The black Mercedes 770 drove into view, bouncing over the ruts and hillocks of frozen earth before it rolled to a stop at the edge of the pine forest. Dieter watched as four men in black Schutzstaffel uniforms got out of the car. One of them, a tall blond officer, held the rear door open for a man in a white overcoat and military-style cap. The man’s left hand shook badly, as if from a palsy.
The passenger turned to Dieter.
“Be sure to have the aircraft refueled and ready to leave when I return.”
“Yes, Herr Doktor.”
The passenger jogged over to the Mercedes. He spoke to one of the SS officers before turning to the man in the white overcoat and extending his right arm in a stiff-armed Party salute. He led the way as all six walked away from the car and into the trees.
Dieter refueled the aircraft and went through a careful check of its exterior. Their next refueling stop was four hundred kilometers away, and they must take off soon if they were to have any chance of making it there before dark. He lit a cigarette and waited.
The young pilot had no idea what the men might be up to, nor did he waste time speculating about something that did not concern him. His orders had been clear enough: fly the passenger anywhere he wants to go, at any time of the day or night. The Reich official who took him from his Luftwaffe squadron eighteen months ago also made it clear that under no circumstances was he to allow his passenger to fall into the hands of the enemy. He tried not to think about that part of his orders.
The High Command kept him supplied with maps of a very special kind. Each showed the locations of safe landing zones and caches of petrol in areas still controlled by Germany. The maps had been updated every month until after the Normandy invasion. Now, despite the growing chaos infecting the Reich like a plague, new maps reached him every week.
His Fieseler Storch had been stripped of all its military markings and outfitted with an auxiliary fuel tank. Dieter knew that making the plane resemble a civilian aircraft would offer little protection against an enemy pilot intent on shooting him out of the sky, but luck had been his companion so far. He hoped it would not abandon him on this last flight into Franco’s Spain.
Dieter reached into the plane’s cockpit for the maps delivered by messenger only yesterday. He studied them carefully, calculating distances and fuel consumption to the various alternative landing sites. When he was done, he checked his chronograph. Another thirty minutes had gone by and there was still no sign of his passenger.
He ran over to the Mercedes and saw that two of its windows were beginning to frost over. Dieter smoked another cigarette and paced back and forth by the motorcar. The chances of reaching the next refueling stop before nightfall were quickly fading. He went to the place along the tree line where the six men had disappeared and, after a nervous backward glance at his plane, walked into the forest.
Dieter was immediately enveloped by a misty, green twilight alive with the scent of pine. A soft carpet of brown needles cushioned every footfall, so that his movement through the trees was nearly without sound. The forest felt utterly peaceful, almost dreamlike. It made the endless violence of the war seem suddenly very far away, a part of some other world. For a moment it was possible to imagine that the nightmare of the last six years had never happened. The notion made Dieter smile, but the illusion of peace faded quickly and his handsome young face once again became a rigid, anxious mask.
He was no traitor or defeatist. He had fought bravely for the Reich over the skies of Poland, France, and the English Channel. And yet this quiet place made him think of other paths open to him. The war could end for him tomorrow. All he would have to do is walk away. Spain was a big, beautiful country that had its own führer in General Franco, a man to be respected and admired. It would be so easy to disappear, to lose himself in a new land far from a dying thousand-year Reich.
The heavy scent of pine also brought with it thoughts of the holidays. Back in December, Dieter had pleaded with the passenger for a day’s leave to visit his family in Dresden. He had offered to find a reliable pilot to take over his duties, but the request was instantly denied. The passenger insisted that Dieter and no one else must remain at his disposal. There would be no exceptions, even for a son’s understandable wish to be with his family at Weinachten. Nothing outside of his secretive mission seemed to mean anything to the man. Now Dieter’s mother and father were dead, victims of the enemy’s latest criminal fire-bombing of civilians.
As for his older brother, Werner, God only knew what had become of him. Dieter had heard nothing from him since the Sixth Army’s surrender at Stalingrad two years before. He was probably dead or taken prisoner by the bestial Russians, which amounted to the same thing. If he did decide to begin a new life in Spain, he would not be leaving anything or anyone behind.
Dieter had gone nearly two kilometers when he came upon a clearing where the pine needle floor abruptly ended, replaced not by bare earth but by a pale green concrete slab. A structure the size of a small tool shed, sheathed in dull gray metal and draped with camouflage netting, stood at its center. Part of the netting had been pushed aside to reveal a door. Dieter approached it warily and saw that the door was slightly ajar. He was only a few meters from the shed when the ground shuddered violently and he nearly lost his footing. The sudden quake was followed by a low rumbling sound. The pungent smell of burning rubber stung his nostrils and a yellow mist rose from the earth like a fog. The trees around him seemed to undulate, as if he were seeing them through the rippling heat haze of a desert noon. Dieter became suddenly light-headed and backed away, off the concrete slab and into the woods. He reached out to steady himself against the trunk of an old pine. Its rough brown bark was hot to the touch and he jerked his hand away as a cold surge of panic gripped him. And then it was over. The yellow mist slowly dissipated and the forest was again quiet except for the sound of distant birds and soughing wind.
Dieter turned and ran.
He was breathing hard, shaken and sweating, when he emerged from the tree line. He ran to the Storch and stood alongside the aircraft smoking cigarette after cigarette, trying to calm himself. The passenger returned twenty minutes later, without the SS officers or the man in the white overcoat.
“Is everything in readiness?”
“Yes, Herr Doktor. What about the motorcar?” He pointed to the gleaming black Mercedes.
“My companions no longer need it. Let us get on with our journey, Dieter. I would like to reach Spain as soon as possible.”
He quickly re-checked his newest maps, his hands still trembling from the bizarre occurrence in the forest.
“Are you alright, Dieter? You seem agitated.”
“I am fine, Herr Doktor.”
He flew most of the way to their next refueling point at treetop level, even though there was little chance of encountering enemy aircraft. The war was nearing its end. Very few dared say it aloud, but Germany was probably only weeks away from surrender. The promised miracle weapons that were supposed to stave off defeat had done nothing to prevent American and Russian armies from closing in on the Fatherland. The once invincible Luftwaffe now barely existed as a fighting force, and Wehrmacht divisions, or what remained of them, were falling back in disarray on all fronts. The Third Reich was vanishing before his eyes, like some magician’s hideous sleight of hand.
He needed more time to compose himself and was relieved when the passenger fell asleep. He could not begin to understand what had happened back in the clearing, but was certain that his passenger was somehow involved. He was also sure of something else: he had not been meant to see any of it.
Dieter landed at the next refueling stop, a pasture thirty kilometers from the nearest town, just before nightfall. He quickly located the drums of petrol and went about fueling the Storch, being sure to fill the auxiliary tank to full capacity. The extra fuel would provide the additional range needed to complete the final leg of their journey over the Pyrenees and into Spain. But the tank also added weight that took away from the small plane’s maneuverability. His fellow Luftwaffe pilots used to joke that Dieter could make an ME 109 do magical things while aloft. He prayed that he would not have need of such skill before their final journey was at an end.
The passenger woke just as they were again getting underway.
“We should be crossing into Spain just before dawn, Herr Doktor.”
“Have you spotted any enemy aircraft?”
The passenger was restless. He shifted in his seat and started to light one of the American cigarettes he always managed to have with him. Dieter reminded him that smoking was forbidden inside the aircraft, especially now that the auxiliary tank was full to capacity.
“My apologies,” he said, and put the cigarette away.
They had last flown into Spain late in 1944, around the time of the Ardennes Counteroffensive. The weather was terrible and as a result enemy air activity had been minimal to non-existent. Dieter landed in the usual place, a large field near the abandoned barn where his passenger kept an old Maybach. He had watched the man drive off toward the northwest. To pass the time until his return, he read copies of the Volkischer Beobachter and drank bitter coffee he brewed on a camp stove.
The passenger had never been gone more than half a day on their previous flights, but that time he did not return until well after dark. He drove directly into the barn and said nothing as he stepped out of the car, put on a pair of heavy rubberized black gloves, and took a metal box from the Maybach’s boot. He carried the box as if it contained something fragile and very precious, gingerly placing it at the rear of the plane’s cockpit floor.
That night they sat in the barn eating bread, cheese, and fruit, and washing it all down with some good vino tinto. The passenger sat on a crude wooden stool by a kerosene lamp, intently using his slide rule and scribbling in the small black notebook he always carried with him.
Dieter never asked about the contents of the box. He had learned that it was not a good idea to ask too many questions about anything. If you did, sooner or later someone might start asking you a question or two, and in the hellish, frenzied last days of the Reich there were people in power who saw traitors behind every bush. Even the most innocent question could be twisted around and made to sound sinister. He had heard far too many stories of summary executions based on groundless accusations and kept his questions to himself.
His usually quiet passenger suddenly became talkative.
“I have performed a miracle today, Dieter,” he yelled over the sound of the engine. “A miracle!”
He had no idea what the man was talking about or what he should say in response, so he said nothing and pretended to check the plane’s instruments.
“It is criminal to have to keep such a thing secret, Dieter! Criminal! The world worships Einstein and will never know how I have accomplished what that Jew can only dream of.”
“Yes, Herr Doktor.”
He carried on about his miracle without ever saying what it was, and continued to imagine what the scientific community would say, how it would lionize him, if they were only permitted to know of his accomplishment. Dieter was grateful when his passenger finally stopped talking and fell asleep.
They reached Spain just as the sun’s first rays brightened the rim of the eastern sky. He expected the passenger to drive off in his Maybach as soon as it was fueled, but the excitement he had shown aboard the Storch was upon him again like a fever. He paced around the drafty old barn, gesturing and talking.
“I don’t expect you to understand what I have done. There are brilliant physicists all over the world who, even if they knew, could not understand. I have turned one of man’s eternal dreams into a reality.”
He stopped pacing and looked around the empty barn with a sly, conspiratorial smile on his face.
“Now here’s a bit of news for you, Dieter. In the coming weeks the world will be shocked by the death of our Führer. His body will be cremated, which will, of course, make identification of the remains very difficult, if not impossible. The war will end and the enemy will occupy our sacred land. But Germany will go on, Dieter, and our Führer will be every bit as alive as we are at this moment. He will be safe and restored to perfect health where our enemies cannot find him, even if they were to search every square centimeter of the planet.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
What he was saying sounded like nonsense -- the Führer dead, but somehow also alive.
“Of course not. How could you? How can anyone? That is why he is so utterly beyond the reach of our enemies. And yet it will be true, Dieter, I assure you.”
He was certain now that the passenger was mad. Perhaps whatever it was that happened in the forest had disordered the scientist’s senses, destroying his ability to reason. He concluded that it would be best to listen quietly, humor him until he was done with his lunatic rant and quietly drove away.
“Of course, as is the case with nearly all human endeavors, our plan has not been without its flaws. The Austrian actor who so successfully doubled for our Führer since the spring of nineteen forty-three became, how shall I say it, too involved in his portrayal? The fool started believing he could do a better job than the Führer himself. And to make matters even more ridiculous, the Führer’s mistress, the pretty but empty-headed Miss Braun, appears to have fallen in love with the man! Imagine that, Dieter, that idiot woman preferring a trifling actor to the greatest man in human history! Well, she will be gone, too, a loyal wench preferring death to a life without her Führer. A love story for the ages, eh, Dieter?”
“Of course, Herr Doktor.” Dieter smiled uneasily, finished fueling the Maybach, and began wiping the big auto’s dusty windshield.
“When the time is right, the Führer will restore the Reich and make us masters of the world. That has always been the inescapable destiny of our people. It will happen, Dieter, I promise you. In the meantime, he will wait patiently in his new world. Oh, how I envy him the wonders he is even now experiencing!”
“Yes, Herr Doktor. I think that’s fine.”
The passenger stared at Dieter.
“You think I’m insane, don’t you? I can see it in your young face. Well, that is good. Let them all think I’m insane and that what I have accomplished is impossible. In this case, the notion of impossibility is a splendid ally and protector. What a man cannot imagine, he can never suspect.”
“Certainly, Herr Doktor.”
“I must be on my way now. I have a long journey ahead of me. The Third Day Project is just getting started and will require much work.”
“The Third Day Project?” Dieter asked with feigned curiosity.
“Yes. The Führer himself chose the name for the project. It is a small joke on his part. Think of the Easter story, Dieter, and you will understand. From this point onward The Third Day Project will consume my life and the lives of all the others devoted to its success. These past six years have been a prelude and nothing more. Let our enemies celebrate their victory when it comes. It will be nothing more than an illusion. But I have already said too much, too much. You must understand that I am on fire inside, Dieter.”
He looked at Dieter for a long time without saying a word, then shook his head and said, with sorrow in his voice, “You should never have done it, you know. You had strict orders to remain by your aircraft until my return.”
“Klaus, one of my officers, briefly left the underground chamber for a cigarette and saw you approach through the trees. He ran down and told me. He did a most admirable job of describing you, Dieter, so there can be no doubt who it was he saw. I suppose it is partially my fault. The area should have long ago been fenced off and put under guard, but there has been so little time, really no time at all.”
“You are an excellent pilot, Dieter, and I was fortunate to have had you assigned to me. In a just world, we would be winning this wretched war and you would have been assured a brilliant future in a new Germany. But in the ugly and unjust world we are forced to inhabit, loyal servants of the Reich have been left with only the taste of ashes as a reward for their heroic efforts. Yesterday, I assured us all of a Fourth Reich. Today there is, sadly, an unfortunate present that must be dealt with.”
He pulled a Luger from his overcoat pocket. Dieter stared at it, too surprised and frightened to speak.
“I detest having to do this, Dieter, believe me, but I’m afraid you saw too much during your little forest excursion. I cannot take the chance that you might one day share what you saw with someone else. Look at it this way, my boy, we are all soldiers of the Fatherland and soldiers die in battle every day.”
“You are not yourself, Herr Doktor. Please put the pistol away.”
The passenger seemed not to have heard him.
“So many have had to die already,” he sighed. “The thousands of laborers who built my underground chamber during the early years of the war, the Wehrmacht guards who oversaw them, and only last summer the scores of engineers who assembled the device also had to be sacrificed. I understand completely the necessity for their elimination, yet I cannot help regretting it. But I assure you that I will regret no death as deeply as yours, Dieter.”
“I don’t understand anything you are saying, Herr Doktor.”
There could no longer be any doubt of his passenger’s insanity. Unless he found words to dissuade the madman, he would soon die a senseless death out in the middle of nowhere. Dieter suddenly longed as never before for the sight of his ruined homeland.
“I know, I know,” his passenger said, and pulled the Lugar’s trigger.
November 20, 2083
The food here is abominable. I can only imagine that Americans have become accustomed to consuming the wretched stuff from childhood and so are able to eat it without becoming physically ill. Only this morning I was forced to travel miles to be served a breakfast which can charitably be described as adequate.
They have so much in this new world: motorcars and lorries that consume no petrol and move without a sound, trams that speed about high overhead on a rail no wider than a human hand, devices the size of small books that connect to a universe of information, and sleek aircraft that fly around the globe in mere hours. The marvels are endless. And yet, amid all these wonders, Americans remain a weak, undisciplined people who know nothing about enjoying the truly good things in life.
I have investigated the student for weeks and unearthed nothing. His article about Herr FrÖemke’s work was surely a fluke, nothing more than a flight of fancy. Unfortunately, the piece came to the attention of someone high up in The Third Day Project who took the matter very seriously indeed. It was a foolish thing to do, since a bit of trash published in a popular science rag is unlikely ever to have been read by anyone of importance. Still, I had my orders. I was to follow the student, determine if he or anyone around him was in a position to jeopardize the secrecy of our work. This I have done. Now only a single task remains, and it will be taken care of this very morning.
The student leaves his flat at the same time every morning, and then stops at a local café for coffee before walking to the university campus, where he invariably remains until late in the evening. When he leaves today, I will cross the street, enter the building, and carefully search his flat. Of course, I could have done that at any time in the past month, but was held back by the fear of leaving behind some small telltale sign that would cause him to alter his behavior. My success has always depended on his total ignorance of my presence.
I know what must be done if this morning’s search yields something damning. The Sauer 38 tucked into my waistband is a fine weapon. One exactly like it served me well during the Polish and French campaigns. A single shot directly to the back of the head delivers a swift and certain end. The silencer in my pocket will assure that no sound carries beyond the flat’s walls.
I truly hope that he will not have to be eliminated. After weeks of being closer to him than his own shadow, I have come to know the student. He is not a bad sort for an American. Certainly his taste in women can never be called into question. His lady companion is a slim redhead with luminous green eyes and long shapely legs. I followed the two of them to a restaurant only last night and discreetly bribed the maitre d’ to seat me at a nearby table. I listened to their conversation with the help of a splendid little earpiece provided by The Third Day Project. I heard every syllable while pretending to be absorbed in a volume of Heine’s verse. Much of their talk was utter nonsense, the foolishness of infatuated young people. But I did manage to learn something new about my subject. While clearly intelligent, he is at the same time strangely naïve. He should have used the evening to seduce the woman, and instead wasted the opportunity by talking about his plans for the future. He never once mentioned her eyes, her hair, her smile, or his desire to be with her. I left the restaurant more convinced than ever that such a naïf is incapable of having unearthed the best kept secret in the history of the world.
Still, a nagging uncertainty plagues me. Have I missed some detail that would reveal the boy to be a cunning dissembler? If my search of his flat fails to yield evidence of this, then I can be certain that it simply does not exist.
It sometimes feels as if I have been in this terrible place for an eternity, but it was in fact only one month ago that I received a call from Herr FrÖemke summoning me to Munich. He reached me in my Paris flat on a Saturday evening, just as I was dressing for dinner and a night of dancing with a woman I met while on a skiing holiday in the Alsace region. Persuading him that a Monday meeting would do just as well proved to be an impossible task. He insisted the matter was urgent and would not be put off. A limousine was waiting for me when I left my flat thirty minutes later and another picked me up at the Munich airport when I arrived there just after one in the morning. The driver took me directly to a lavish, old-fashioned hotel that reminded me of a museum.
As instructed, I asked for Ricardo Huebner at the front desk and was directed to the main dining room. Herr FrÖemke, looking alert and cheerful despite the lateness of the hour, was waiting for me at a corner table. He was nattily dressed, as always, this time in a pearl gray three-piece suit, pale blue silk shirt, and silver tie. A gleaming brown leather briefcase was on the chair next to him.
“You look well, Klaus. Life in Paris seems to agree with you.”
“It is a magnificent city.”
“I have ordered coffee and pastries for us. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I’m not very hungry, but I will join you in a cup of coffee.”
“Good, good. So, let us get to the point of this meeting. I’m afraid, Klaus, that I must ask you to leave Paris for a little while. The Third Day Project has a task for you, a very important task.”
“Of course, anything.”
“Excellent! You were a brave and loyal soldier during the war, a credit to the Fatherland. I’m glad to see that these qualities have not been diminished by time or your new life.”
“What are my orders, Herr Doktor?” My voice had more pique in it than I had intended. I was still thinking of the beautiful woman who had waited for me in her flat on the Rue Pascal.
He opened the leather briefcase and took several sheets of paper from it.
“Have a look at this, Klaus. Tell me what you think.”
He handed me a copy of an article from some sort of electronic publication. The title immediately caught my attention: “The Time Machine That Might Have Been.” The author was an American named Austin Stryker.
I read it quickly. It contained a very old photograph of Herr Fröemke sitting among a group of scientists. I looked up from the photo at the middle-aged physicist and was amused to see that he had on the same type of rimless spectacles he wore as a young man in ill-fitting clothes.
I went back to the article and found that it was a rather long and tedious bit of speculation on how Herr Fröemke’s early theoretical work might have, given the proper resources, led to the creation of a working apparatus. It contained several unusually accurate illustrations showing what such a device might have looked like.
“Do you think it’s possible that this man knows something about our work?”
“I’m not sure. It does seem remarkably detailed for mere conjecture, wouldn’t you say, Klaus? In any case, we cannot afford to take chances. If he does know something, we must learn how he came upon such knowledge. This article could prove extremely dangerous, especially now that an American news service has made mention of it. They treated the matter with levity, to be sure, but there may be a few curious individuals out there who may take it very seriously indeed. This matter now requires closer examination, the personal touch, if you will. Your background in intelligence work is called for here, my boy.”
“I will do whatever is required, Herr Doktor.”
“I knew you would. That is why we have chosen you. Nothing can be allowed to jeopardize our sacred mission. Oh, you should see the Führer, Klaus! The medical treatment available ninety years into the future is nothing short of miraculous. You would not believe how he is flourishing. How vigorous, how strong and full of renewed inspiration he is! The facial reconstructive surgery went better than anyone could have imagined. I myself barely recognized him! No, Karl, we cannot afford to have anything put our mission at risk. If the current European situation develops as we hope it will, it is entirely possible that The Third Day Project will soon have an opportunity to realize its ultimate goal.”
“If you will permit me a question, Herr Doctor, I have always been curious about one thing.”
“Certainly, Klaus. What is it?”
“Why wait for an opportune time to restore the Reich? Why not send an individual with a detailed knowledge of the war into the past? They will know the placement and movement of troops and armor in every battle, and thus change its outcome in our favor.”
“You disappoint me, Klaus. I thought you understood my device better than that. As miraculous as it is, it cannot go back to a time before its own existence. But you are, sadly, not alone in your misapprehension. Others, people of great influence within The Third Day Project, have suggested to me that I use the device to peer into the future and in that way discover an opportune time for the Führer’s return. I have had to make it clear to them that altering history is far from a simple matter. Look at it this way, Klaus: every choice we make in life contains within it a multiplicity of possible outcomes, and each one of those outcomes brings with it many other possible outcomes. It is the same with the history of nations. I have learned that events must be allowed to evolve on their own and then exploited for our benefit. That is the only way. In other words, my boy, the circumstances for our eventual success must be allowed to create themselves.”
I nodded as if it were all perfectly clear to me, which it was decidedly not.
“When do I leave?”
He handed over the briefcase.
“Your new passport and airline tickets are in this case, along with a file containing everything we have thus far learned about your young subject. Reservations have been made for you at a hotel and an automobile will be waiting for you in the hotel’s garage.”
“No, Klaus. We thought it wise to acquire something a little less conspicuous. Anonymity is always an ally in these matters, as you well know.”
“And my firearm?”
“You will find a Sauer 38 and silencer in your hotel room. It was placed inside the luggage that arrived at the hotel yesterday morning. That is your weapon of choice, is it not?”
“Your passport is a particularly fine job of forgery and will present no problems when you arrive in America. You will be Anton Duvalier for the duration of this assignment. There is no danger whatsoever that Herr Duvalier will turn up to contest the validity of the document. He seems to have met an unfortunate end some time ago while on holiday in the Fatherland.”
He looked toward the hotel kitchen and smiled.
“Ahh, wonderful! Here are the pastries!”
I have been marooned in this barbaric place since the day after that meeting.
Just then I saw the student emerge from the building and hurry down the street. I check my chronograph and wait precisely ten minutes before crossing the wide avenue. Ignoring the cramped lift that always smells of onions, I take the stairs up to the student’s flat. I stand in front of the blue metal door with “2D” stenciled on it and look up and down the hallway -- an unnecessary precaution, since I have made a point of learning the comings and goings of the other tenants on this floor. The woman cabaret performer across the way in 2C will be asleep for hours. The tall, thin journalist in 2B has been gone since early this morning. And the elderly couple at the far end of the hallway in 2A will not stir until close to noon, when they will leave their flat in order to walk their dachshund in a nearby park.
I take a thin silver card from my pocket and insert it into the door’s entry slot. One of the truly curious things about this new world is that there are no latch keys. They simply do not exist. A series of six pinpoint lights suddenly come to life on the metallic card, flashing red for an instant before each in turn becomes green. The card emits a soft buzzing sound and the heavy metal door clicks open to reveal a shabby little flat: two cramped rooms and a kitchen barely large enough to move about in. The furnishings are Spartan: a sofa, a few uncomfortable-looking chairs, a rather large desk, scattered pieces of mismatched living room furniture, a small bed, a chest of drawers, and an ugly pea green rug that is years past its best days.
I will work outward from the flat’s center, systematically, careful not to miss anything. When I am done, any remaining uncertainty about the student’s innocence will surely have been put to rest. My duty-bound conscience will be clear and I will happily take a late flight back to Paris. I should arrive home just in time to have coffee at a favorite bistro with my lovely friend Camille.
November 19, 2083
Croesus taking leisurely inventory of his fortune couldn’t have felt any luckier than I did on that sunny Friday morning. I yawned, stretched, and sat up in bed. A smile spread across my face as I remembered my evening with Abby.
She had been waiting for me in front of her town house. Her black, sleeveless dress clung to every curve of her body, and her long red hair fell in bright waves down to her shoulders. She smiled, looking impossibly beautiful, like a princess out of a fairy tale come to life. My dinged up old Tesla wasn’t close to being good enough for her. I should have picked her up in a golden carriage drawn by six white horses.
I got out of the car and ran to hold the passenger side door open for her. Her green eyes lit up with amusement at the old-fashioned gesture.
“Good evening, Austin,” she said in her slightly accented English.
Our date began with dinner at the best restaurant in town. We went to the theater afterwards, a good local production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, and followed that with espresso and pastry at a nearby café. When I drove her home she surprised me by inviting me up to her apartment, the first time she had done that since we had begun dating. Abby spread big red and black cushions on the floor in front of her white-brick fireplace and, as I got a fire going, went into her kitchen and brought out a chilled bottle of Chateau Margaux ’95, a gift from her wealthy uncle.
We sat in front of the fire listening to music, sipping wine, and talking. When I got up to leave, explaining that I had an early meeting with my mentor at the university the following morning, she took my hand and pulled me back down next to her. I tasted the sweet wine on her lips and tongue as we kissed. She stood up, slid the thin straps of her black dress from her shoulders and let it fall to the floor. Shifting red and yellow light from the hearth fire washed over her body and for a moment she seemed a fiery illusion, something I’d conjured up out of my imagination. We made love on a sea of cushions, hurriedly, a little awkwardly, and afterwards lay there spent and breathless. We had more wine and later, in bed, held each other and talked in sleepy whispers for a long time. We made love again, this time slowly, patiently, like lovers who have known each other all their lives.
I woke in the middle of the night with Abby asleep next to me. I was careful not to wake her as I got out of bed and dressed. Before leaving I paused just long enough to take a final look her sleeping figure. The moment only served to reinforce my feeling that fate had somehow made me golden, and that good fortune would be mine forever.
It was hard to believe that only a few short weeks ago Abby and I had been strangers who met at a campus seminar. She walked into the lecture hall that afternoon -- every eye was instantly on her -- and took the seat next to mine. Smiling, she held out her hand and introduced herself. I stuttered out my name. She seemed surprised and asked if I was by any chance the same Austin Stryker who had recently published an article in Gamma Magazine. I said yes and we chatted about it for a while. That’s how it started. We went out for coffee afterwards and have been seeing each other ever since.
I can think of many words to describe Clifford Oates: insufferable and annoying are a couple of fairly accurate ones. Even though I do everything I can to avoid his company when I’m on campus, Cliff somehow manages to track me down and bore me with endless talk about his schoolwork. Perhaps it’s my ingrained Sunday school sense of right and wrong that forces me to admit how much I owe him. The truth is that if Cliff hadn’t sought to embarrass Dr. Walter Larkin on a long-ago evening, I would never have heard of Otto Fröemke, never written the articles that brought me a brief celebrity, and probably never have gotten to know Abby.
Like a film on an endless loop, that evening’s events have played themselves out for me over and over in the intervening months. I see myself walking into the Clinton Auditorium half an hour early. Faculty and students are drifting in, one or two at a time. I find a seat, third row center, and check my tablet for messages while I wait. Cliff turns up minutes later. He zeros in on the seat next to mine and instantly begins carrying on about any number of things. I'm not sure of anything he might have said since I stopped listening seconds into his rant. And then I see Larkin enter, tall and impressive with his steel-gray eyes and shock of snow-white hair. He is trailed by Dr. Felix Sludge, the head of the Physics Department. Short, balding, and fat, he is the physical opposite of Larkin. He trundles up to the lectern and introduces the celebrated physicist, making light of Larkin’s choice of the evening’s topic, time travel, calling it “whimsical” and even managing one of his tight little smiles. There is respect and admiration in his voice as he delivers a long litany of his guest’s achievements and awards. He concludes his remarks and applause floods the auditorium as Larkin approaches the lectern.
Larkin focuses on a point above and beyond the audience, and seems to be speaking to himself when he says, “There are those in the scientific community who consider time an illusion, a result of the human mind’s need to impose structure and context on daily life. For such people time has no existence outside of human consciousness. I could not disagree more. Count me among those who, along with Isaac Newton, believe that time is a separate and very real dimension. The notion of travel through that dimension is not the fantasy many of my fellow scientists believe it to be. I am convinced that it is achievable within the lifetime of many sitting in this audience tonight, and I have come here to tell you why I believe that to be so.”
Larkin speaks for an hour or so. His remarks are followed by a brief question and answer period. Clifford, gaunt and jittery, runs long, bony fingers over his freckled face and close-cropped red hair before rising to ask a question.
“Why is it, Dr. Larkin, that you never mentioned Dr. Otto Fröemke in your lecture? Are you unfamiliar with his work? And if that is not the case, then why would you fail to bring up a figure so important to the field of time travel studies?”
Clifford sits down with a smirk, certain that Larkin knows little, perhaps nothing at all, about Fröemke, and that he has managed to embarrass the famous scientist.
Larkin smiles at him tolerantly.
“I know a little something about Fröemke’s work, young man. In the only two papers he ever published on the subject, he proposed a novel method for achieving time travel and vaguely described a device capable of what he repeatedly refers to as zietverschiebung, or “time displacement,” something of a misnomer, I think. He does his best to offer a theoretical underpinning for his proposed apparatus by providing a few clever and elegant equations. But what, when all is said and done, did Fröemke actually achieve in those two papers? His discussion of a confluence, or crosscurrent, of fantastically powerful magnetic fields to be concentrated around a bell-shaped structure is interesting, but he avoids any mention of precisely how the enormous energy requirements of his proposed device might be met. That omission, along with a number of other unresolved problems, was to be addressed in a third and much more detailed paper. That paper never appeared, and because of this I’m afraid one is forced to relegate his ideas to the province of science fantasy rather than true science.”
Cliff reddens and rises to his feet. He argues his case with vehemence, insisting that Fröemke’s equations should in and of themselves be considered important contributions, and that the device he envisioned was the conception of a genius. “That was a very noble defense of what is, I’m afraid, an essentially indefensible position.”
There is scattered laughter in the auditorium. Cliff sits down and somehow manages to look both miserable and defiant at the same time.
Larkin leaves the stage to loud applause. Overhead lights come on and a slow procession of students and faculty begins making its way up the aisles. I turn to Cliff as we walk toward the exit.
“So who was this Fröemke guy, Cliff?”
“You heard the great Larkin, didn’t you? He was a fool, a lunatic, a fraud.”
“Then why did you defend him the way you did?”
“Because, for starters, I don’t like Larkin. He’s a charlatan. He popularizes serious science for the sake of people capable of understanding nothing and makes a fortune doing it. And because I also happen to think he’s dead wrong about Fröemke.”
Clifford tells me that he briefly considered making Fröemke the subject of a doctoral dissertation, but was forced to give up on the notion when he found information on the man nearly impossible to find. It is, he says, as if someone had deliberately sought to erase all traces of his existence.
“Who knows what might have happened if Fröemke had taken his work further than he did?”
I usually pay little attention to Clifford’s opinions on anything or anyone, but this time he succeeds in making me curious about something, so after parting outside the auditorium I head straight for the Stevenson Library. It doesn’t take me long to locate the two papers mentioned by Larkin. Both were published in Annalen de Physik, the first in May of 1929 and the second in December of 1931. With the help of a dictionary and what I can recall of my undergraduate German, I read through each with painful slowness, taking notes as I go along.
Cliff was right about Fröemke, at least in part. His work was at times brilliant. He attempted to show how, by using a crosscurrent of extremely powerful force fields, one might create open a pathway through the fabric of time. And yet, despite their occasional brilliance, the two papers offer little beyond an interesting theory. At the conclusion of his second paper, Fröemke promised a third, much more comprehensive work that would resolve all problems and provide a detailed blueprint for a working device. As Larkin pointed out, that final paper never materialized.
Fröemke produced nothing of scientific value after 1931. His only appearances in print were occasional articles in praise of the criminal regime then in charge of his country. He published nothing after the onset of war in September of 1939. Perhaps he fell out of favor with Nazi officials and ended his days in a concentration camp, or maybe he was a casualty of an early Allied bombing raid. It is impossible to know his fate.
I sat in the library until one in the morning, re-reading both papers, taking still more notes, and playing with the tantalizing notion of how Fröemke’s ideas might have been turned into a working device. What would it have looked like? How could its enormous energy demands have been met? The desire for answers took hold of me and, although I had no way of knowing it at the time, as I made my way home that night the specter of Otto Fröemke was walking beside me.
For days after my visit to the library, I spent nearly all my idle time poring over Fröemke’s two papers. The walls of my small bedroom were soon covered with increasingly detailed sketches of what I imagined his device might have looked like. At the same time, most of my efforts at learning more about the physicist were met with frustration. I did manage, after countless hours of searching, to track down a blurry old photograph. It was buried in the massive online digital archives of Heidelberg University and showed Fröemke, looking uncomfortable in a dark suit that was clearly too small for his tall, lean frame, seated with adozen other scientists. The lenses of his pince-nez spectacles reflected the photographer’s arc-lamps and those twin bursts of light gave him an eerie, otherworldly look.
My obsession with Fröemke ended one morning as I was having breakfast. I had just poured myself a second cup of coffee when a phrase came to me. I went to my desk, took a new legal pad from the center drawer, and wrote it down in my small, neat script: “The time machine that might have been.” Those words led, almost without effort, to more words, and I had soon completed a paragraph. That paragraph became two, then three. Days of speculation spilled out of me in a torrent of words, filling page after page. I wrote all the rest of that morning and on into the afternoon and evening, missing all my classes and fighting off fatigue with streams of coffee. By the time I was done, I had completed the first draft of a long article.
Writing is nothing new to me. I’ve been submitting articles to tablet dailies and popular science magazines since my undergraduate days. Among my few published pieces, I was proudest of an article on Einstein-Rosen bridges that appeared in Gamma Magazine the year I entered graduate school. The Fröemke article easily eclipsed it. I ran the handwritten pages through the Physics Department’s OCR device and, after some corrections and minor editing, submitted it to Gamma.
The magazine responded with uncharacteristic swiftness. It seems that my timing could not have been more perfect. The editors had been looking for something new on time travel, a topic then in fashion thanks to a best-selling novel that had been turned into a successful film. The editors happily predicted an enthusiastic response from its readers. As it turns out, they were both wrong and right.
Although circulation went up slightly the month of its publication, the article itself received only a lukewarm response. Then something as odd as it was unexpected happened: a popular national news program ended its nightly broadcast with a brief and much-amused mention of the article, misrepresenting it in any number of stupid ways. The broadcast made me sound like a lunatic, and yet, despite that, interest in the article suddenly skyrocketed. I even had a couple of calls from enterprising local reporters asking for an interview. Of course, I refused both requests.
Foreign-language editions of Gamma Magazine came out later that same month and added thousands more views. All the attention thrilled the people at Gamma and they suggested I do a follow-up piece. I was more than happy to oblige.
A string of musical notes from my tablet interrupted my train of thought. It was Abby.
“Why are you still home? Don’t you have an appointment this morning?”
Her voice had a cold, distant quality.
“Sure do. With Shukov. Big day today. I’ll be all set if he approves my thesis proposal. I was up until five this morning putting the finishing touches on it. But that meeting’s not until ten.”
“It’s after nine, Austin.”
I tapped the tiny clock icon on my tablet. Its bright white numbers showed 9:35.
“We were supposed to meet in front of the cafeteria an hour ago, remember?”
That explained the coldness in her voice. She was upset over being stood up. Well, I’d find some way to make it up to her. Maybe dinner at one of the nicer places in town would do the trick.
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, Abby.”
“Too late. I’ve got to be somewhere else in a little while.”
“How about later, at the coffee shop near the south entrance to the campus? You know the place. At noon? I should be done by then.”
“We’ll see. Good luck with Shukov.”
“Thanks, Abby. I’d better get going.”
Her lovely face faded from the screen. I tossed the tablet onto my unmade bed, stripped off my shorts, and hurried into the shower. I was dressed and ready to go in less than ten minutes. Grabbing my backpack from its peg by the front door, I ran out of the apartment.
I took the stairs down to the lobby two at a time then sprinted to the café a couple of streets away. I was there only long enough to pick up a large coffee and check the scrolling time display on their wall. It read 9:47. My appointment with the notoriously bad-tempered Dr. Shukov was now fewer than fifteen minutes away.
I jogged the mile to the university and was nearly at the front gate when the image of my tablet sitting atop an unmade bed stopped me in my tracks. A sick, sinking feeling hit me in the pit of my stomach. All my notes for today’s meeting were on that tablet, including the multiple changes I had made only last night. I turned and raced toward home, cursing myself all the way.
Five minutes later, sweating and breathing hard, I burst through the lobby doors and sped up the stairs to my apartment. I thrust my entry card into its slot. The lock clicked and I shoved the door open.
A tall, blond stranger was standing in front of my desk. He turned toward me and his look of surprise quickly turned to one of anger. I watched in disbelief as he pulled a small pistol from his waistband. It took me little more than a heartbeat to cover the space between us, but I wasn’t fast enough. He fired and missed. The sound of shattering glass came from somewhere behind me. I tackled him before he could get off a second shot, driving him back over the desk and sending it and the two of us crashing to the floor. My knee came down like a sledgehammer on his chest, temporarily knocking the wind out of him, and as he fought for breath I pinned his left arm and gripped the wrist of his gun hand, twisting it hard and forcing the muzzle up against his chest. His breath was still coming in ragged gasps as he struggled to push off the floor and topple me sideways. One of these lurching attempts must have made his right hand jerk spasmodically because a shot suddenly echoed through the room like a thunderclap. The tall stranger stopped struggling. He made a long sighing sound and was still.
I got to my feet, stumbling backward away from the body, trembling uncontrollably. The stranger’s pale blue eyes were open and staring directly at me, frozen in a look of astonishment.
Lieutenant Carl Noble
Two uniforms and a crime scene tech were already on the scene when we walked into the place. The living room looked like it had been redecorated by a tornado. The stiff was on the living room floor, his sightless blue eyes open and a pool of blood spreading out beneath him in the shape of a lopsided heart.
A crime scene tech was kneeling by the body. She looked up at me.
“What can you tell me?”
“Looks like the student who lives here, a kid named Stryker, walked in on a burglary in progress. The guy pulled a gun, got off a shot that made mincemeat out of a sconce lamp over by the front door. There was a tussle, and the gun went off again, this time at point blank range right through the burglar’s pump.”
The stiff was still holding the gun in the clenched fingers of his right hand.
“Mind if I take a look?”
“Help yourself. We’re pretty much done here.”
I called my partner over.
“Hey, Ritt, take a look at this. Pretty well dressed for your average burglar, wouldn’t you say?”
“Maybe he wasn’t an average burglar.”
The tech held up a plastic evidence bag.
“Here’s a little something you might find interesting. It must have fallen out of his pocket during the struggle.”
The bag contained a wafer-thin silver object about the size of a business card. I’d seen others like it before. It was every burglar’s dream come true, a contraption that scans and opens just about any electronic lock on the market, even those activated by palm or finger prints. The nasty little things are illegal and cost about as much as a cabin cruiser.
I went through the stiff’s pockets and came up with a leather billfold containing eight thousand dollars in cash, a rare thing these days when nearly everything is paid for with the scan of a handheld device. He had an international identification card that told me he was Anton Duvalier and that he lived on the Rue Saint-Paul in Paris. His expensive-looking jacket had a label from a tailor’s shop in that city. The slacks and shirt looked as if they, too, were custom-made. His outfit probably cost more than I earn in a month.
“What do you think, Ritt?”
“Not sure yet, but this doesn’t feel right.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
Stryker was sitting at the kitchen table across from Officer Timothy McGivern, a good cop and a friend from way back. The kid looked up at me with dazed brown eyes. He was probably hoping this was all a bad dream and that any second now he’d wake up next to his girlfriend.
“Looks like you had quite a dance with our friend over there.”
I’d have to go easy with him. The kid was still deep in shock.
“Sorry. I mean, there must have been quite a struggle.”
“I … I walked in on him. He took a shot at me and we wrestled, knocked over a lot of things. I had him pinned, trying to get the gun away from him … and … and it went off.”
“Ever see him before?”
“I’m Lieutenant Carl Noble. This is my partner, Sargeant Walter Ritter. Why don’t we go over what happened here, step by step? Take your time.”
McGivern and his partner stood up.
“We’re going to take off now, Carl.”
“Thanks guys. We’ll take it from here.”
I sat across from the kid.
“Go ahead, Mr. Stryker.”
An hour later Ritt and I were on our way back to the station house. He hadn’t said a thing for a whole ten minutes, a record for him.
“Okay, spill it. What’s wrong, Ritt?”
“You haven’t tossed two words in my direction since we left Stryker’s apartment.”
“That’s what worries me.”
“Why don’t we stop for a bite before we go back? That new seafood place over on Arlington looks like it might be worth a try.”
“We’ll go anywhere you want, but first tell me what’s on your mind.”
“Well, for starters, we’ve got a burglar who dresses better than the police commissioner. He’s also got enough cash on him to start his own bank and is walking around with an illegal device that costs as much as my house. Did you by any chance take a look at his hands?”
“Yeah, I saw. The stiff liked jewelry and manicures. So what?”
“So that was no ordinary burglar lying there with a hole in his chest. So maybe this wasn’t a burglary at all. Could be the two guys knew each other, argued over something -- money, a woman maybe, whatever. So maybe what we’re looking at here isn’t self-defense but murder.”
“I talked to the kid for nearly an hour. The kid’s clean, Ritt. If he was lying, I’d have known it.”
“Why don’t we make sure?”
“What are you getting at?”
Ritt reached in his pocket and brought out an evidence bag with a few strands of hair in it.
“These came from the Stryker’s hair brush. I looked around the place while you were talking to him. I’ll a buddy of mine in the lab run a DNA tracer and see what he comes up with. In a few days I’ll have a report and we should know everything the kid’s done since he came out of his mama’s belly.”
“Are you aware of the laws against that type of thing?”
“We can always get a search warrant later if it turns out he’s dirty. Who’s to say when, or how, we got a couple of strands of the kid’s hair?”
“Sometimes you worry me, Ritt.”
“Let’s get some lunch. Playing Sherlock Holmes makes me hungry.”
I wrote my report when we got back to the squad room. The DA’s office would take a statement from him tomorrow and then it would be up to them to decide if Stryker was guilty of anything other defending himself against an armed intruder. I was willing to bet my pension that they wouldn’t.
Ritter got his DNA report two days later. He sat across from me, reading it and shaking his head.
“So, were you right about the kid, Sherlock?”
“Doesn’t look like it. Stryker’s a boy scout. The tracer doesn’t even show a parking ticket. He was an honor student in high school, where he was also captain of the wrestling team and valedictorian of his graduating class. The kid went to college on a scholarship and wrestled there, too, until a back injury put him out of commission during his junior year. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and now he’s working on a PhD in Theoretical Physics, whatever the hell that is, over at the university. The kid’s also some kind of author, written some stuff for a tablet mag. Take a look at this.”
He dropped a hard copy of a tablet magazine article on my desk: “The Time Machine That Might Have Been.”
“Have you read it?”
“I tried. It’s about some crackpot who dreamed up a time machine.”
“People can’t seem to get enough time travel garbage since that awful movie came out last year.”
“Yeah, I know. Only this article is a little different, Carl. It’s not made up stuff like the movie. The guy he writes about actually lived more than a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Still sounds like a load of crap to me, just like the movie.”
I tossed the article into my desk drawer.
“Anything else, Ritt?”
“Not about the kid. We did get something on the stiff’s gun. It was reported stolen six months ago by a commercial dealer in antique firearms. How about you? Hear anything from Larry about Duvalier?”
Larry Sobel is the city coroner and chief medical examiner.
“Not yet. We should have something soon.”
A call came in just then: a citizen named Rehnquist reporting a body out in the waterfront district, a possible homicide. A Med Unit was on its way and would meet us there.
The “body” turned out to be a vagrant who had passed out after taking a hit of Oblivion, the latest drug making the rounds of our fair city. It’s supposed to knock you out for half an hour or so and while you’re in never-never land you experience visions that change your life in all kinds of wonderful ways. The dirt bags who sell the poison promise users that they will be born again. It’s been a real problem over at the university, where students sometimes overdose and wind up with screaming nightmares they have a hell of a time waking up from. Then there are the poor kids who take it one time and never wake up again.
The med techs managed to bring the vagrant out of it. If the poor slob felt born again when he woke up, he certainly didn’t show it. He vomited for ten minutes and had trouble remembering who and where he was. They finally carted him away to a local detox unit.
Ritter shook his head as we walked back to the car.
“The fun and games never end for us humble servants of the law.”
Larry Sobel called me the following day. I took it at my desk display unit in the squad room.
“Got a wild one for you, Carl.”
“Meaning what, Larry?”
“I’m talking about your well-dressed decedent. First of all, his wound is entirely consistent with Mr. Stryker’s account of what transpired. Things get a little peculiar after that. Duvalier’s identification card is a forgery, the best my office has ever seen. The real Anton Duvalier was a jeweler who went missing while on vacation in Germany. The Paris address on the card turns out to be an antique shop owned by an elderly Latvian couple. We ran the guy’s prints through every database known to man and cop and came up empty, so I did facial and iris scans and drew a blank again. How old would you say he was?”
“Thirty maybe, give or take a year or two.”
“That’s just about where I’d peg him, Carl. That means he should have an embedded chip, just like everybody else born in the last forty years, only this guy doesn’t and there’s no scar to show that it’s been removed.”
“He’s a foreigner, Larry.”
“Makes no difference. We were late getting into the chip game, remember? The rest of the world was tagging babies years before us.”
“How about Interpol?”
“Same story. Nothing. There’s one other really curious thing about the deceased, his teeth. They were in good shape except for a couple of fillings. It looks like some butcher used a drill on the guy. My God, can you imagine that, a drill? And you wouldn’t believe what they used to fill the cavities. The stuff’s been used for at least eighty years. Unbelievable.”
“What are you trying to tell me, Larry?”
“I’m telling you that your burglar doesn’t exist, at least not officially. He’s a John Doe and that’s what he’s going to remain unless someone comes out of the woodwork to claim the body. If no one does, we vaporize the remains in thirty days. That gives you a month to try and find out who he was, if you’re so inclined.”
“When will I get your report?”
“Give it a couple of hours. Look under the case number.”
Larry’s face faded from the display.
“So, what’s the story on the stiff?” Ritter had been out getting what was probably the day’s fifth cup of coffee. He hadn’t heard any of my conversation with Larry.
“There is no story, Ritt. The guy’s a blank.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just what I said. He’s a total blank, doesn’t exist. I.D.’s a phony. No chip. No match on the prints or anything else. The only thing Larry knows for sure is that he had a butcher for a dentist.”
“Guess that’s that.”
“No, it isn’t. Not for me.”
“Why should you give a damn who he was? He’s dead. Over and done with.”
“I don’t, not really. I just hate loose ends.”
“Is that what this Duvalier character is, a loose end?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I do, Carl. You know what Chief Carpenter says about you?”
“Sure. He says I obsess over cases.”
“I’m beginning to think he might have a point.”
“He does. It’s on top of his head.”
“Listen to me, Carl, if you’re so hell bent on wasting the department’s time and money finding out who this creep was, why not try getting in touch with Paul Boyer? We know the stiff’s duds were all made in Paris, right? And he was carrying an I.D. with a French address. Maybe Paul can come up with something that’ll tie all your loose ends together.”
“You think I should bring him into this? Chief Carpenter would just love that.”
“I’m not suggesting an official request. Make it a personal thing, a favor for a friend. Strictly unofficial.”
Paul Boyer is an inspector with the French police. Two years ago, he was on the trail of a banker, a guy named Jean Chevalier who, after embezzling a fortune from his employer, had poisoned his wife and her lover. It was a week before the bodies were discovered and by then Chevalier had bought a one-way ticket to the USA, where he proceeded to lose himself among our four hundred and fifty million overcrowded citizens. The French cops were under a ton of pressure to find him. It seems Chevalier had family connections to some very prominent people in the government and they were mad as hell about his still being on the loose. They wanted him caught, and fast.
The French police thought he might be living in or near our city in order to be close to a married woman he’d been having an on-again, off-again affair with for nearly ten years. They’d met while she was teaching at the Sorbonne and the affair continued until she left France and came to work at our university. The French authorities requested assistance in apprehending him and placed Paul on temporary assignment with our department. We kept an eye on the girlfriend, hoping Chevalier would eventually feel safe enough to come out of hiding and contact her. After all, boys will be boys, and having seen his lady professor I can’t say I would have blamed him much for wanting to get close to her again.
It took a couple of months, but Chevalier’s hormones eventually got the better of him and he showed up at the woman’s door, looking arrogant and self-satisfied. We were there waiting for him when he left her place. I suppose we all assumed that a slightly overweight, middle-aged banker wasn’t likely to give us much trouble. How wrong we were. He saw us closing in and pulled a Ruger automatic from his overcoat, firing as he ran for the sporty red roadster he’d left parked up the street. He never made it.
Paul and I got to be friends during the two months it took to nail Chevalier and we’ve kept in touch ever since.
“I just may do that, Ritt. He owes me a couple of favors and this might be a good time to collect one of them.”
I reached Paul at his home in Montreuil late that evening. We chatted for a while before I got around to asking him for help. He didn’t sound very enthusiastic, but agreed to do what he could. I sent him all we had on the case and waited.
I heard back from him four days later.
“What have you got for me, Paul?”
“And bon jour to you, too, Carl.”
“Sorry. How are you, my friend?”
“Old, exhausted, and in debt, but otherwise manifique. And you?”
“About the same.”
“Well, this was a curious little puzzle you dropped in my lap.”
“You came up empty, too?”
“I came up, as you say, ‘empty,” but only at first. Then I took the photograph you sent me to the tailor’s shop where your well-dressed corpse had his clothes made. A very expensive place, I might add. The clerks remembered him quite well. He had been a very good customer of theirs for the past two years. The fellow called himself Günter Hess. That’s all the clerks were able to tell me. All his purchases were delivered to a luxury residence in the sixteenth arrondissement. The building flat is managed by a local real estate agency for its foreign owners. The woman I spoke to at the agency said that Hess bought the flat for sixty million in cash.”
“Then Hess was the guy’s name?”
“No. Oh, he did produce a passport and a European identification card when he bought the flat. Both had the name Günter Hess on them. I’m sure the agent wasn’t interested in checking any further. Why should he? When a man pays that much for a place to live, he’s allowed to call himself Mickey Mouse if he wishes. I also had a chat with the building’s concierge. He told me that Hess was quite the ladies’ man. Excellent taste, too, he said, but quite fickle, never seen with the same woman for very long. And ladies were not his only passion. He had two new Maserati convertibles parked in the building’s garage, one red, one black. We traced those and found that they, too, were paid for in cash and registered to Günter Hess. Your burglar was also something of a gourmet who ate at only the very best and most expensive restaurants our city has to offer. Hess managed to live in this most enviable fashion while having no income, at least none that I have been able to discover. The real Günter Hess, by the way, was a school teacher who disappeared several years ago while on holiday in Munich. Now let me ask you a question, Carl.”
“Have you disposed of the remains?”
“No. If a relative doesn’t show up within fifty-three days, the body will go into the chamber and disappear in a cloud of blue smoke.”
“You must not allow that to happen.”
“That is the strangest part of this puzzle, Carl. You see, when I was unable to identify your burglar through conventional means, one of my assistants, an ambitious young fool who has not been with us very long, took it upon himself to run the prints you sent us through an old database, an idiotic thing to do, since that particular database is a collection of millions of very old records of deceased individuals from all over Europe. It contains everything from nuns, prostitutes, entertainers, and generals to thieves, politicians, housewives, serial killers, university students, and infants. It is used strictly for training purposes. Incredibly, this burglar of yours was in that database. His name, it seems, was not Duvalier or Hess but Klaus Auguste von Tauber, born on the fifteenth day of April in the year 1915, which made him approximately one hundred and sixty-eight years of age on the day of his death. So, my friend, if you have not yet rid yourselves of the remains then you may wish to take them to a facility for advanced medical research. This fellow could very well help science discover the secret to eternal youth.”
“It’s a mistake, Paul. Some sort of computer mix-up. You know that.”
“Of course, it is a mistake, Carl. There can be no other reasonable explanation. Still, it presents us with a fascinating mystery, does it not? How is one to explain the fact that Duvalier’s finger prints are a match for Von Tauber’s, or that the photograph on the old kennkarte my determined young assistant came up with appears to be the same person, a little younger perhaps but without question the same individual or his identical twin? Now here’s another curious fact, Carl: while Herr von Tauber was born in Germany, his last known residence was a place right here in Paris, not the flat where he lived the past two years, but 84 Avenue Foch, which happens to have been the headquarters of an SS counter-intelligence unit during the unfortunate twentieth century occupation of my country. The German authorities were kind enough to track him down in their archives and sent my assistant a copy of an old dossier on von Tauber. I’ll forward a copy of the dossier and identity card to you. Does anyone in your department read German?”
“No, but if I need a translation, I can always find someone at the university to do it for us.”
“No need. I’ll have my assistant translate the documents before sending them along. His maternal grandmother was German, and among his talents is a fluency in that language. My assistant tells me that this von Tauber fellow was from a family of wealthy Prussian aristocrats, a university graduate who studied in both England and France. He also seems to have been a good little Nazi, very devoted to the cause. The dossier chronicles his activities through early 1944, when he was assigned to the staff of a civilian scientist named Fröemke, Otto Fröemke. He seems to have disappeared after that. I’m having Le Clercq -– he’s the fellow who discovered everything I have just told you --- look into this Fröemke person. I doubt that anything useful will come of it, but if nothing else the search will help to keep my ambitious assistant out of mischief for a while.”
“Nothing about this business makes any sense, Paul. What motive could this guy, whatever his name really was, have had in the first place? According to you, he had been living like a king in Paris for the past two years. We’re supposed to believe that one morning he wakes up and decides to travel thousands of miles for the sole purpose of breaking into a place rented by a student he doesn’t know, a kid whose total net worth maybe adds up to what he paid for a couple of his tailor-made suits? That makes about as much sense as his being one hundred and sixty-eight years old.”
“Let me ask you something, Carl. Does your burglar have a scar on his right shoulder? Is there a small kidney-shaped birthmark on his lower back? Von Tauber had both. If your corpse also has them, then I think we are left with a most curious situation: a man who has been dead for a very long time appears to have been the person killed in your city a week ago.”
“You saw the coroner’s report, Paul. The scar and birthmark are both there.”
“Well, that is it then, isn’t it? You handed me a mystery and I have given back a conundrum. Incredible as it may seem, the facts seem to tell us that von Tauber and the deceased are one and the same person. The probability of an error in this case is statistically so small as to be virtually non-existent, or so young Le Clercq assures me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to my favorite bar and have a large absinthe, possibly two, while I try to forget all about your well-dressed Methuselah.”
“Thanks, Paul. I owe you one.”
“Allow me to offer you a little brotherly advice, Carl. Don’t bother reading the dossier Le Clercq is sending you. What does it matter who your burglar was or might have been? He’s dead. Forget him and get on with your other cases.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Can’t? Or won’t? There is a world of difference between those two.”
“Give me enough time and I’ll find out who this guy really was.”
“I wish you luck, Carl. In the meantime, young Le Clercq will get in touch with you should he discover anything new. Au voir, my friend.”
“Aren’t you going home today, Carl?”
“You go ahead, Ritt. I’ve got some work to catch up on.”
Ritter looked at the pile of paper on my desk and shot me a long, skeptical look.
“Jeez, are you back on that again?”
“Go home, Ritt.”
He shook his head as he walked out of the squad room.
My desk was covered with everything I had on Duvalier. The similar birthmarks and scars could be chalked up to coincidence. Many people have scars, many have birthmarks. Explaining a seemingly exact match between the photograph and finger prints on old German identity card and what we had on Duvalier was a hell of lot harder, and yet to accept what they suggested was crazy. Thirty years of experience told me that hidden somewhere in the pile of information in front of me was a telltale fact that would destroy the ridiculous notion that Klaus Auguste von Tauber and the burglar killed in Stryker’s apartment were one and the same person.
For the couple of hours I sat at my desk poring over files, while outside the dusty squad room windows the sun went through its daily disappearing act. I read through everything twice and found nothing, but that didn’t discourage me. What I needed was in those pages, and sooner or later I’d spot it. I opened my desk drawer to put the files away and that’s when I noticed Stryker’s article. It had been there, buried under a clutter of notes and old paperwork, since Ritter first handed it to me. I’d never bothered to look at it.
I was at the ragged end of a very long day and badly in need of some Chinese takeout, a couple of cold beers, a hot shower, and ten solid hours of sleep, in exactly that order. That’s how the evening should have played out for me, but I made a mistake, a big one. I picked up Stryker’s article and scanned the first few paragraphs on my way out of the squad room. Inserted within the text was an old black and white photo of a tall, thin man in an ill-fitting suit and pince-nez glasses. The name under the photo jumped off the page at me: Otto Fröemke. I froze where I stood.
Like most other cops, I’m used to dealing with facts, sometimes cruel and pitiless facts but always facts, never fantasy, never impossible coincidences. Standing there looking down at that name I felt suddenly adrift in a strange new place where facts meant nothing and truth had a thousand faces. The twenty or so steps back to my desk seemed to take forever.
I read Stryker’s article all the way through, unable to make much out of his equations and all the stuff about space-time and relativity, but I still managed to get to the heart of what he was saying: almost a century and a half in the past, a German physicist named Otto Fröemke had published a couple of papers in something called Annalen der Physik that described a contraption he said was capable of moving through time. He was dismissed as a dreamer, a lunatic, but Stryker wasn’t so sure he was either. His article was illustrated with drawings of what the machine might have looked like. I examined each one carefully, but all I could see was a contraption that resembled a giant black bell with wires all around it.
I put the article down and closed my eyes. Random facts were slowly coming together to form a pattern, only the pattern they formed made no sense. For the first time since I was a rookie, I needed answers and had no idea how or where to find them. I felt a migraine building, still some distance away but headed straight for me like a locomotive.
Just then my tablet signaled an incoming call. I was going to ignore it until I saw the French identity prefix. I hoped it was Paul calling back to explain how his assistant got it all wrong: electronic records had somehow been mixed up, with absurd results. I switched the call from my tablet to the large desk display. The face I saw was not Paul’s but that of a man with dark eyes and a head of unruly brown curls. He looked to be somewhere in his early twenties and had an expression lit up by an idealistic young cop’s enthusiasm for his work. We had the same type on our own force. They didn’t remain idealistic for long, and the enthusiasm usually died a whimpering death after a few years on a job where you’re forced to confront all the terrible ugliness people are capable of.
“Good evening, Lieutenant Carl. I am Georges Le Clercq. I work with …”
“I know who you are, Inspector Le Clercq.”
“I was asked to call you about a matter you and Inspector Boyer discussed some days ago.”
“What have you got for me?”
“I thought you might be interested in a document I happened on while looking into a man named Otto Fröemke. As you may already know, a Major von Tauber was assigned to his staff in 1944.”
Le Clercq was wrong. At that moment, I wasn’t the least bit interested in his document. Supper and a night’s sleep were the only things on my mind, but I didn’t cut him off, mostly for Paul’s sake.
“It is a statement given by Ladislau Rutkowski, a Polish national who was part of a group of engineers forced to work for the Germans during the Second World War. His deposition was given in connection with the prosecution of the commandant of a concentration camp where he was briefly confined. The commandant’s trial was scheduled to take place in nineteen forty-eight, but by that time Mr. Rutkowski had fallen ill and was far too weak to appear at trial, so the American occupation authorities allowed him to submit a deposition in lieu of testimony in open court. His deposition was never used because the accused committed suicide before a trial could take place. Rutkowski’s statement was later archived with other materials documenting the Nazi war crimes trials.
“Rutkowski was one of fifty engineers forced to work on a project located in a remote and heavily forested part of eastern Bavaria. The engineers were divided into small groups and kept isolated from each other at all times. Each group worked on one section of the project and was taken away as soon as its work was completed. No group was told exactly what it was they were building or what it might eventually be used for. Rutkowski writes of witnessing the near-fatal beating of an engineer whose only offense appears to have been curiosity. He had been foolish enough to ask a guard what it was they were constructing.”
“What does any of this have to do with Duvalier?”
“Well, the connection is slight, to be sure, but it is very definitely there. You see, Rutkowski claims to have seen Otto Fröemke at the site on numerous occasions.”
“How did he know it was this Fröemke character?”
“He didn’t, not at first, but then he overheard the name spoken by guards whenever the man was present. Rutkowski spoke German, you see, among several other languages, a skill he was careful to keep hidden from his captors. The guards often joked among themselves about what was going on. They called the project ‘Herr Fröemke’s hole in the ground.’ They were apparently kept as much in the dark as the engineers who were forced to work there. Mr. Rutkowski somehow managed to escape after a few weeks. He traveled at night, hid during the day, subsisted on what he could forage, and in this way eventually reached the Czech border. Unfortunately, he was recaptured by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp in Poland.”
“Do you have any idea what the Germans might have been up to?”
“No, Lieutenant, but Rutkowski does mention a phrase he heard Fröemke use on several occasions: das dritte tagesprojekt. I’ve searched all the records provided to me by the German authorities and found no other mention of this phrase or what it might signify.”
“What does it mean, Officer Le Clercq?”
“It means ‘the third day project.’”
“Is that all this Rutkowski had to say?”
“Well, there is one other thing. He blamed some of the materials brought into the work site for the particularly aggressive form of cancer that eventually took his life. That suggests to me that a radioactive substance may have been used. The Germans were known to have had an ambitious program in place for the development of an atomic weapon. It may be that the project was in some way connected to that. Rutkowski described the area around the construction site in great detail. He even named a small town, a village really, some sixty kilometers due east of the work site. He was very precise in his description, so it was easy for me to identify the location. You see, Lieutenant Carl, I am only half French. My mother is German. In fact, her family was originally from Bavaria and as a child I spent many summers there at the home of my grandparents, much of the time bicycling and hiking through the countryside. I know the place Rutkowski wrote about, Lieutenant, know it quite well. Now here is where I encountered something odd, something that relates more directly to your case. If you’ll recall, the flat von Tauber was --”
“Hold on a moment.”
“All we know for sure is that the guy used a couple of aliases. We still don’t know who he really was, and I’m not buying this ridiculous von Tauber business.”
“Yes, of course. My apologies. The building in Paris where the deceased individual had a flat is owned by the Oststern Group, a large multinational corporation with headquarters in Munich. And as I learned only recently the site where Rutkowski and others were forced to work is today owned by that same company. It has been turned into a very large research compound that is guarded around the clock by a cadre of armed private security guards. Interesting, no?”
“Maybe. Big companies usually own all sorts of things, don’t they?”
“Certainly. I merely thought it an interesting link between a very old document and your recent investigation. I will have a translation of Rutkowski’s deposition forwarded to you in the morning.”
I thanked him, even though I had no use for it.
“You are most welcome, Lieutenant Noble. Inspector Boyer gave you my personal number, did he not?”
“Please do not hesitate to call me if you need more help with this curious business.”
“Thanks. Listen, Inspector Le Clercq, I’m grateful for this call and your offer of help, I truly am, but at the moment I’m very tired and have just about had it with Duvalier or Hess or whatever the hell the guy’s name was.”
“I understand completely, Lieutenant Noble. Have a good night."
I tossed Stryker’s article in the trash on my way out of the squad room. Paul had probably been right when he suggested it would be best to drop the matter and get on with my work. After all, who would care what a dead burglar called himself after he went into the coroner’s disposal chamber and disappeared in a cloud of blue smoke? Of course, I knew the answer to that all too well -- I would.
My fifteen-year-old jalopy, an ancient hybrid nobody drives anymore, was waiting for me in the station’s basement garage. I took a long look at it and decided that the car and its owner were very much alike: both have seen better days, both aren’t as fast as they used to be, and both have a built-in refusal to quit. I got in. The mixed odors of leather, tobacco, and Jim Beam hung in the air like memories.
A car drove by as I sat there. Tim McGivern was at the wheel, on the way home to his wife, Marlene, and their two kids. I shut my tired eyes and was instantly drawn back to the scene in Stryker’s apartment: the stiff lying on the floor with a startled look in his wide-open blue eyes, the cheap rug under him damp with blood, and Stryker sitting in the kitchen with a dazed look on his youthful face. Yeah, there was about as much chance of my letting go of a search for Duvalier’s identity as there was of my old wreck magically turning itself into a sleek new sports car. Unanswered questions have always had a way of eating away at me; of waking me up in the middle of the night and starting me on the ugly business of losing sleep.
I should have started my car then and, like McGivern, headed straight for home, or the two-room walkup I’ve called home since my divorce. But I didn’t. Instead, I continued to sit with my eyes shut, massaging my temples in an attempt to get rid of a growing headache, while at the same time trying to make sense of all I’d learned about the man killed in Stryker’s place. Each attempt led to the same impossible conclusion. Then, with the suddenness of a lightning strike, a solution came to me. I bolted from my car and ran up the three flights to the squad room.
I pulled the copy of von Tauber’s dossier from the desk drawer and went through it until I found what I was looking for, a single detail that only an hour ago had been a meaningless fact in a sea of other meaningless facts. The coroner’s report was next. Page three of that document told me what I needed to know. My path to the truth was now clear.
A call to Georges Le Clercq was the next, crucial step. It would be past one in morning in Paris, late for a call from a near-stranger asking for a favor. On the other hand, the determined young cop had contacted me not all that long ago. I took a chance and tried reaching him at his private number. He answered immediately. I hurriedly explained what I had in mind.
“I will be happy to assist you, Lieutenant Noble. However, what you ask may take some time and will involve the cooperation of others. That cooperation, of course, I cannot guaranty, but I will do what I can. You have happened on a fine solution to your problem, Lieutenant. I only wish I had thought of it myself.”
There was nothing left to do then but wait. So, after having been on duty nearly sixteen hours, I went home. The last thing I thought of before drifting off into an exhausted, dreamless sleep was how good, how beautifully rational, the world would look after the crazy notion of a one-hundred-and-sixty-year-eight-old burglar was laid to rest forever.
Two weeks went by before I heard back from Le Clercq. I was sitting at home trying to decide whether to have Thai or Indian for supper. My tablet came to life just as I made up my mind to go with Indian.
Le Clercq’s face filled the small display.
“How are you, Lieutenant Noble?”
“Surviving. How about you?”
“I am fine, Lieutenant.”
“Good. Got any answers for me?”
“Wonderful. Let’s have them.”
“Karl von Tauber was married in August of 1939, several weeks before the outbreak of war. He and his wife had one child, a son named Eric who was born in 1941. This much you knew from having read von Tauber’s dossier. Eric von Tauber survived the war and lived to the age of sixty-three. His son, Heinrich von Tauber, is ninety years old and very much alive. He is, as far as I have been able to determine, Klaus von Tauber’s only living blood relation. Heinrich has been hospitalized in Belgium for the past two weeks, which made obtaining the necessary blood sample far easier than it might otherwise have been. Our laboratory in Alsace has confirmed a DNA match. He is without question a descendant of the man you know as Anton Duvalier. I had a laboratory in Zurich check the results and they corroborate our findings.”
“Are you telling me that the guy in our morgue and von Tauber are definitely the same person?”
“It would certainly appear so. The methods employed in making such a determination are not new. They have been used for many decades and are considered as close to infallible as science can make them. Let me assure you, Lieutenant, that this result is as troubling to me as it is to you.”
“Well, I suppose that’s it then. Thank you, Inspector Le Clercq. If there’s ever anything you need from me, anything at all, don’t think twice about calling. And please give my best to Paul when you see him.”
Le Clercq’s image faded from the display and for a long time afterwards I sat staring at the blank screen.
There was my answer, looking me in the face and daring me to deny its existence. I had sought Le Clercq’s help in destroying an absurd notion and he had instead confirmed it in a way that seemed irrefutable.
What was next? A call to Larry Sobel asking him to fill out a death certificate in the name of Klaus Auguste von Tauber, age one hundred and sixty-eight? Common sense and logic had been the tools of my trade for a very long time. Was I now supposed to toss them out of the nearest window? I felt lost. Von Tauber, Duvalier, Hess, Fröemke, Rutkowski, time machines, the Third Day Project: was there any way of putting them all together that did not defy reason? I couldn’t, but I knew one person who might be able to do exactly that. He was my last hope.
I opened my small black notebook, the kind every cop on the planet stopped using decades ago, and found Stryker’s tablet identification number written in my penciled scrawl. It didn’t take him long to link up at the other end.
“Are you busy, Stryker?”
“A little. I’m trying to get set up in my new place and start work on a doctoral dissertation at the same time. Right now, I’m not making much headway with either.”
“I’ve got a question for you and I want you to think very carefully before you answer. Have you ever heard of something called The Third Day Project?”
“The Third Day Project? No, I don’t believe so.”
“Are you certain?”
“How about Klaus von Tauber? Ever come across that name?”
“Von Tauber? No, never.”
I wanted to sit down with the Stryker, tell him everything I’d learned about the man who called himself Anton Duvalier, and have him explain why the craziness taking shape in my head had a perfectly reasonable explanation with deep roots in the real world.
“Have you had supper yet, Stryker?”
“No. I was just thinking of going out for something.”
“How about Indian? I’m buying.”
“Why don’t you meet me at the Delhi Palace in half an hour? It’s on the corner of Arlington and Smith.”
“I know the place.”
“Good. See you then.”
“Hold on a moment, Lieutenant. What is this all about? I’ve already given my statement to the district attorney’s office. I’m afraid I have nothing new to add.”
“Forget about that. Listen, I’ve got a godawful mystery on my hands and you’re the only person I know who might be able to solve it for me. Tell me, Stryker, do you like a good story?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Do you like a good story?”
“As much as anyone else I suppose. Why?”
“Meet me at the Delhi Palace in thirty minutes. I’ll buy you supper and tell you the damnedest story you’ve ever heard in your life.”
November 20, 2083
There he is -- dressed, as always, in denim slacks and work shirt. If there is anything worse than the way these people eat, it is the way they dress.
It is not like young Stryker to be so late leaving for the university. His days are usually carbon copies of each other. Staying at the woman’s flat last night has doubtless upset his usually rigid schedule. It was certainly a sacrifice worth making. The young woman he had dinner with, and later took to bed, was as beautiful a creature as I have ever seen. Under different circumstances, I would have spared neither time nor expense in making her acquaintance.
He will be gone until evening, giving me more than enough time to search his flat thoroughly. I have followed him for weeks and nothing he has said or done suggests that he knows about the Project’s existence. If this morning’s search fails to uncover anything new, I can be certain beyond any doubt that his troublesome article was the byproduct of coincidence and a lively imagination, nothing more. I will then be free to return to my flat in Paris. I have had more than my fill of this vulgar place. America is a land of so many wonders, and yet its people remain stubbornly uncivilized.
I touch the Sauer 38 inside my waistband. It has a solid and reassuring feel. One exactly like it saw me through the Polish and French campaigns. A single shot to the back of the head from a Sauer 38 always does the job. Although I will not hesitate to use it if such a thing becomes necessary, but I truly hope it does not. The simple truth is that I have developed a certain admiration for the lad.
My chronograph shows that ten minutes have gone by since Stryker left. He has had time to pick up a coffee at the café where he goes every morning and be on his way to the campus.
“Do not cross the street, Klaus.”
I reach for the Sauer as I turn to face the voice behind me.
“Don’t be alarmed, Klaus. It’s only Otto.”
I stare at him in astonishment.
“What are you doing here, Herr Doktor?”
“The Project has canceled the mission, my boy. You are free to return with me to Paris this very afternoon.”
“Oh, it’s none of your doing, Klaus, I assure you. The fact is that any further effort on your part would have been wasted. We have determined beyond any doubt that the student knows nothing that can compromise the secrecy of our work.”
“How could you have reached such a conclusion before receiving my report?”
“By using other means, Klaus.”
“I’ve always been a cautious fellow, perhaps even overcautious. It is a fault, I know. When I first sent you on this assignment, I took the precaution of providing our organization with a measure of insurance in the form of a zealous young Party member from the Rhine Valley -- a backup plan, if you will. This loyal soldier of the Reich was, like you, tasked with learning how our young author came to write his disturbingly accurate article. The agent was able to do precisely that. Unfortunately, we learned of it too late to avert a dreadful turn of events. That is why I have traveled here today, to prevent a repetition of that regrettable outcome.”
“Repetition? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“You were about to search the student’s flat, were you not?”
“I can assure you, Klaus, that your search would have had a tragic end, one that involved local authorities and very nearly uncovered the existence of the Project. Of course, that is something we could not permit.”
“Herr Fröemke, I have not moved from this spot.”
“No, you haven’t. But you most certainly would have. In fact, you did.”
I am familiar with Herr Fröemke’s miraculous device, and was among the first chosen by our Führer to voyage upon a sea of future-time. I understand what it can and cannot do. And yet there are still times when the physicist’s words fill me with confusion, such as now, with his talk of the outcome of something I have not yet done.
“I don’t understand, Herr Doktor. I never …”
“Well, well, what have we here, Klaus? A fellow you know well, I believe, and he seems to be in quite some hurry.”
I followed his gaze across the street and saw Stryker running up the sidewalk, his face glistening with sweat. I watched as he ran into the building.
“A good thing you weren’t up there going through his flat, wouldn’t you say? Who knows what might have happened?”
A strange chill went through me as he spoke those words.
“Fortunately, what that fellow does is no longer any concern of ours. Now, why don’t we get on with our journey home? A motorcar is waiting for us a few streets from here.”
“Very well, Herr Fröemke.”
I fell in step beside him. He doubtless saw the confusion still written on my face, because he smiled and shook his head after glancing over at me.
“Believe me, Klaus, I know how you feel. Like any good soldier, you would have preferred to see your mission through to its end. If it will make you feel any better, try thinking of our sudden departure as, what is the military term, a tactical retreat? You will return to Paris and I will go back to the Oststern compound. I’m afraid that, like me, the device has grown old and requires much care.”
We walked the rest of the way in silence.
“Ah, here we are!”
Herr Fröemke turned into a tree-shaded side street and approached a white Mercedes parked at the curb. A woman got out of the driver’s side and held the rear door open for him. She was young, probably in her mid-twenties, with bright red hair cascading down to her shoulders. Her green eyes flashed when she looked at me.
“Good day, Major von Tauber.”
Her voice rang with amusement. I found her every bit as beautiful in broad daylight as I had last night.
Herr Fröemke smiled up at me from inside the Mercedes.
“Allow me to introduce Olga Arndorfer, Klaus. She is the young agent from the Rhine Valley I mentioned earlier.”
I stared at her in disbelief, unable to say anything.
“The Major and I have encountered each other once before. Haven’t we, Major von Tauber? I was dining with a mutual acquaintance and I believe the Major tipped the maitre d’ to seat him at the table next to ours. I’m afraid he eavesdropped shamelessly the whole evening. Oh, don’t look so surprised, Major. I was briefed before being sent here from Munich and knew who you were the instant you entered the restaurant. I watched you almost as intently as you were watching my companion.”
“Congratulations, Fraulein Arndorfor. You have apparently done a brilliant job of extracting the necessary information from young Stryker. Of course, you bring certain advantages to the endeavor, advantages I will never possess.”
“Good. We will stop at your hotel, Klaus, and collect your things. Olga will drive us to the airport. The bar there serves an excellent cognac.”
I sat next to Fröemke in the rear seat. A faint scent of the rosewater he always uses on his hair filled the inside of the Mercedes. I watched with interest as Olga disabled the auto-drive function and elected to operate the big motorcar herself.
“Today is a special occasion, Klaus. It is Olga’s birthday.”
“Is it? My regards, Fraulein Arndorfer.”
“I was privileged to have been born the year our Führer published Mein Kampf.”
“Sadly, Olga will be leaving us in a week’s time. She has been assigned to the Führer’s staff as a Wächter or, in her case, a Wächterin.”
So she was to become our Führer’s guardian. I knew well what that meant. She would soon be transported by Fröemke’s device into a future where the Führer waits to fulfill his destiny. She might be given any number of minor responsibilities, but in truth she would have only one: in the event of the Führer’s death, she was to carry out a rescue mission by traveling to the town of Bamberg, arriving there on the morning of December 25th 1947. She would then go directly to the safe house where the Führer stayed twelve hours on that day. She would then return with him to a time just after the death of his future self. The resurrected Adolph Hitler will undergo a complete renewal of health and, later, the reconstructive surgery that now makes him unrecognizable to all but members of the Project. He will then be free to resume his new identity and his sacred work on behalf of the Fatherland.
All twelve members of Project’s governing council are similarly shielded from death. I suppose one could say that Herr Fröemke’s machine has, in a way, made them all immortal.
“You are looking remarkably youthful for a woman of one hundred and fifty-eight, Fraulein Arndorfer.”
“Thank you, Major von Tauber.”
“Since Olga and I must remain in Paris for several days before returning to Munich, why don’t we all meet for dinner?”
“I will look forward to it, Herr Fröemke.”
“Excellent. We will have a lovely dinner and everything will be explained to you then.”
“There is one thing I would like to know before we dismiss the Stryker matter.”
“And what might that be, Karl?”
“How Fraulein Arndorfer managed to extract the truth from our troublesome student.”
She looked at me in the rearview mirror. “Why ask when you can see for yourself, Major? Here you are.”
She tossed a tiny, bronze-colored cylinder into the back seat. I picked it up and examined it.
“What is this?”
“Don’t you know?”
“You must forgive Klaus, my dear. He is something of a Luddite. He believes that this new world’s technology is too all-pervasive and threatens to make us … what is the word you use, my boy?”
“Soulless, Herr doktor.”
“Ah, yes, soulless! I’m afraid Olga does not agree with you. Nor, for that matter, do I.”
“You are being too hard on the Major, Herr Fröemke. Remember that for all of us the world of the Third Reich was only a few short years ago. Give him time. He will adapt.”
“I hope I never do, Fraulein.”
“So, Major, to answer your question, that remarkable little device is last night, all of it, in exquisite detail. Every word, every action, every breath is there. All you need do is insert it into any viewing device.”
I understood then and looked at the cylinder with disgust.
“Fraulein Arndorfer, I am not without my faults. Very few of us are. However, I do not include voyeurism among them.”
I handed the cylinder back to her.
“I would much prefer a brief account of how you got the information from young Stryker.”
“Very well, Major. But there is really not much to tell. I merely expressed my admiration for his article after we made love and he spent the next half hour cheerfully telling me every detail of how it came about.”
“That’s that then, isn’t it?” Herr Fröemke said with a trace of annoyance. He had clearly tired of the subject.
“Let us forget the past and dedicate ourselves to our glorious future. When it becomes a reality, the Fourth Reich will write a new chapter of world history in letters of fire. Of course, its realization may take years, perhaps even decades, but that need not concern any of us. Have I not made us all masters of time? We must have patience, my young friends. Remember that even now, as we sit in this motorcar, the Führer also waits, patiently waits, for his time to come round again.”