Read an Excerpt
Fellowship of Fear
The Gideon Oliver Series: Book 1
By Aaron Elkins
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Aaron Elkins
All rights reserved.
THEY were obviously professionals. They worked with a cold precision, item by item, methodical and disinterested. First the obvious places, the places an amateur would have put it: shelves, suitcases, bureau drawers. Everything was put back exactly into its place, every shirt refolded along the original crease marks, the dirty laundry piled carefully into its original disarray.
The taller man spoke. "Nothing. You?"
The other was compact, sleek-headed, with a V-shaped, rodentlike face. "No."
They walked to the door of the room without speaking further and fanned out slowly along the walls, the tall one going to the left, the other to the right. Now they moved to the less obvious places. They uncovered the plates to the two electrical outlets; they fingered the linings of ties, removed light bulbs and looked in the sockets, sought hollow places in the heels of shoes, belt buckles, razor handles, book bindings. They went over the bedding and the bed frame, then carefully remade the bed and put the head-shaped depression back in the pillow. They bent a wire hanger, went into the bathroom, and explored the drain of the sink and the toilet trap. They unscrewed the barrels of ballpoint pens and twisted the erasers on pencils to see if they would come off.
It took an hour. Finally the taller man said, "No. If he's got it, he's got it on him. Too bad for him."
"What time?" said the smaller one.
"Nine-fifteen. He's not going to be back for a while yet. Should we turn the lights off?"
"Turn them off."
They sat in the dark for a while. The tall one said, "He's a pretty big guy, you know. Six-one, six-two. Strong—used to box in college."
"So he's going to be full of booze. He's liable to get smart."
The sleek-headed man grinned. His neck was long and muscular. The light from a street lamp, coming in through the window, glinted on his teeth.
* * *
GIDEON Oliver was having a fine time, no doubt about it. With the rest of the new teaching faculty, he had arrived that morning at the sprawling, smoggy Rhein-Main United States Air Base outside of Frankfurt. The long night flight from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, which had made the others grumpy with fatigue, had left him in a state of fuzzy euphoria over setting foot in Europe for the first time.
Dr. Rufus, the college's ebullient chancellor, had been there to welcome the twelve of them with booming voice and hearty handshakes, and had quickly and efficiently bundled them aboard a creaky army bus for the trip to Heidelberg. While the others slept or looked glumly out the window, Gideon watched with pleasure as the air turned clear, the flat land gave way to forested hills, and picture-book villages began to appear.
They had reached Heidelberg a little before 2:00 p.m., and were booked into the Hotel Ballman, on the busy Rohrstrasse. There they were greeted by the cranky proprietress, Frau Gross, who seemed entirely displeased to see them, and by a bored college official who told them about the dinner that evening, gave them directions on how to get to it, and advised them all to get some sleep before then. Gideon was too excited for that, and spend the afternoon strolling along the Philosopher's Walk, Michelin in hand, enjoying the clear air and looking down on the Old Town, the busy river, and the eleventh-century bridge. Often he stopped to sit on a bench and drink in the stupendous ruined castle that dominated every part of the town from its hill above the Neckar, its honey-colored stones rich and benign, yet faintly sinister.
In the evening, the entire faculty, new and old, along with the administrative staff, met for dinner in the Schloss Weinstube, modern dining room in one of the castle's ancient chambers. Although not basically gregarious, Gideon Oliver was an essentially civil person, so that when he found himself in an unavoidable social situation he made the best of it. And when the food and wine were good, the conversation intelligent, and the women reasonably attractive, he had been known to actually enjoy himself. These conditions having been met tonight in varying degrees, he was enjoying himself very much.
During dinner he shared a table with three of the senior staff. Janet Feller alone accounted for most of the evening's intelligent conversation and female attractiveness. She had taught history for three years and was taking the semester off to work at the great library of nearby Heidelberg University, putting the finishing touches on her dissertation. Tall and long-limbed, with a languid grace and a definitely provocative eye, she chatted easily about a variety of esoteric subjects, from the evolution of Paleocene mammals, to polyphonal baroque music, to the chemistry of altered states of consciousness. Gideon, as usual, was fairly quiet, and Janet's attention had been greedily seized by the other two men at the table—not so much, however, that he failed to perceive the asides she made for his benefit, or to note an occasional dark-eyed glance in his direction.
Gideon Oliver was not a conventionally handsome man, and he knew it. He also knew that his big frame, broken nose, and soft brown eyes gave him a gentle ruggedness that many women found attractive.
He was by no means on the prowl. His wife of nine years, whom he had loved with all his soul, had died in an automobile accident two years earlier, and just as he had found no one to compare with her when she was alive, he had found no one since, and he wasn't looking hard. Still, even if not overly susceptible to women, he was by no means immune, and felt, through the wine-induced lassitude, a familiar stirring whenever Janet rearranged her long legs and looked briefly at him with unmistakably friendly intent.
The other two at the table had contributed less to the evening's pleasures. Bruce Danzig, the faculty librarian, was a fussy little man with fussy little hands and feet and a neat little lump of a pot belly—like a cantaloupe—across the exact center of which his belt lay. He delivered his words with irritating precision, pursing and stretching his lips lest a single phoneme emerge incompletely rounded.
On Gideon's other side, between him and Janet, sat Eric Bozzini, assistant professor of psychology. Three times during the meal he described himself as a laid-back Californian, and groomed himself for the part: long hair, neatly trimmed into a sort of page-boy cut below the ears, a Pancho Villa mustache, tinted glasses that never seemed to come off, and an open-throated shirt revealing some sort of canine attached to a thin, gold chain and nestling on a tanned, hairy chest. But at something near Gideon's own age of thirty-eight, the image was wearing a little thin; a widow's peak was discernible under the brushed-forward hairline, the face was a little fleshy, the chest a trifle puffy and soft-looking. Even the bronze skin seemed sunlamp-induced.
Gideon thoroughly enjoyed the dinner. While Bozzini directed his laid-back charms at Janet with grim determination, and Danzig competed with prissy little attempts at humor, Gideon concentrated on the food, enjoying the ripe German menu terms—Zwiebelsuppe, Forelle, Gemandeltes Truthahnschnitzel—almost as much as the food itself: clear onion soup, lightly grilled fresh trout, and sautéed turkey breast dusted with almonds. And of course the German wine: live, piquant, and intoxicating. Afterwards came coffee and enormous portions of Schwarzwäldertorte—Black Forest cake.
After the tables were cleared, the waiters, gratifyingly obsequious, continued to move about refilling glasses with the luscious wine. This helped considerably during the long speeches by assorted college and military officials. Gideon, like most of the Others, sat through them with a pleasant if slightly glassy-eyed expression. Administrators of the United States Overseas College welcomed them to the program, and military officers thanked them for bringing college courses to Our Boys in Europe, joking ponderously about them having all the advantages of army life (PX privileges, base housing, officer club memberships, free movies) and none of the disadvantages (unspecified).
Once, after hearing several speakers use the term, Gideon leaned over to ask Bozzini what a "you-socker" was, thinking it was a military word.
Bozzini laughed. "You are, man. A USOC'r." He waited for Gideon's answering laughter, which did not come.
"Don't you get it? United States Overseas College; U—"
"I get it," Gideon said.
About an hour into the speeches, Gideon, in a happy, nearly mindless daze, was puzzled to find his tablemates making peculiar faces at him, wiggling eyebrows and jerking heads. At the same time he became aware that the room was quiet.
Finally, Bruce Danzig spoke in a stage whisper, mouthing each syllable extravagantly. "Gide-on, stand up!" Frowning, Gideon stood.
"Ah," said the platform speaker with heavy joviality, "we wondered if you were still with us, Professor." Dr. Rufus, the college's chancellor, had an avuncular smile on his pleasant, smooth face.
"Sorry, sir," said Gideon with a sheepish smile. "I was deeply engrossed in mental preparation of my lecture notes."
Laughter and applause came from the other tables, as well as shouts of "Give him some more wine!" Gideon was pleased to see Janet smile.
The chancellor went on. "Dr. Gideon Oliver, whom I am happy to have you all meet, does well to so occupy himself. He has a lot of lectures to give. Professor Oliver, as I mentioned a moment ago—some time ago, actually— is this semester's visiting fellow. He comes to us on a leave of absence from Northern California State University"— scattered applause and a look of surprise from Eric Bozzini—"where he is an associate professor of anthropology. As those of you who are old-timers know, the visiting fellow is expected to cover quite a bit of ground in two months, both academically and geographically, ha, ha."
There was a polite spatter of laughter from the tipsy scholars, and Gideon smiled dutifully.
"Professor Oliver," boomed Dr. Rufus, "will be presenting the Visiting Fellow Seminars in Human Evolution at, um...." He consulted his notes. "Let me see; Sicily first, then back here to Heidelberg, then Madrid, then, ah, Izmir ..."
Gideon's mind focused soggily. Izmir? Madrid? Sicily? That wasn't the schedule he'd contracted for. Heidelberg had been on it all right, but the other places had all been German cities too—Munich, Kaiserslautern, some others he couldn't remember. Was Dr. Rufus confusing him with someone else? He hoped not; the revised schedule was tremendously more exciting. But they might at least have checked with him about it.
"As most of you know," continued Dr. Rufus, "we have not had a visiting fellow since the semester before last, ever since ... well, since the semester before last."
Dr. Rufus frowned and paused, and a small ripple of discomfort seemed to spread over the room. Was Gideon imagining it, or did most of the eyes watching him suddenly avoid contact?
Dr. Rufus had lost his train of thought and did not recover well. "And so," he said, no longer jovial, "and so I ... with pleasure I welcome Professor Oliver to the USOC faculty for the fall semester. Thank you." Abruptly, he turned from the lectern and went to his seat.
"Hey, man," said Eric before Gideon had quite sat down. "I didn't know you were from California. Northern Cal, where's that at, near San Francisco?"
"About twenty miles south. San Mateo."
"Far out. California. No kidding." He turned to Janet. "Hey, Janet, remember that other guy we had from L.A., Denny Something?"
Janet laughed. "The one who fell asleep after he taught a class on a submarine, and wound up at the South Pole?"
"Nah, that was Gordon Something. I mean the chemistry instructor, remember? Who got stuck in jail in Spain because the border guards thought his demonstration stuff was coke?"
They were both laughing now, well into their cups; old friends excluding Gideon and not paying much attention to Danzig, who sipped his wine and stared into the middle distance.
"Mmm," Janet said, spluttering slightly into the brimming glass at her lips, "what about the time—was it '74?— when they wouldn't let Ralph Kaplan off a base during a big alert, so he swiped a general's uniform and tried to get through the gate?"
"Yeah, with that beard yet!" Eric and Janet both spluttered this time, spraying Gideon with Reisling.
"Ooh," Janet said, "what about Pete Somebody, remember? That funny visiting fellow in Economics, I think it was, the one who didn't show up for class half the time, and then finally disappeared altogether and—"
"Uh, Janet." Eric put his hand on her arm. He made, Gideon thought, a faint motion in his direction. Janet looked confused for a moment, then closed her mouth.
"Look," Gideon said, "what is it with this visiting fellow? What happened to him?"
After an uncomfortable silence, Danzig spoke carefully. "Really, perhaps we shouldn't be frightening off our new fellow with horror stories from the remote past."
"Horror stories?" said Gideon.
"Figuratively speaking," said Danzig, composing a prim smile. "Just your typical war stories. You'll be telling them yourself a few months from now."
Janet and Eric studied their glasses. Bruce added, "Nothing you need concern yourself with, Gideon." He made the statement word by separate word, slowly, as if it were loaded with significance. But then, thought Gideon, that's the way he tells you the time.
He began to ask another question, but changed his mind. If they wanted to play at being coy or whatever they were doing, the hell with them. He was going home. To the hotel, that is. Gideon shoved his chair back from the table and stood up, ready to leave. His high spirits were suddenly gone, the good-old-boy stories did not entertain him, and his half-hatched plans for Janet were somehow no longer of interest. Jet lag had finally hit him; if he didn't get to his bed at the Hotel Ballman very shortly, he'd curl up and go to sleep on the floor of the Weinstube.
He turned from the table without saying good night, catching what he thought was a brief, silent glance between the three of them, and made his way towards the door. Others were milling about, getting ready to leave, and he caught sight of Dr. Rufus self-consciously circulating about, bearlike and jolly, thumping shoulders and shaking hands. When he saw Gideon, he smiled briefly—a twitch of the lips was more like it—and rather suddenly engaged himself in deep conversation with an older man and woman, both senior faculty members.
Gideon waited quietly. There were things that were bothering him, and he was going to buttonhole Dr. Rufus whether the chancellor liked it or not. When the older couple had made their good-byes, Dr. Rufus turned innocently in the direction opposite to Gideon and moved quickly toward another clump of people. Gideon called to him.
The chancellor turned, registering surprise. "Ah, the estimable Professor Oliver! I hope you had a pleasant evening."
"Yes, I did, thanks, but there are a few things I'd like to ask you."
"You bet; certainly. Ask away." He beamed at Gideon, blue eyes twinkling, rosy cheeks shining.
"Well, that schedule of mine. Is that right? I was expecting to go to Munich, Kaiserslautern—"
"Oh my, didn't you get my letter? No? It was a sudden change indeed. Had to change quite a few schedules. When did you leave the U.S.?"
"Ah, yes. I believe it was mailed—they were mailed— letters to people whose schedules we changed ... uh...." He mopped his glistening pink face with a handkerchief. "Mmm, uh, last Friday. Probably passed you going the other way. No inconvenience, I hope?"
"No, not at all. It's rather exciting. It's just a surprise."
"Well, I'm sorry if this has caught you off guard. Happens all the time in this business. Military exercise or an alert, and we just have to change our schedules. Fortunes of war. Here to serve. Well, my boy, good night—"
"Dr. Rufus, what happened to the last visiting fellow?"
The dank handkerchief dabbed once more. "Ah, yes. Dr. Dee. Well. Hmm. That was unfortunate. Yes. Didn't I tell you about it? No?"
Gideon restrained himself. "No," he said.
"Mm. Well, he, uh, died in an automobile accident. Quite sad. Just drove off the side of a mountain. On the Autostrada del Sole in Italy. Near Cosenza, I think. Right off the side of the mountain. Apparently just a case of driving too fast. He'd almost been killed in another car accident a few weeks before. Somewhat odd behavior for a psychologist, really."
Excerpted from Fellowship of Fear by Aaron Elkins. Copyright © 1982 Aaron Elkins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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