicacy as both couples had discovered during their previous stay in the Republic.
When they entered the dining room, a heavy, breath-taking scent of perspiration from very hard working men, mixed with the industrial smell of iron, grease and sawdust, hit them... All this scent was ‘wrapped’ in a smother of baked bacon and onions and fried potatoes.
The place was packed with working folk, recharging their energy from plates filled with 'mounds' of heavy winter-food.
Chris and Erik found a little table somewhere in the back. When the innkeeper appeared, Erik asked: "palacinke ? zweimal bitte" and stuck two fingers up. The innkeeper gasped... This was absolutely not done... Not in his place...
With a voice full of disdain he bellowed: "Palacinke ??? No Palacinke !!! Palacinke no good...
Roast pork and fried potatoes... good food for men ! He was going to teach these two wimps from the west what men are supposed to eat.
Palacinke... what are they thinking ? The workers in the room stopped eating, came halfway up from their chairs, as if to ask: "you want us to get the tar and feathers now, or after lunch?".
But the two friends were not impressed.
They politely declined the roast pork, and after some negotiating they agreed on bread with cheese (admittedly, thick slices).
And for drinks - no, no beer thank you very much, we're driving - 2 colas.
The innkeeper had a grin on his face as if he just made the deal of his life, but the two found the amount they had to pay embarrassing low...
Well, compared to prices back home anyway, even though they paid in German Marks.
It was not a long ride to the border anymore. There was hardly a queue at the customs and it soon was their turn.
A customs officer came to the driver's window. Erik handed him their passports with a friendly 'dobri den'; good day.
The official murmured a bit, walked around the front and looked through the passenger's window inside, at the cargo bay.
He stopped at the side-door, said something in Czech and made a gesture like "slide open". Chris got out and opened the door.
The customs officer looked at the cargo and curtly said: "paper, paper" pointing at the collection of parts. Erik handed over the envelope with the letter from the farmer. The officer then gestured that they should park the van beside the road and disappeared with their passports and the letter in an office building. The men looked anxiously at each other. Erik began to roll a cigarette, slightly nervous. "I really hope that the farmer did not pull a trick on us by writing in the letter that we are criminals smuggling drugs or so", he said trying to appear relaxed.
It took the customs officer more than half an hour to get back, accompanied by a colleague.
The second officer asked them about the collection of parts in 'broken' German.
Chris and Erik tried to explain that they collected the parts in order to restore some Velorexes back in Holland. "We are members of a Dutch 'Velorex Owners Club", they bluffed, "that's what we need spare parts for".
"Nix spare parts" the officer replied,"zis is complete motorbike wagon before 1968. Isse not allowed. Only wiz permission of National Museo in Praha. Else criminal...", he added intimidating.
Erik started to feel a bit faint, his knees felt week. "No criminal", he objected, "it's our hobby, we are real fans of Velorex. It's all spare parts only".
In an attempt to show his good will, he handed over the complete Czech registration papers of the Velorex that he got from the farmer.
And thát was not exactly a smart move... "Ahaaaa..." the man said triumphantly, "nix spare parts... isse complete motorbike wagon".
Erik shrank. Chris got insecure, shrugged his shoulders and said: "it may not be so bad. A big fine, maybe, or a bribe even, and we're on the road again. Erik was not convinced though and actually, neither was Chris.
They really got scared when they had to hand in the car keys.
A third officer was called to drive their van, and the two were handcuffed and transported to the police station in a decayed old Skoda.
There they were interviewed by an inspector who spoke proper German and who explained the nature of their misdemeanour.
He emphasized that this kind of behaviour would be taken very seriously. He said that there was no judge available right now and that they would be brought to trial after Christmas.
Finally he informed them that for a crime against the Czech Republic like this one could expect to get 3 to 5 years in prison.
They looked at each other in despair... Crime ??? 3 to 5 ???
Next they were locked in a police cell, thank God still together.
After having discussed the whole situation again they tried to get some sleep on their wooden benches.
Both heard the other one sighing, tossing and turning still long time before they finally fell asleep.
"Wake up, time to get up" a German voice sounded.
Erik was gently shaken to wake him up. Confused he opened his eyes and looked up at the wall opposite his bed.
Through pinched eyes he spotted frozen tree tops through the window.
Erik was also gently shaken; "Time to get up, wake up please".
He drowsily asked "are we being brought before the court today"?
"Sorry ?" a voice asked.
"Brought to trial, the court" he restated.
Only then it dawned on him that it was a friendly German woman's voice and not a rough man's voice with heavy Czech accent.
"I really don't know what you are talking about sir, sorry".
She did not really look like a prison guard, more like a chambermaid of a hotel.
"But you wanted to be woken up early in order to get home in time for Christmas day. You can have your breakfast in the restaurant below".
"Christmas day? Home?", Chris echoed, "But... but... where are we, then".
The chambermaid could not help laughing; such a pair of confused minds, those Dutchmen. Or maybe drinks ?.
"Well, in hotel Fledermaus of course, just north of Frankfurt" she replied.
The two looked at each other, not understanding at all. "Did we arrive here yesterday, do you know ?"
"Well, you must have", she said almost asking, "but I was not on duty myself yesterday.
Your breakfast, gentlemen, in the restaurant", she reminded them friendly but professionally.
"Oh.. and merry Christmas !".
In the car on the way home they were still confused; neither one had the slightest recollection of how they got away.
They both remembered that they were taken into custody by Czech customs officers for at least a week, it seemed.
And that they fell asleep the first night in prison, but they surprisingly woke up in hotel Fledermaus in Germany.
But how and what... That remained a great mystery.
"You know, I once read that Christmas season is a magical time. And that mysterious events, miraculous rescues, impossible survivals, reunions with lost or disappeared loved ones, etcetera may take place", Chris said.
"Oh well, I don't believe in that stuff", Erik replied.
"OK, then explain to me... What do you think is going on"
"I'd say that last night we dreamed the same dream by chance, but each of us from his own perception".
"By chance, you say ? Identical in the smallest of details, and totally simultaneously ?", Chris said.
"Leaving a gap in both our memories from the time we fell asleep until we woke up in Germany ?.
And you don't call that magical ? Well...", Chris continued, "I' m not sure... I think that we possibly received a "slap on the wrist".
"from whom", Erik asked.
"I don't know, from fate? Providence? Whatever... For our temerarious - and to the Czech Republic possibly disrespectful - enterprise".
Erik thoughtfully looked at him. "guilt" he murmured.
Chris raised his eyebrows.
Erik just smiled and said: "merry Christmas mate".
He floored the accelerator pedal, homeward bound...
To the city of Zutphen, deliver Marie-A's Christmas present.