WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS, OCTOBER 200-
The low, rolling, thickly wooded hills of western Massachusetts passed by the windows of Benjamin’s car. The leaves were just beginning their transition to browns and golds and reds, and as Benjamin rounded another curve in the winding country road, his passage sent up a colorful, swirling wake that settled with a soft rustling behind him. The sky was a clear blue, the air crisp with a hint of the winter chill to come.… All in all, a beautiful day for a leisurely drive through the country.
But Benjamin wasn’t feeling leisurely. And while the sights and sounds were those of a Thanksgiving television special, Benjamin’s gut told him a Halloween thriller would be more appropriate.
Until late afternoon the day before, Benjamin Wainwright had been a happy-if-obscure postdoctoral fellow at the Library of Congress, pursuing his research on Colonial Native Americans with the pure focus of a scholar who had found his little bit of heaven in the bowels of the most extensive library on earth, a modern-day Alexandria. He would have been perfectly content to be left alone for the next two years rooting among historical detritus that hadn’t been important even when it was new, and now was important only because it was so very old.
And then he’d received the phone call from Jeremy Fletcher.
Benjamin hadn’t heard from Jeremy for nearly ten years; not since they’d been undergraduates together at Harvard. They’d been occasional friends back then, but too different to become more than that: Benjamin the bookworm, Jeremy the computer whiz kid; Benjamin raised in a solidly middle-class family of scholars, Jeremy from the titled British upper crust. Even their physiques were a contrast: Benjamin was above-average height, with short, curly black hair, his body fit and solid, whereas Jeremy was short and thin, as though his body fed on itself to supply his brilliant, methodical intellect.
Benjamin had always felt slightly intimidated by Jeremy’s brilliance. But then, so did most people. Jeremy simply saw the world differently than other people did. For Jeremy, life wasn’t random and haphazard; it was a complex network of interrelating causes and effects.
“Take your favorite subject, history,” Jeremy had said late one night as they sat on the steps of Widener Library, the neatly trimmed grass of the Harvard quad a checkerboard of dark trees and pools of light. “It’s created by people, not some disembodied ‘forces.’ And people are, as the saying goes, creatures of habit.”
“That’s an old theory, Jeremy,” Benjamin had objected. “Or are you becoming a conspiracy nut?”
“Oh, I’m not talking some drivel about who killed JFK,” Jeremy replied. “I’m talking about the fact that people do things for the same sorts of reasons, century after century. There are decidedly patterns there, patterns made up of millions of individual acts, like dots in one of Seurat’s pointillist paintings. The dots may not know the whole picture, but it’s bloody well there, just the same. One merely has to find the proper perspective from which to see it.”
“And you’re going to find that perspective buried in one of your computer programs?” Benjamin teased.
“Perhaps,” he’d said enigmatically. “Just perhaps.”
Benjamin hadn’t seen history that way. To him, the past knew things the present had forgotten, and one didn’t kill that wisdom by autopsying it. The true wonder of the past lay in the ineffable complexity of human minds. And the key to those minds was to be found in books.
He remembered standing in front of his father’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, inhaling the smell of leather and age, and feeling as though he were praying at an altar. Thus, when the opportunity for a postdoc at the Library of Congress had presented itself, it seemed to him those prayers had been answered.
After college, Benjamin followed in his father’s footsteps, taking a degree in Colonial history at Georgetown University; meanwhile, he’d heard that Jeremy had finished MIT and then taken a postdoc at the RAND Corporation, doing some sort of supersecret work for the government with computer modeling. And they hadn’t communicated in all those years since.
So when an intern at the Library had interrupted Benjamin—he’d been preparing a lecture he planned on calling “Savage Art: Civilization Confronts Chaos in the New World”—telling him there was a Jeremy Fletcher on his office phone, at first he couldn’t believe it.
Why would Jeremy call him, after all this time?
After the usual shallow pleasantries of a friendship gone stale with the years, Benjamin had finally asked Jeremy if what he’d heard was true: Was he doing some sort of supersecret work for one of the “spook factories”?
“Not exactly,” Jeremy had replied cautiously. “Actually, I’m out here at the American Heritage Foundation.”
“The Foundation?” Benjamin had whistled appreciatively. “Even better. They’re richer than the spooks.”
“Well that actually brings me to why I’m bothering you.” There’d been an uncomfortable pause, then, “Benjamin, I’d like to share some of that wealth with you. I wonder … do you think you might be enticed into coming out here for a few days?”
Benjamin had been stunned. Nothing he knew of either Jeremy’s work or that of the American Heritage Foundation would seem to relate in any way to his own expertise. “Not that I don’t appreciate it,” he finally managed, “but what on earth could I do for you?”
“Well, it’s difficult to explain, but you see, some of my own research … well, it’s gotten tangled up in that Indian Wars muddle you love so much.”
“Native Americans,” Benjamin said reflexively, but really thinking about the curious, almost artificial breeziness of Jeremy’s tone. “We colonials don’t call them Indians anymore.”
“Yes, quite right. Anyway, I could use that musty encyclopedia you call a brain to help me sort it all out. It would only be for a few days, a week at most. But it would have to be now, Benjamin. Tomorrow, actually. Think you could make the slog out here to the wilds of western Massachusetts?”
For a moment Benjamin had no idea what to say, but after a bit more hedging, Benjamin had allowed himself to be … seduced seemed like the right word. But not by Jeremy’s promise of exorbitant reward; rather, it had been the mystery of the thing, the sheer eccentricity of Jeremy’s offer.
Of course Benjamin had heard of the American Heritage Foundation; it was one of the most prestigious and most secretive “think tanks” in the entire country. Young obscure scholars went into the Foundation—as it was known with a certain instinctual awe—and came out to appointments in the corridors of power that would otherwise have required decades of thankless service to obtain. And while the occupants of those corridors were elected officials and therefore merely passing through, the overseers of the Foundation were answerable to no one—or at least not anyone so lowly as a mere voter.
Ergo, any young academic would kill to gain entry into that world, and here Benjamin was being handed his opportunity on a silver platter.
But why him? And why now?
Thus had Benjamin’s mind spun around the problem ever since he’d boarded a flight to Logan, rented a car, and begun his long journey across the length of Massachusetts, out to where the wealthy Boston Brahmins kept summer cottages the size of boarding schools and listened to classical music under the stars.
He glanced at his briefcase sitting on the seat beside him. Inside it were a few reference books to the Colonial Indian Wars—general stuff, as Jeremy hadn’t been specific about his “muddle”—and his father’s notebooks. Whereas Benjamin’s area was early Native Americans, his father had instead concentrated on what he called “non-Native Americans”—the Puritans. He’d spent his entire career tracing the Byzantine sects and schisms among America’s spiritual founding fathers, and just when he was completing work on a book, he and Benjamin’s mother had been killed in a car accident, leaving Benjamin a small inheritance, and the large collection of his father’s notes, which he treasured as a sort of family heirloom. And, while he doubted those notes would prove useful to Jeremy’s work, bringing them along made him feel as though his father were along for the ride in this unlikely adventure. They were a kind of comfort—even though the ache he felt when he thought about his parents, about their sudden, violent erasure from this world … that ache knew no comfort.
Finally Benjamin found the exit, and thirty minutes later he sat at the end of a narrow, winding road, facing the Foundation’s formidable entrance.
Nestled in a natural bowl of small, rounded hills, the Foundation was separated—or perhaps protected was a better word—from the outside world by acres of woods. The nearest settlement was a good half-hour drive away; even the summer mansions Benjamin had passed seemed vulnerable and déclassé by comparison.
The Foundation was an expanse of manicured lawns, geometric flower gardens, strategically placed copses of oak and sycamore and maple trees, all with their leaves now glowing in the earthy tones of early fall, and a dozen buildings, most in a Colonial-style architecture of red brick, white trim, and copper-gabled eaves. It all looked more like an exclusive private school than a secret research institute.
Until one noticed the ten-foot fence that stretched around the grounds. A fence Benjamin was sure was electrified.
After passing through imposing wrought-iron gates and parking his car in a graveled driveway, Benjamin stood on the portico of the large, mansionlike edifice to which the gate guard had directed him. His briefcase clutched in one hand, he wondered again what on earth he was doing here. But then Jeremy would explain all that to him in a moment.
He squared his shoulders and entered the building.
* * *
Benjamin felt dizzy.
The circular foyer of the building was enormous, open all the way up to the domed ceiling some fifty feet overhead. A grand spiral staircase wound around the wall of the foyer, up to the second floor.
And then he noticed the mural.
Beginning where the dome joined the foyer’s walls and stretching all the way down to the floor, the mural covered every inch of the walls. It reminded him of the WPA Depression-era murals that adorned the lobbies of so many American post offices, but the scale of this one was tremendous, overwhelming. He could make out people and machines and landscapes, all interlocked in ways both intricate and yet heroically simple. He saw light bending along the curve of muscle and polished steel surfaces, faces fixed in transports of calm determination.
He felt simultaneously proud and insignificant.
He wrested his attention away from the mural and looked around the foyer. Just opposite him was an office door with ARTHUR TERRILL, A.D. on a brass plate in its center. That was the person the guard had directed him to see.
He walked over to the door. Inside, he could hear voices, raised and apparently arguing. He hesitated, then knocked.
The voices stopped, there was a pause, and then the door opened. A short, thin man with large-rimmed glasses and carefully styled silver hair stood looking at him quizzically.
“Yes?” he said.
“Excuse me,” said Benjamin. “I’m Benjamin Wainwright. I’m here to see Dr. Jeremy Fletcher?”
The man looked nonplussed for a moment, then shook his head.
“Of course, of course,” he said, backing up, “I forgot all about you. Come in, come in.”
Benjamin entered a large office with a great block of a desk to one side, armchairs here and there, a small couch, a Persian rug, walnut wainscoting, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.… He imagined now he was in the principal’s office of this “private school.”
“Arthur Terrill,” the man said, somewhat perfunctorily shaking Benjamin’s hand. He motioned for Benjamin to sit in one of two unoccupied chairs before his desk, then returned to his seat behind it.
“This will only take a moment, Mr. Wainmark,” he said. “Please sit down.”
“It’s Wainwright,” Benjamin corrected. “Benjamin—”
“Excuse me,” said another voice behind Benjamin.
Turning, he saw a man sitting on a small couch that had been hidden by the open door. He was dressed in a light gray suit and matching tie, and in one hand was a glass containing amber fluid and ice.
“Benjamin Wainwright?” the man asked. Benjamin nodded. “Good.” He took a sip from the drink. “I hoped we’d meet.”
The man rose, came over and stood beside Benjamin, looking down at him. He seemed amused. He also seemed slightly drunk.
In all the time Benjamin was to spend with Samuel Wolfe, he never quite gained a single, fixed idea of his overall persona. Samuel was tall, and held himself so erect one’s impression was that his manners came from another century. He could appear patrician and imposing one moment, relaxed and mischievous the next. His face had gone out of style in the thirties: a curving beak of a nose and large, intelligent eyes; eyes that encouraged an instinctual confidence. It suddenly came to Benjamin that Wolfe was a dead ringer for that actor he’d seen in an old black-and-white detective film … something about a “thin man”?
And then Benjamin realized Wolfe was extending a hand toward him, still with a drink in the other. He took it and felt the firmness of Wolfe’s grip. Wolfe sat down in the other chair before Terrill’s desk.
“This is Mr. Samuel Wolfe, a … security analyst,” Terrill said, tapping a pencil on his desk and looking down at a fan of papers spread across the desktop’s green blotter, “here to help us with an … unfortunate incident.” He sighed. “And it’s because of that incident that your services will not be required.”
Now Benjamin was the one nonplussed. “Not required?”
“I’m afraid there’s been a significant change of plans—”
“Significant!” Wolfe snorted, shaking his head.
“And unfortunate,” Terrill continued. “I’m terribly sorry, but in any case the Foundation will cover your expenses for the trip and, let’s say, two weeks?”
“Christ on a crutch, Arthur.” Wolfe frowned at Terrill, as if scolding him. “This young man hasn’t the foggiest idea what’s happened here. Toss him a line, for godssake.” And for emphasis he recrossed his legs, rather elegantly.
“Yes, of course, I’m sorry.” Again Terrill tapped and rifled. “If only Jeremy had spoken to me sooner. You see, I didn’t know he’d contacted you until this very morning, well after the …”
“The incident?” Benjamin offered.
“A hit,” said Wolfe, raising his glass in a toast. “Give the lad a drink.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry. Would you care for a drink?” Terrill asked.
“No,” Benjamin said. “Well, perhaps some water—”
“And the whiskey you don’t give him,” Wolfe said, handing his empty glass across the desk to Terrill, “put in this.”
Terrill took the glass and went to a small bar by the fireplace, and as he made another drink and poured a glass of water for Benjamin, he continued.
“Anyway, as I said, there’s been a terrible … event. Jeremy Fletcher—the man who requested your services, a resident fellow here at the Foundation, in fact a very accomplished scholar in his own right—Well …” Terrill returned and handed both of the men their glasses, then sat back down. “Well, he’s dead.”
“There,” sighed Wolfe, “you said it.” He saluted Terrill and took a sip of his refreshed drink.
“Dead?” Benjamin exclaimed. “But he called me at the Library of Congress. Just yesterday. He asked me to come out and help with some work he was doing.” They both looked at him in silence. “He …” Benjamin realized he’d run out of things to say. “Dead?” he repeated.
“Decidedly,” said Wolfe. Then he looked sharply at Terrill. “You say this ‘incident’ occurred sometime yesterday afternoon?”
“Well, it must have happened after Dr. Fletcher’s afternoon meeting with Edith, certainly,” Terrill said nervously. Then he glanced at Benjamin. “But there’s no reason to go into all that now, taking up Mr. Wainwright’s time, when we’ve wasted so much of it as it is.”
Benjamin turned to Wolfe. “You’re a policeman?”
Wolfe shifted those lidded eyes as if Benjamin had insulted him.
“A miss,” Wolfe said. And then he smiled—and again Benjamin felt both charmed and irritated by his expression.
“In any case,” Terrill continued with some effort, “as Mr. Fletcher was the only member of the Foundation doing that sort of research, we simply don’t need—”
“What sort of research?” Wolfe interrupted.
“What? I told you—”
“No,” said Wolfe, turning to face Benjamin. “I’m asking Mr. Benjamin Wainwright. Why do you think Dr. Fletcher requested your illustrious presence?”
“You mean, what sort of work was Jeremy … was Dr. Fletcher doing?” Benjamin shook his head. “I know almost nothing about it. I hadn’t spoken to him in years, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, yesterday—”
“You knew Dr. Fletcher?” Wolfe asked sharply.
“Well, yes, back in college. But—”
“And then, after a long interval without any contact, he called you yesterday, asked you to come out here?”
Benjamin felt like he was being interrogated. “He said something about working with the Colonial period, and, as that’s my field—”
“Then,” Wolfe interrupted him again, “you do know of Dr. Fletcher’s research.”
“No, not really. I mean, I know his degree was in statistics—”
“Inferential statistics,” corrected Wolfe. “You know, to draw inferences.”
“Samuel, really,” Terrill protested, exasperated. “I feel I must put my foot down here. This is the very sort of thing that we wish to remain confidential. And confidentiality, need I remind you, determined our course of action in bringing you here.”
Wolfe stood and crossed to Terrill’s desk as if to confront him; but instead he merely smiled tolerantly at Terrill, then turned and addressed Benjamin.
“Doesn’t it strike you as odd, Mr. Wainwright,” Wolfe said, “that a statistician, inferential or otherwise, would need the services of a Colonial historian?”
Benjamin entirely agreed with Wolfe, but for some reason he didn’t want to say so.
“Well … not necessarily. Jeremy and I used to discuss Colonial history back in college, and—”
“Fletcher’s current work was all on nuclear war theory,” Wolfe said heavily. “Hardly the stuff of Puritan religious dogma, wouldn’t you say?”
Benjamin looked to Terrill, who was now jotting notes furiously, resorting to the pretense that neither of them existed. And then an answer seemed perfectly obvious to him.
“Jeremy knew my dissertation was on the Native-Settler wars. Perhaps his work on war game theory had something to do with those wars and … well, modern guerilla warfare?”
Wolfe looked at him silently for a moment, turned to Terrill.
“How much were you going to pay him, Arthur?”
Terrill looked up from his papers. “What? Him?” He glanced at Benjamin. “Well, I don’t see how that’s really relevant, given the circumstances.”
“As much as my assistant?” Wolfe said.
“If I’m to explore this incident thoroughly in no more than three days, I’m going to need some help, Arthur. And there’s the not inconsequential issue of who’s to be trusted. Wasn’t that your point in dragging me away from my cozy little loft in Boston this morning? To guarantee a little discreet nosing about before the big-footed detectives arrive?”
Terrill roused himself. “And confidentiality, Samuel. At least you were once already employed by the Foundation, thus the proper security checks—”
Wolfe leaned over and patted Benjamin’s shoulder. “And our congressional librarian here works for the government, too, don’t you?” He turned back to Terrill. “The government that writes your checks, Arthur. The same government that’s not going to write you that very fat check, unless—”
Terrill held up his hand. “Samuel, please!”
Wolfe smiled. “My point is that you can spare no one, I need someone, and someone has just very propitiously arrived. Someone whom poor Jeremy thought could help him. Well, perhaps he was right, Arthur. Perhaps Mr. Wainwright can help us.”
“Really, now, Samuel …,” began Terrill.
But Wolfe suddenly cursed as his glass slipped from his hand and fell with a crash to Terrill’s desk. Ice and liquid spread everywhere across the papers there. Terrill first looked stunned, then horrified, then began grasping willy-nilly at folders and papers.
“Oh dear,” Wolfe said—and began dabbing at the expanding rivulets of scotch with the end of his tie.
Terrill sat back, exasperated.
“I think,” he said, speaking slowly and carefully, “this discussion’s usefulness is concluded for the evening. Mr. Wainwright, we’ll decide in the morning what, if any, your continuing role with the Foundation will be. And Mr. Wolfe …”
Wolfe looked up, grinning ruefully, and handed Terrill the one folder he’d managed to snatch from the deluge, a shard of glass perched in its concavity. And then without another word he turned and, nodding to Benjamin, walked out of the room.
When Wolfe was gone, Arthur looked at Benjamin. “I have to apologize for Mr. Wolfe,” he said. “He’s been through a … well, a recent shock. You haven’t seen him at his best.”
Benjamin realized that Terrill’s schoolmaster tone of earlier was tempered with the concern of an elder colleague for a promising friend—someone whose promise was vanishing before his eyes. “Go upstairs, Mr. Wainwright,” Terrill continued, “and there you’ll find an empty guest room. You can use that for the night. We’ll sort all this out in the morning.”
“Thank you,” Benjamin said. “Then … good night.” He gathered his briefcase from the floor and crossed what seemed an immense distance to the office’s doorway.
“Close the door, if you please,” said Terrill behind him, and Benjamin did as he requested.
When he entered the foyer, he looked around for Wolfe, and decided he must have gone upstairs already. Then he realized that if he were to stay overnight he would need his suitcase from the car.
The night sky outside was perfectly clear, the stars bright and undimmed by city lights or smog. It had been a very long time since Benjamin had seen them so brilliant, so ideal. The only sound was that of his footsteps on the gravel.
Back on the portico, suitcase retrieved, he stood for a moment letting the silence surround him. He could make out black lumps of trees, behind them darkened hulks of other buildings, and the lighter blackness of the sky overhead. And then, perhaps a hundred yards away, on one of the footpaths, he saw someone walking. Someone with a dog. A dog that was straining at its leash.
Benjamin hurried back into the building.
Copyright © 2010 by Glen Scott Allen