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The biggest hazard of studying history,” Nat Turnbull once told his wife, “is that if you spend too much time looking backward, you’ll be facing the wrong way when the forces of the here and now roll forward to crush you.”
As if to prove the point, his wife filed for divorce the following week, catching Nat completely by surprise. Five years later he was again facing the wrong way, so to speak, when a pair of phone calls summoned him urgently back to the dangers of the present. He was three stories underground at the time, asleep at his desk in the stacks of the university library. An unlikely location, perhaps, for the beginning of an adventure in which lives would be lost, but Nat was trained to appreciate that sort of irony.
The first call arrived just as a dark dream of another era goose-stepped across his brain. His cell phone jolted him awake, squirming in his pocket like a frog. Opening his eyes to utter darkness, Nat realized he must have slept past closing hour. It wasn’t the first time. He kept a flashlight for these emergencies, but it seemed to have disappeared. No use groping for the lamp, either. Security would have cut the power by now. Library budgets weren’t what they used to be at Wightman University.
The phone twitched again as he fumbled in his pocket. He was addled, groggy, a miner regaining consciousness after a cave-in. What time was it? What day? What century? Mandatory question in his line of work. Nat was a history professor. Specialty: Modern Germany. At Wightman that covered everything from the Weimar Republic of 1919 onward, and while Nat was in love with the sweep and grandeur of the whole era, neither friend nor foe was under any illusion as to his true calling. He remained as thoroughly haunted by the long shadow of the Third Reich as those Hitler-centric folks on the History Channel. In Nat’s treasure hunts, X never marked the spot. A swastika did, or some pile of old bones. Dig at risk of contamination.
He snicked open the phone, and the blue glow offered a beacon of hope until he saw the incoming number. Gordon Wolfe, his onetime master and commander, calling at 1:04 a.m., meant Nat was about to be subjected to an angry tirade or a teary confessional, and either would likely be served in a marinade of French cognac and Kentucky bourbon. He answered with a vague sense of stage fright.
“No, it’s Viv. Gordon’s in jail. You have to get up here.”
“Jail? What’s happened?”
“They took him away. Him and some archives. They took everything.”
“Gordon’s archives? All of them? Where are you, Viv?”
“Blue Kettle Lake. Our summer place.”
The Adirondacks. Of course. That was where the old Minotaur always retreated when the going got tough, and lately the going had been unbearable.
“The police handcuffed him the moment we walked in the door. You’d have thought he was John Dillinger. They’re saying he stole it, that he stole everything, which is nuts.”
“Stole what, Viv? Slow down. Start at the beginning.”
By now the phone light had switched off. Nat, sole survivor of the European Research Collection, again sat in the darkness of carrel C-19 in the basement stacks of Hartsell Library. He had often boasted he could find his way out of here blindfolded. Tonight he might have to put up or shut up.
His nose could have told him the approximate location—musty leather bindings, chilled concrete, the chemical reek of spooled ?microfilm—a bouquet that probably explained why he had just been dreaming of a similar place across the Atlantic. Except there all the writing was in German and the records were haunted by so much industrialized horror that you never got comfy enough to nod off.
In his dream he had been visiting the place during wartime, a quarter century before he was born. He was descending a narrow stairway as bombs crashed overhead, and he was vaguely excited, as if on the verge of a huge discovery. Yet at each passing level the light dimmed, his dread deepened, and a grim realization took hold: The closer he got to his goal, the greater the risk that he would lose his way or be buried in rubble, forever irretrievable by family and friends.
Guilt having its say, no doubt. Work had consumed the better part of Nat’s last two decades, dating back to his undergraduate years, when a dynamic professor named Gordon Wolfe had infected him with a virulent strain of historical curiosity. The affliction had now outlasted the aforementioned marriage, a procession of careless affairs, and the upbringing of a daughter who had just finished her sophomore year at Wightman. This being a party-hearty Thursday following final exams, Karen was probably seated at this very moment with her friends around a noisy table, polishing off a celebratory pitcher of beer.
Nat had canceled a dinner date to come to the library. It seemed necessary at the time. But so far the only fruits of his labor were an unscheduled nap, and now he had learned that Gordon Wolfe was in jail in upstate New York, where the old man apparently would remain until Nat could talk Gordon’s wife, Vivian, down from the high ledge of hysteria. Judging from her voice, she had been perched there quite a while.
“It was some old files,” Viv said. “Gordon says they were planted. That’s all I could get out of him before they took him away. They bumped his head on the goddamn patrol car. We didn’t even have time to take off our coats. When we turned on the light there was a pile of boxes sitting there, right on the kitchen table. Then a bunch of FBI guys came in from the living room.”
“The FBI? Good Lord. What kind of files?”
“I don’t know. Something from the war. Gordon can tell you. I got the idea he’d seen them before, just never at our house.”
“Two boxes? Ten?”
“Four. They moved everything to the sunroom before I got a good look, and now I can’t even get in there. I’m a prisoner in my own house.”
“You see any labels? Any markings?”
“A few stickers. Ask Gordon. But first we’ve got to get him out. They haven’t set bail, but I can take care of that. I want you here for the arraignment. We can ride over together, tell the judge it’s all a lie.”
Unless it wasn’t. Frame-up or not, what in the hell was Gordon Wolfe doing at the age of eighty-four with a missing archive at his summer home in the hills? Especially if it was the archive, the one Gordon had forever mooned about to both students and colleagues in his less-guarded and more-imbibed moments. More than sixty years ago he had been one of the few wartime caretakers of that trove. Then, after the war ended, four boxes full of information had slipped through everyone’s fingers, disappearing somewhere between the Alps of Switzerland and the towers of midtown Manhattan.
Gordon had been looking for this lost treasure ever since, and during particularly acute outbreaks of gold fever he sounded like an old prospector around a campfire. He had even brought up the subject at his long-overdue retirement party, a melancholy event six years ago when everyone but Gordon had been at a loss for words, stifled by the awkward knowledge that Wightman was nudging him not so gently into the box marked “Emeritus.” What was it Gordon had said that day as he blustered on? Some bold proclamation while he waved his drink, his blocky head thrust forward like that of a reckless boxer, punch-drunk and asking for more. Now Nat remembered:
“Oh, it’s out there, all right. Nobody burned it. Nobody bombed it. But somebody took it, and I wish I knew who, ’cause it’s got secrets you can’t find anywhere else. Not a dud among ’em. Live ammunition. Pick it up and it might go off in your hands. Boom!”
Whereupon he sloshed bourbon onto the tie of the assistant dean for students.
Gordon’s mother lode was a trove of wartime gleanings from an American OSS station in Bern, Switzerland, which had been a listening post in a zone of tense but genteel neutrality. Right on Hitler’s doorstep, as historians such as Nat liked to say. It was run by Allen Dulles, the genial, pipe-smoking Lothario who a few years later became one of the first chiefs of the CIA, making him the nation’s ranking Cold Warrior. The missing boxes were only a fraction of the voluminous files Dulles collected during the war, of course. And much of his other work had been well documented, most notably in accounts of the German double agent Fritz Kolbe, who smuggled secret documents out of the Nazi Foreign Ministry by taping them around his thigh.
Gordon ended up working for the OSS literally by accident. Dulles arrived in Switzerland by train only hours before Vichy France shut its borders in late ’41. Cut off from reinforcements, he cobbled together a staff from borrowed diplomats, marooned American bankers and ?students, disaffected expat Junkers, a Swiss financier’s wife who was a former Boston debutante—who, conveniently, also became his ?mistress—and American airmen whose bombers crash-landed in Switzerland.
Gordon was one of the downed airmen, selected by Dulles mostly because of his fluency in German. It saved him from spending the rest of the war in a Swiss internment camp, although by his own account he was little more than a clerk, translating speeches and making sure Dulles never ran out of paper clips. Gordon compensated for this lack of espionage glamour by telling hair-raising tales of his missions as a ball turret gunner in a Flying Fortress on bombing runs over Germany. To drive home the point, he wore a battered leather flight jacket and walked with a limp—the result, he said, of a flak burst and a bad parachute drop.
This image of dashing-flyboy-turned-spy-clerk-turned-scholar might have followed him to the grave if not for a bit of “gotcha” journalism that had appeared only a week ago in Wightman’s campus newspaper, the Daily Wildcat.
Gordon’s B-17, it turned out, hadn’t been shot down at all. It hadn’t even dropped a bomb during its final flight. It flew plenty of other dangerous missions, but Gordon was making his maiden voyage as a last-minute replacement. Somewhere between England and the target city of Regensburg the pilot got lost, ran low on fuel, circled into the Alps, and finally brought the plane to rest in a Swiss meadow, where the unscathed crewmen were immediately surrounded by milk maidens and lowing cattle. Gordon’s limp, the Wildcat said, was either the exaggerated by-product of a childhood illness—the very malady that kept him out of the infantry—or an outright affectation.
Although Gordon was retired, he was still a well-known figure around campus, not least for a series of free lectures he delivered every summer to the townsfolk, complete with colorful descriptions of his aerobatic derring-do. But there would be no speeches this summer, and a book contract that was to have been his scholarly swan song had already been canceled.
Now, if Viv was to be believed, you could add an arrest at the hand of federal agents to his roll of dishonor. And who knows, maybe the man was guilty. Because if he had finally tracked down the missing boxes, then Nat could well imagine him hoarding them, at least for a while. It was easy enough to guess how the old fellow would have justified it, by garrulously referring to his temporary possession as a “finder’s fee.”
“So can you come?” Viv was insistent.
Nat sighed. He wanted to tell her to call a lawyer. Then he could get a full night’s sleep and drive up tomorrow, if at all. Let the old bastard stew away in jail, especially after everything that had happened between them. But Viv headed him off at the pass.
“Gordon won’t let me call a lawyer. He said to get you instead. It was the last thing he said as they put him in the car. ‘Get Nat. He’ll know what to do.’?”
“Since when did Gordon make sense in this kind of situation, Viv?”
“I know. But for what it’s worth, he was sober. Mostly, anyway.”
“We haven’t spoken in years, you know. Unless you count those late-night calls he likes to make.”
“I know that, too. I’m sorry. Gordon’s sorry, if it makes any difference. And not just ’cause he’s in trouble. He’s said it a lot lately.”
Sure he had. But in spite of himself, Nat experienced a tug of old loyalties. Or maybe he was still just eager to please—student to teacher, apple in hand.
“Okay. I’ll come.”
“Thanks, Nat. I’ll never forget it. And I’m sure Gordon won’t.”
Yes, he would, probably within minutes. But Nat had endured that before. Besides, there were other motivations. If the boxes were what he suspected, he might get first crack at them.
“I’ll leave right away,” he said. “Don’t wait up.”
Viv hung up, and Nat found himself back in the dark, inhaling the stale, silent breath of all those books and ledgers. They, too, seemed to rest at night, the cells of a drowsing giant who might roll over at any moment and crush him with the weight of their lore. Nat believed there was more than just physical heft to these materials. They retained a spirit as well, some gusty breath from the souls of their creators. It wasn’t that he believed in ghosts. It was more a reflection of how thoroughly he let such materials inhabit his mind.
But more practical matters beckoned. He was already dreading the long drive. Six hours minimum, meaning he would have to stop for breakfast, maybe a nap. Good thing he’d nodded off here. With any luck he would make it in time for the arraignment, although he realized now that Viv hadn’t given him a time or place. He tapped the desktop like a blind man, groping for his things. Then the phone throbbed again. Viv with the logistics, no doubt.
From the Hardcover edition.