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The Arms Maker of Berlin

By Dustin Duncan,2014-11-04 18:33
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The Arms Maker of Berlin

    ALSO BY DAN FESPERMAN The Amateur Spy

    The Prisoner of Guantánamo

    The Warlord’s Son

    The Small Boat of Great Sorrows

Lie in the Dark

For all those peoplewho dig up the secrets

    My most beautiful poem? I didn’t write it.

    From the deepest depths it rose.I kept it silent.

Mein schönstes Gedicht?

    Ich schrieb es nicht.

    Aus tiefsten Tiefen stieg es.Ich schwieg es.

—from the poem “Schweigen” (“Silence”),by Mascha Kaléko

    ONE

    THE BIGGEST HAZARD of studying history,” Nat Turnbull once told his wife, “is that if youspend too much time looking backward, you’ll be facing the wrong way when the forces of thehere and now roll forward to crush you.”

    As if to prove the point, his wife filed for divorce the following week, catching Natcompletely by surprise.

    Five years later he was again facing the wrong way, so to speak, when a pair of phone callssummoned him urgently back to the dangers of the present. He was three stories underground atthe time, asleep at his desk in the stacks of the university library. An unlikely location,perhaps, for the beginning of an adventure in which lives would be lost, but Nat was trained toappreciate that sort of irony.

    The first call arrived just as a dark dream of another era goose-stepped across his brain. Hiscell phone jolted him awake, squirming in his pocket like a frog. Opening his eyes to utterdarkness, Nat realized he must have slept past closing hour. It wasn’t the first time. He kepta flashlight for these emergencies, but it seemed to have disappeared. No use groping for thelamp, either. Security would have cut the power by now. Library budgets weren’t what they usedto be at Wightman University.

    The phone twitched again as he fumbled in his pocket. He was addled, groggy, a miner regainingconsciousness after a cave-in. What time was it? What day? What century? Mandatory question in

    his line of work. Nat was a history professor. Specialty: Modern Germany. At Wightman thatcovered everything from the Weimar Republic of 1919 onward, and while Nat was in love with thesweep and grandeur of the whole era, neither friend nor foe was under any illusion as to histrue calling. He remained as thoroughly haunted by the long shadow of the Third Reich as thoseHitler-centric folks on the History Channel. In Nat’s treasure hunts, X never marked the spot.

    A swastika did, or some pile of old bones. Dig at risk of contamination.

    He snicked open the phone, and the blue glow offered a beacon of hope until he saw the incomingnumber. Gordon Wolfe, his onetime master and commander, calling at 1:04 a.m., meant Nat wasabout to be subjected to an angry tirade or a teary confessional, and either would likely beserved in a marinade of French cognac and Kentucky bourbon. He answered with a vague sense ofstage fright.

    “Gordon?”

    “No, it’s Viv. Gordon’s in jail. You have to get up here.”

    “Jail? What’s happened?”

    “They took him away. Him and some archives. They took everything.”

    “Gordon’s archives? All of them? Where are you, Viv?”

    “Blue Kettle Lake. Our summer place.”

    The Adirondacks. Of course. That was where the old Minotaur always retreated when the going gottough, and lately the going had been unbearable.

    “The police handcuffed him the moment we walked in the door. You’d have thought he was JohnDillinger. They’re saying he stole it, that he stole everything, which is nuts.”

    “Stole what, Viv? Slow down. Start at the beginning.”

    By now the phone light had switched off. Nat, sole survivor of the European ResearchCollection, again sat in the darkness of carrel C-19 in the basement stacks of HartsellLibrary. He had often boasted he could find his way out of here blindfolded. Tonight he mighthave to put up or shut up.

    His nose could have told him the approximate location—musty leather bindings, chilledconcrete, the chemical reek of spooled microfilm—a bouquet that probably explained why he hadjust been dreaming of a similar place across the Atlantic. Except there all the writing was inGerman and the records were haunted by so much industrialized horror that you never got comfy

enough to nod off.

    In his dream he had been visiting the place during wartime, a quarter century before he wasborn. He was descending a narrow stairway as bombs crashed overhead, and he was vaguelyexcited, as if on the verge of a huge discovery. Yet at each passing level the light dimmed,his dread deepened, and a grim realization took hold: The closer he got to his goal, thegreater the risk that he would lose his way or be buried in rubble, forever irretrievable byfamily and friends.

    Guilt having its say, no doubt. Work had consumed the better part of Nat’s last two decades,dating back to his undergraduate years, when a dynamic professor named Gordon Wolfe hadinfected him with a virulent strain of historical curiosity. The affliction had now outlastedthe aforementioned marriage, a procession of careless affairs, and the upbringing of a daughterwho had just finished her sophomore year at Wightman. This being a party-hearty Thursdayfollowing final exams, Karen was probably seated at this very moment with her friends around anoisy table, polishing off a celebratory pitcher of beer.

    Nat had canceled a dinner date to come to the library. It seemed necessary at the time. But sofar the only fruits of his labor were an unscheduled nap, and now he had learned that GordonWolfe was in jail in upstate New York, where the old man apparently would remain until Natcould talk Gordon’s wife, Vivian, down from the high ledge of hysteria. Judging from hervoice, she had been perched there quite a while.

    “It was some old files,” Viv said. “Gordon says they were planted. That’s all I could getout of him before they took him away. They bumped his head on the goddamn patrol car. Wedidn’t even have time to take off our coats. When we turned on the light there was a pile ofboxes sitting there, right on the kitchen table. Then a bunch of FBI guys came in from theliving room.”

    “The FBI? Good Lord. What kind of files?”

    “I don’t know. Something from the war. Gordon can tell you. I got the idea he’d seen thembefore, just never at our house.”

    “Two boxes? Ten?”

    “Four. They moved everything to the sunroom before I got a good look, and now I can’t evenget in there. I’m a prisoner in my own house.”

    “You see any labels? Any markings?”

    “A few stickers. Ask Gordon. But first we’ve got to get him out. They haven’t set bail, butI can take care of that. I want you here for the arraignment. We can ride over together, tellthe judge it’s all a lie.”

    Unless it wasn’t. Frame-up or not, what in the hell was Gordon Wolfe doing at the age ofeighty-four with a missing archive at his summer home in the hills? Especially if it was the

    archive, the one Gordon had forever mooned about to both students and colleagues in his less-guarded and more-imbibed moments. More than sixty years ago he had been one of the few wartimecaretakers of that trove. Then, after the war ended, four boxes full of information had slippedthrough everyone’s fingers, disappearing somewhere between the Alps of Switzerland and thetowers of midtown Manhattan.

    Gordon had been looking for this lost treasure ever since, and during particularly acuteoutbreaks of gold fever he sounded like an old prospector around a campfire. He had evenbrought up the subject at his long-overdue retirement party, a melancholy event six years agowhen everyone but Gordon had been at a loss for words, stifled by the awkward knowledge thatWightman was nudging him not so gently into the box marked “Emeritus.” What was it Gordon hadsaid that day as he blustered on? Some bold proclamation while he waved his drink, his blockyhead thrust forward like that of a reckless boxer, punch-drunk and asking for more. Now Natremembered:

    “Oh, it’s out there, all right. Nobody burned it. Nobody bombed it. But somebody took it, andI wish I knew who, ’cause it’s got secrets you can’t find anywhere else. Not a dud among

    Live ammunition. Pick it up and it might go off in your hands. Boom!’em.

    Whereupon he sloshed bourbon onto the tie of the assistant dean for students.

    Gordon’s mother lode was a trove of wartime gleanings from an American OSS station in Bern,Switzerland, which had been a listening post in a zone of tense but genteel neutrality. Righton Hitler’s doorstep, as historians such as Nat liked to say. It was run by Allen Dulles, thegenial, pipe-smoking Lothario who a few years later became one of the first chiefs of the CIA,making him the nation’s ranking Cold Warrior. The missing boxes were only a fraction of thevoluminous files Dulles collected during the war, of course. And much of his other work hadbeen well documented, most notably in accounts of the German double agent Fritz Kolbe, whosmuggled secret documents out of the Nazi Foreign Ministry by taping them around his thigh.

    Gordon ended up working for the OSS literally by accident. Dulles arrived in Switzerland bytrain only hours before Vichy France shut its borders in late ’41. Cut off fromreinforcements, he cobbled together a staff from borrowed diplomats, marooned American bankersand students, disaffected expat Junkers, a Swiss financier’s wife who was a former Bostondebutante—who, conveniently, also became his mistress—and American airmen whose bomberscrash-landed in Switzerland.

    Gordon was one of the downed airmen, selected by Dulles mostly because of his fluency inGerman. It saved him from spending the rest of the war in a Swiss internment camp, although byhis own account he was little more than a clerk, translating speeches and making sure Dullesnever ran out of paper clips. Gordon compensated for this lack of espionage glamour by tellinghair-raising tales of his missions as a ball turret gunner in a Flying Fortress on bombing runsover Germany. To drive home the point, he wore a battered leather flight jacket and walked witha limp—the result, he said, of a flak burst and a bad parachute drop.

    This image of dashing-flyboy-turned-spy-clerk-turned-scholar might have followed him to thegrave if not for a bit of “gotcha” journalism that had appeared only a week ago inWightman’s campus newspaper, the Daily Wildcat.

    Gordon’s B-17, it turned out, hadn’t been shot down at all. It hadn’t even dropped a bombduring its final flight. It flew plenty of other dangerous missions, but Gordon was making hismaiden voyage as a last-minute replacement. Somewhere between England and the target city ofRegensburg the pilot got lost, ran low on fuel, circled into the Alps, and finally brought theplane to rest in a Swiss meadow, where the unscathed crewmen were immediately surrounded bymilk maidens and lowing cattle. Gordon’s limp, the Wildcat said, was either the exaggerated

    by-product of a childhood illness—the very malady that kept him out of the infantry—or anoutright affectation.

    Although Gordon was retired, he was still a well-known figure around campus, not least for aseries of free lectures he delivered every summer to the townsfolk, complete with colorfuldescriptions of his aerobatic derring-do. But there would be no speeches this summer, and abook contract that was to have been his scholarly swan song had already been canceled.

    Now, if Viv was to be believed, you could add an arrest at the hand of federal agents to hisroll of dishonor. And who knows, maybe the man was guilty. Because if he had finally tracked

    down the missing boxes, then Nat could well imagine him hoarding them, at least for a while. Itwas easy enough to guess how the old fellow would have justified it, by garrulously referringto his temporary possession as a “finder’s fee.”

    “So can you come?” Viv was insistent.

    Nat sighed. He wanted to tell her to call a lawyer. Then he could get a full night’s sleep anddrive up tomorrow, if at all. Let the old bastard stew away in jail, especially aftereverything that had happened between them. But Viv headed him off at the pass.

    “Gordon won’t let me call a lawyer. He said to get you instead. It was the last thing he saidas they put him in the car. ‘Get Nat. He’ll know what to do.’”

    “Since when did Gordon make sense in this kind of situation, Viv?”

“I know. But for what it’s worth, he was sober. Mostly, anyway.”

    “We haven’t spoken in years, you know. Unless you count those late-night calls he likes tomake.”

    “I know that, too. I’m sorry. Gordon’s sorry, if it makes any difference. And not just’cause he’s in trouble. He’s said it a lot lately.”

    Sure he had. But in spite of himself, Nat experienced a tug of old loyalties. Or maybe he wasstill just eager to please—student to teacher, apple in hand.

    “Okay. I’ll come.”

    “Thanks, Nat. I’ll never forget it. And I’m sure Gordon won’t.”

    Yes, he would, probably within minutes. But Nat had endured that before. Besides, there wereother motivations. If the boxes were what he suspected, he might get first crack at them.

    “I’ll leave right away,” he said. “Don’t wait up.”

    Viv hung up, and Nat found himself back in the dark, inhaling the stale, silent breath of allthose books and ledgers. They, too, seemed to rest at night, the cells of a drowsing giant whomight roll over at any moment and crush him with the weight of their lore. Nat believed therewas more than just physical heft to these materials. They retained a spirit as well, some gustybreath from the souls of their creators. It wasn’t that he believed in ghosts. It was more areflection of how thoroughly he let such materials inhabit his mind.

    But more practical matters beckoned. He was already dreading the long drive. Six hours minimum,meaning he would have to stop for breakfast, maybe a nap. Good thing he’d nodded off here.With any luck he would make it in time for the arraignment, although he realized now that Vivhadn’t given him a time or place. He tapped the desktop like a blind man, groping for histhings. Then the phone throbbed again. Viv with the logistics, no doubt.

    “Yes?”

    “Don’t be alarmed.”

    A man’s voice this time, calm and deliberate, with an odd echo as if it were bouncing off thefar wall of the stacks.

    “What?”

    “Don’t be alarmed. I’m on your floor, over by the stairwell.”

    was in the stacks. Nat felt like leaping from his seat, but in what direction? ForSo the man

    all he knew, the fellow was only a few yards away.

    “Are you a campus cop?”

    “No. A friend. Or that’s how I hope you’ll think of me.”

    “Me, too.”

    “C’mon. We need to get moving.”

    There was a metallic snap as the caller hung up, which made Nat flinch in his chair. Across theroom, a tiny light switched on, casting a narrow white beam that scoped down the long aislebefore coming to rest on Nat’s right knee, where it waggled briefly.

    “This way,” the man said.

    “Do you have a name?” Nat answered.

    He was back in the role of trapped miner, only he wasn’t so sure about the rescue party. Hisvoice held steady, but he was a little scared. He considered bolting, since he probably knewthese corridors better than his adversary did. But without his own light he would soon wind upfacedown, or smashed against a shelf.

    “We’ll discuss details outside.”

    “Maybe I should call 9-1-1, in case a campus cop is on patrol outside. Wouldn’t want himseeing us coming out of a locked door after hours and overreacting.”

“It won’t work.”

    “What won’t?”

    “Your phone.”

    He was right. Nat couldn’t get a signal. For that matter, how had he gotten one to begin with?Never before had he been able to make or take a call this deep in the stacks. Library officialswere content to let the place remain a cell phone dead zone, and he had only rarely heard oneringing. How had the two calls gotten through, then? And what had become of his miraculoussignal? This was beginning to feel like one of the scenes he reconstructed a bit too luridly inhis books. Some doomed hero of the resistance, cornered at last by the Gestapo. Fear crept alittle higher in his chest, and his voice tightened.

    “What is this? What are you doing?”

    “Sorry for the spook act, but we’re wasting time. I’ll explain outside.”

    Assuming they made it.

    “Let me get my things.”

    Nat groped for a pen and a sheet of paper as he rose from his chair. He scribbled blindly: “1a.m., 5-18-07, Am being abducted.”

    Whoever found it would know who left the note because this was Nat’s assigned carrel. Then hehad another idea and laid down his cell phone. “Last call on phone has his number,” hescribbled, hoping he wasn’t writing over the previous message. He then added a postscript.

    “Pls tell Karen Turnbull,” he wrote, jotting her number. His daughter. Probably the onlyperson on the planet other than his department head who would care enough to follow up. Asobering realization when you were about to walk off into the dark with a stranger, and notmuch of a comment on the life he had built.

    “What’s taking so long?”

    “I’m making sure I’ve got everything.”

    It was partly true. Other than the note and his phone, Nat believed it was important that henot leave behind a single item. For one thing, it was his usual careful way as a researcher.For another, he had a feeling he wouldn’t be returning for quite a while.

    TWO

    NAT’S ESCORT NUDGED HIM FORWARD through the darkness like a border collie, brisk andinsistent. He knew all the back corridors and obscure stairwells. Either he was lucky or hadscouted the route, and Nat didn’t want to dwell on the implications of the latter.

    Neither man spoke until they pushed through a fire exit into the starlight. No alarm sounded,another anomaly. But it was a relief to be outdoors, where the air smelled of mown grass andspring blossoms. Nat stared up through a canopy of new oak leaves while the sweat cooled on hisback. He was weighing the odds of running when his escort produced an ID in the beam of aflashlight.

    “Neil Ford, FBI.”

    “You might have told me.”

    Nat’s shoulders relaxed, and he saw now that the guy was practically a kid, a buzz-cut rookie.Amazing how much menace you could project as a disembodied voice.

    “Sorry. Protocol.”

    “You have a protocol for apprehending people from libraries?”

    Neil glanced around, as if there might be someone in the hedge eavesdropping.

    “There were extenuating circumstances.”

    “Such as?”

    The agent cleared his throat. “We should get moving.” “Where? What’s this all about?” “You’re needed on an expert consultation, a matter of some urgency. Voluntary, but we’d have

    to leave now. It’s up at a place called Blue Kettle Lake, five hours from here.” “More like six. They must want me to review Gordon Wolfe’s files.” “You already know?” “Viv—Gordon’s wife—called just before you did. How’d you find me?” “Your daughter. She said the library was your second home. Sometimes your first.” Ouch. “No offense, sir, but she sounded like she’d been, well, hoisting a few.” “End of exams. She’s entitled. How’d you do that thing to my phone?” “Excuse me?” “Make the signal disappear.” “I didn’t. Lost mine, too.” He glanced around again. Something was making him nervous. “I

    would have ID’d myself right away, but I wasn’t certain the line was secure. Frankly, I

    wasn’t even sure we were alone.” “Are you sure now?” “To my satisfaction.” “Shit.” “What?” “I left my cell on the desk. With a note saying I’d been abducted.” “We’ll take care of it.” “You better, or this place will be in an uproar. Small campus. Bad news travels fast. And make

    sure my daughter gets word that I’m okay.” “Like I said, we’ll take care of it. I’m supposed to tell you that you’ll be compensated

    for your services. Whatever your going rate is.” “I don’t have a going rate.” “Then make one up. Think big—it’s the government’s tab.” “Good idea. We taking your car?” “Have to.” “Protocol?” Neil nodded. “Then I can sleep on the way up. How will I get back?” “We’ll provide transportation. You should also be apprised that the Bureau has rented a car

    for your exclusive use while you’re up there.” “Consider me apprised. Sounds like they expect this to take a while.” “A few days, tops. We can stop by your house to pick up your things.” “I should probably clear this with my department head.” “He’s already signed off.” “You work fast.” “Your name was at the top of our list.” “Figures. I was Gordon’s protégé.”

“Was?”

    “Long story.”

    Actually it was fairly short, but Nat didn’t feel like telling it for the umpteenth time. Hehad once been far more than a protégé. He was Gordon Wolfe’s heir apparent, anointed years agoby the great man himself, when Nat proved to be the best and brightest of several graduateassistants.

    At first it was an unspoken arrangement, a natural progression. For five years Gordon and heattended conferences together, coedited research papers, and collaborated on articles for thepopular press. Eventually he began fielding Gordon’s cast-off requests for speeches andinterviews. The old fellow’s temperament didn’t make it easy. But Nat persevered, mostlybecause the work was so damned exciting. Part sleuth and part scholar, he was always eager totrack down the next lead, even when it meant forsaking his duties as husband and father.

    On a snowy afternoon ten years ago he finally attained the ultimate level of trust andacceptance when Gordon took him aside in an off-campus tavern to confess that he was driven bymore than just a lust for knowledge.

    “Money, old son,” Gordon said tipsily “Let’s face it, the swastika sells. Always has,always will. Nobody did it quite like those bastards, and everyone still wants to know why.

    I still want to know why.”Hell,

    Gordon had to shout to be heard above a neighboring table of undergrads, who were loudlydiscussing Simplicissimus, the prewar German satirical magazine. Or was it The Simpsons?

    Wightman wasn’t exactly covered in Ivy.

    “Stay the course,” Gordon said, “and you’ll always be assured of a paying audience.”

    At one level it was disillusioning. At another it was comforting—Hey, you could actually makea living at this! So Nat and the old man clanked mugs to seal the deal just as a studentshouted, “Doh!” quoting Homer.

    Not long after that, Nat began receiving congratulatory e-mails, indicating that Gordon hadpassed the word. And so it was ordained: Nat would become America’s next great universityauthority on all aspects of Germany’s wartime resistance movements, small as they were, justas Gordon had been for the previous thirty years.

    Then things began to fall apart.

    The biggest problem was personality. Gordon Wolfe was vain, prickly, and abrasive, a bullishtemperament to match his welterweight build. He was worse when he had hoisted a few, as NeilFord would have said, and unfortunately Gordon believed booze was a vital part of theprofessorial persona. His daily regimen included wine at lunch, bourbon before dinner, brandyby the fire, and, if he was restless enough, more bourbon at bedtime. By the time he realizedalcohol was a mere stage prop, just like his Dunhill pipe, it might as well have been stitchedinto the fabric of his campus tweeds.

    Yet in other ways the two men were perfectly matched. Both could disappear into their work forweeks at a time, and both gravitated to the sort of research that shook things up—digging upthe goods on a Kurt Waldheim, for instance, or discovering the shameful folly about somepurported hero—a “gotcha” aspect that now seemed ironic in light of what had just befallenGordon.

    They also shared a belief that scoundrels, not heroes, were the driving forces of history, andthus worthy of greater scrutiny. The pop concept of the “Greatest Generation,” for example,struck them as quaintly ridiculous, albeit ingenious in its marketing. Even the self-infatuatedboomers would have looked Great seated alongside Hitler and Stalin.

    So, for every resistance movement or Hitler assassination attempt that had failed, Gordon andNat wanted to know more about the weak links than the strong ones. Just as when a buildingcollapsed no one wasted time studying the parts that didn’t fail. Look deeply enough into the

    origins of some huge movement in history, they believed, and you would inevitably find a

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