Saturday, April 1, 2017

An Andrew Valquist Story: Another Adventure in a Library

In my novel Amor Vincit Omnia, Dr. Andrew Valquist has to shoot his way out of the National Library in Bucharest, Romania after he is sent there to recover a cryptic book written in Latin. Years later, retired from the NSA, he has a different sort of adventure in a library. Here's the story, as narrated by him.

*****

My cab pulled up to the Morgan Mansion just as the sun was setting.
I had spoken Arabic with the driver ever since I spotted the name Ahmad Mahmoud on his ID. I was a bit rusty, since I hadn’t practiced my Arabic since leaving the NSA a few years ago.
Ma’a as-Salama,” I said to him, handing him a bunch of bills that paid the fare and a generous tip. “al-Baqi lak.” The rest is for you.
Shukran awwi!” he replied with a smile.
“Listen, I’ll probably need a pick up from here after some hours,” I said. “When do you go off shift?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, handing me his card and smiling.
“Sounds good.” I shut the door and started up the shrubbery-lined sidewalk toward the front door. I stopped for a moment to take in the scene. I owed much to Dame Morgan, despite never having met her. She wrote the books for all the ancient languages I had ever studied. Even though my graduate studies went beyond her materials, I credited her for my eventual successes.
The door opened before I reached it. A tall black man wearing a classic butler outfit stepped out. From the grayness of his hair and wrinkles, I estimated him to be in his mid-sixties.
“Good evening, Dr. Valquist,” he said. “Mr. Morgan and Ms. Morgan are expecting you in the parlor for a drink before dinner.” His words were music to my ears. I thought I sensed the hint of an accent in his voice.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, offering my hand. “And what is your name, please?”
He looked at my hand with confusion before shaking it. I supposed that guests of this family’s social stratum do not ordinarily extend courtesies to the help.
“I am Mr. Anikwe. May I take your coat?” he said, already slipping it off my shoulders.
“Your English is impeccable, but you come originally from Nigeria, right?”
“Yes, sir.” He smiled. “You knew Nigeria from my name or my accent?”
“A little of both.”
“It’s nice to have a linguist in the house again.”
“You worked for Dame Morgan a long time, then?”
“She hired me over twenty years ago. After her stroke seven years later, I was her principal caretaker. But tonight is my last night in the manor. Her children have informed me they won’t need my services any further. Speaking of which, sir, I have been terribly negligent. Please follow me.”
I followed the man down a softly lit hallway. I could see that every furnishing of the house was a valuable antique. We entered into a large room. I smelled the roaring fireplace before I saw and felt it. Surveying the room quickly, I saw a fiftyish man and a mid-forties woman standing at their chairs. She approached me first.
“Happy to meet you, Dr. Valquist,” she said, shaking my hand. “It’s nice to finally put a face to the voice.”
I had already done some research and seen pictures of Dame Morgan’s children from the Internet. Still, Katherine Morgan was more attractive in person than I had anticipated. With what I hoped was an undetected visual sweep, I saw that she was nicely fit for her years. The crow’s feet that she probably thought made her look too old in fact gave her face an intriguing glow. She was just a few years older than me, but that did not dampen my potential interest. As I admired how nicely the red silk of her dress hugged her feminine curves, I realized my second sweep had not been so subtle. A smile crept onto her face and confirmed my suspicion.
“What’s wrong with you?” Mark Morgan snapped.
For a moment I panicked, but then realized her brother was yelling at the butler.
“Anikwe!” he said. “We’re not paying you to just stand around. Offer our guest a drink!”
Katherine’s face convulsed in embarrassment at her brother’s behavior.
“I apologize, Dr. Valquist. What would you like?” Mr. Anikwe asked.
“It’s fine, Mr. Anikwe. Um, any dry red wine, please.”
He headed out.
“I apologize for our butler,” Mark said, offering his hand as well. “A pleasure, Dr. Valquist. I mean, we’re still paying him the ridiculous 500 dollars a week that mother was giving him. You’d think he’d be grateful for even one more day of work.”
“Please have a seat, Dr. Valquist,” Katherine said.
“Please call me Andrew,” I returned.
I relaxed into a sumptuously soft black leather arm-chair. The sounds of approaching feet signaled that my drink was close.
“There you are, sir,” Mr. Anikwe said, setting the glass on the table beside me. “Madam, Sir, how are your drinks?”
“I think we’re fine for now, Anikwe,” Katherine said. “You can plan on serving us dinner in about an hour.”
“Yes, Madam,” he said, retreating from the room.
I drew a strong sip off my glass and felt immediately the alcohol diffusing into my brain. As I breathed over my tongue, I tasted that this was some of the more expensive wine I’d ever had and it probably deserved to be more slowly savored. But that didn’t stop me from chasing a little buzz with the stuff. I emptied my glass and wished it was full again.
“If you don’t mind,” I started. “I’d like…”
“You’d like to get down to business,” Mark interrupted me.
“I’d like some more background information on the task you’ve hired me for this evening.”
“Good,” Katherine said. “Ask me anything you’d like.”
Our eyes locked. My mind raced between the innocent and provocative entendres of what she just said. I felt myself blush. She noticed and grinned mischievously.
“As headmaster at the Fairfax Classical Academy,” I said, “I don’t really need any payment for my services tonight. But our school is always interested in receiving donations and endowments to defray costs.”
“Understood,” Mark said. “If you succeed in our task, you can expect a substantial return for your efforts.”
I nodded. “So how can I help you?”
“Here’s the story,” Mark began. “As you well know, our mother was a linguist of some note.”
I laughed. “My first Latin and Greek text books were from her ‘Classical Languages Series’. I couldn’t believe it when I started studying Arabic and learned that she dominated that field as well. What was it like growing up with such a genius as your mother?”
I saw them both wince in a way that made me feel intuitively that they did not share my admiration for the woman.
“Yes, our mother was a genius,” Katherine started. “But my brother and I never really lived up to her expectations. Languages were her world. When neither of us took to them, she grew increasingly angry at us.”
“She accused us of not studying enough, which is true,” Mark added. “I just never saw why I had to learn anything besides English in this world.”
“Even just last year,” Katherine continued, “I can remember her telling me, ‘At least learn Spanish!’”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “So I can talk to my gardener?”
Mark laughed alone. I felt increasingly uncomfortable to be beholden to him in any way for a sum of money that I didn’t really need. I steered the conversation back to the work.
“Katherine, you said over the phone that you had gotten a clue about something?” I asked, eyeing my parched wine glass.
“Some years ago our mother said she was leaving us a valuable treasure. But she told us…”
“She told us we needed to learn the classical languages,” Mark interrupted. “That was the only way we could find this treasure.”
I thought for a moment. “For your mother, the classical languages are Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Biblical Hebrew.”
“And you know all those, right?” Mark asked.
I smiled. “Yes.”
He sighed. “After the funeral on Tuesday, we learned the terms of her Will. Our mother earned quite a bit of money from her scholarship over the years. We learned that she donated almost everything to her stupid charity causes.”
“The only thing we got was this house,” Katherine said, drawing a manila envelope from a leather bag next to her chair. “The house and this envelope, that is.”
She handed it to me. As I slipped a single sheet of paper from the envelope, I saw Mr. Anikwe returning with the bottle of my wine. As he refilled my glass I read aloud from the clue.
Im lo akhshav aymatay.”
“What is it?” Katherine asked.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Madam,” Mr. Anikwe said. “Would you like me to freshen your drink?”
“No,” she said, looking only at me. “Well? What is it?”
I gulped half my wine. “Could you please top me off, Mr. Anikwe?”
“There you are, sir,” he said, filling my glass.
“It’s Hebrew,” I mumbled, watching Mr. Anikwe depart hurriedly.
“What does it mean?” Mark asked.
“If not now, when?” I translated. Turning the page over to confirm there was nothing on the other side, I sipped deeply off my refilled wine glass.
“We figure we can get a million to split between us off this house,” Mark said. “But we assumed we would be inheriting quite a bit more.”
“So we needed someone who knew about these things.” Katherine leaned over to me with a smile. “We didn’t want to get too many people involved in this. We were thrilled when your name popped up in a Google search for language scholars in the DC area.”
“I didn’t know I was so notorious.” I lifted my glass to drink but paused, suddenly torn by the ethical implications of what I had learned. These two were asking me to solve puzzles left by their mother for the purpose of encouraging their learning. They were going to get the benefit without doing any of the preparation she wanted. But it also occurred to me that Dame Morgan had to know her children might employ an expert.
“When we learned that a former NSA linguist was now headmaster at a nearby academy, we knew we had our man,” Mark said. “What do you make of this clue, Dr. Valquist?”
My mind searched through just a few possibilities. “It’s a fairly well known quote from the Talmud.” I said, looking at the sheet. “I guess she wants us to look at that quote in a book. Is there a library in the house that might have a copy?”
Katherine looked at Mark, mouth agape. Mark curled his eyebrows and finally spoke.
“We have already arranged tomorrow morning to have her library donated to Princeton.”
“They are assessing it as worth a 100,000 dollar tax write off for us.”
I laughed. “It’s a good thing we didn’t schedule our meeting for tomorrow evening!”
Mark slumped in his chair. “I can’t believe how close we may have come to losing out on whatever it is she left for us.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, sipping again at my wine. “I have a feeling that this is how it will go. She has hidden clues in her library that will lead to whatever she was referring to. We’re either going to find it in one evening or, well, we aren’t.”
Mr. Anikwe stood at the door. “Dinner will be served in just a few moments,” he said, somewhat out of breath.
“We’re on our way,” Katherine said.
As I stood and started for the door, she put her arm through mine. “I’ll show you the way,” she purred.
We entered a lavish dining room that could have seated twenty. Three spots were set at one end.
“Mr. Anikwe won’t be joining us?” I asked, feigning ignorance and hoping my developing disdain for Mark would not bleed through in my increasing inebriation.
“You’ll be at my left,” he said, not acknowledging my question and sitting down at the head of the table.
Mr. Anikwe reappeared, rolling before him a serving cart.
“A consomm√©, monsieur,” Mr. Anikwe said, setting a bowl in front of me.
Merci beaucoup,” I said.
De rien,” he replied smiling.
“Tell me more about your work with the NSA,” Katherine said, stirring her own bowl.
“If he told us anything, he’d have to kill us, Kate,” her brother said, laughing.
I paused and considered my response. Any question about my previous employer was always fraught with concerns, given the bad press they got over certain activities in the last few years.
“It was an interesting phase of my life,” I began cautiously. “I was happy for the opportunity to serve my country. But, as an academic, I never intended to spend my entire career there.”
“You worked in Arabic?” Mark asked.
“That I can answer. Yes, I was an Arabic linguist.”
“Did you ever catch any terrorists?” she asked.
“That I shouldn’t answer.” I paused a moment and then shrugged my shoulders. “But, yeah, I did.”
We enjoyed our soup and some further small talk. Mr. Anikwe kept us fully stocked at every course of the meal, though he seemed increasingly taxed physically.
I tasted a slice of the main course, a veal rib chop, chasing it down with a healthy drink of the fine wine filling my glass.
“I have to ask,” Mark said. “Do you really think you should drink so much, considering that after dinner we’re expecting you to solve linguistic puzzles for us?”
He had caught me mid-sip with his question.
“Mr. Morgan,” I said calmly, setting my glass down. “While I can understand your concern, you should know that I have frequently solved quandaries of many sorts while under the influence of the vine. I have diagnosed concerning myself that a certain important facet of my deductive skills is only available to me in that condition.”
Neither of them responded.
“You could consult with another researcher, if you would like,” I said, picking up my glass again.
“I apologize if my question offended you,” Mark said.
“Let’s just enjoy our dinner,” Katherine said.
As we sat in silence for some moments, I realized my reaction had been inappropriately defensive. I contemplated apologizing, but decided to just leave the topic alone.
We continued onto a dessert served by a now noticeably harried Mr. Anikwe.
I declined a cup of the coffee that Mark and Katherine had, since, in all honesty, I do not enjoy the sensation of caffeine on top of alcohol.
“I’ll excuse myself for a few minutes,” Mark said. “Let’s continue our business in the Library at the top of the hour?”
I looked at my watch to see it was already a quarter to nine.
“I’ll show you the way,” Katherine whispered to me.
As we entered a completely dark room, Katherine felt the wall to the left.
“I always forget that that fixture doesn’t work anymore,” she said. Turning to the other side, she lightly brushed me with the front of her body. “Excuse me,” she giggled, flipping on the lights.
The library took my breath away. All four walls of a 30 by 30 foot room were covered by books filling six-foot high shelves.
“Dame Morgan,” I said aloud. “How I adore you!”
“I’m a little jealous,” Katherine said with a smirk.
I wandered the room, spotting quickly that no principal text of the ancient and classical languages was unrepresented. Just under the defunct light switch sat a massive Bible on a wooden stand. The organizational method of the Library as a whole was roughly chronological, starting from the left of the entrance, and divided by language. Once I had acclimated myself to the outlay, I confirmed the presence of a number of important works, most importantly, the entire Talmud, where I assumed our search would begin. I was also happy to see in one corner a computer. I started it up and went online to confirm the exact spot in the Talmud where the quote from the clue was found.
Katherine took a seat on a large black leather couch facing a fireplace.
“I wish we could get a fire going in here,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be romantic?”
She was now obviously flirting back at the signals I know I was sending. My mind was swirling with wine and imaginations.
Mr. Anikwe entered with a carafe of red wine. He set it down next to my empty glass.
Todah rabbah,” I whispered to him in Hebrew.
He smiled faintly. “You’re welcome, sir.”
Mark entered the library. “Shall we get to work, Dr. Valquist?”
I stood and walked to the volume of the Talmud that would contain the reference made in the clue. Thumbing to the page, I found a sheet of paper at the spot.
“What is that?” Katherine asked.
“The next clue,” I answered, reading the page.
“Look, you’ve already done good work, Doctor,” Mark said. “Can’t we now just open up all these books and find the final answer?”
“No,” I said firmly. “Mr. Morgan, it might be that we need to know the order of the clues. Even so, it would probably be quicker to solve the problems than to search every page of a thousand books.”
“Okay,” he said. “What’s the next clue?”
“It’s a sentence in Arabic.” I read it aloud to them. “ La ikraha fi-ddin. It translates into ‘There is no compulsion in Religion.”
“I hope that means something to you,” Katherine said.
“It does.” I walked to the Arabic section of the Library. Scanning the volumes, I located the first copy of the Quran on the shelf. “It’s a well known verse from the Islamic Holy Book,” I explained, thumbing my way through the volume.
Mark huffed. “I’m a successful businessman and not uneducated,” he said. “I resent that you keep saying things are ‘well known’ when, in fact, they are maybe well known only to people like you and my mother.”
I opened my mouth, considering a response, but realized that he had a certain point. “I apologize, Mr. Morgan. You’re right. That quote is something well known only to students of religion or Arabic. Them and, well, any of the billion plus Muslims in the world.” Coming to the verse, I found another piece of paper.
“Good job!” Katherine said, obviously trying to lighten the moment. 
Ego eimi to alpha kai to omega,” I read. “New Testament, Book of Revelation Chapter One,” I added. “I am the Alpha and the Omega.”
I crossed the room and arrived at the Greek section of the Library. Again I found the first Greek New Testament on the shelves.
“You’re making this look almost too easy,” Mark said.
“Well,” I said, opening the book to the section in question, “If I know your mother, which I only kinda do, I think she’ll yet throw us a curve ball.”
I found another piece of paper. “Si sciveris ubi fuit Acme in poese Romana, cursum consumaveris,” I read. “If you know where was the Acme in Roman poetry, you will have finished the race.”
“Okay,” Katherine said. “So where do we go next?”
“The Acme, or pinnacle, of Roman poetry has to be a reference to Vergil. He is universally considered the greatest of Latin poets.”
I walked to the Latin section and found the first volume of Vergil’s Aeneid. Scanning through the pages, I found nothing. Returning it to the shelf, I found another volume containing all of Vergil’s works and searched that one. Again, I found nothing.
“I guess here’s the curve ball,” she said.
Sitting down at the computer, I entered the words Acme and Latin into a search. Not seeing anything that furthered the quest, I added the term “poetry” to the query.
“There we have it!” I said, spotting several entries reminding me of a long lost fact.
“What is it?” Mark asked.
“The Roman Poet Catullus used the name ‘Acme’ for a character in one of his compositions.” I stood and stretched. “This clue implies that we are nearly to the end of this little adventure.” Walking to the section of the library housing Latin literature, I located a volume of the poems of Catullus. Flipping to number 45, I found another slip of paper. I read it aloud.
“Big Bible. 2nd Timothy Chapter 3.”
All three of us turned to look at the large ceremonial Bible sitting on the stand by the door.
“I think this is it,” I started. “Would either of you like to have the honors?”
“No, please continue,” Katherine said.
We all walked over. I turned to the passage in question. Locating another slip, I scanned it quickly and saw that it was English and did not require my services. I passed it to Katherine. She read it while her brother looked on.
“My dearest children Katherine and Mark, if you have solved this puzzle you now also know that the wisdom and riches of ancient literatures are greater than any material reward. Well done. But I instead suspect that you hired someone to solve the puzzles for you. So let me say something. At least learn Spanish! Love, your mother Helena.”
“So the old bat even finds a way to rub it in from the grave,” Mark muttered.
Katherine walked slowly to the couch and sat down. Mark crumpled up the paper, threw it against the wall and stormed out of the room. I used the moment to peek back at the still open Bible. I recalled that the last clue had made a seeming allusion to another passage from 2nd Timothy, Chapter 4. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” I read. Written very faintly in pencil next to the verse I saw a single word, ‘ammah’ followed by an upward arrow. I silently turned the page. Coming and sitting on the couch next to Katherine, I thought through my options. The word ‘ammah’ was Hebrew for ‘cubit’, the span from the wrist to the elbow, a bit more than a standard foot. And that was the approximate distance from the Bible to the defunct light switch. I suspected that this piece of information was the actual final puzzle. Something important was hidden behind that light switch. I briefly thought about whether there was a way to check behind the switch without the Morgans knowing about it. One thing was sure in my mind. Dame Morgan never thought her children would really learn the languages and solve all these clues on their own. That final message was a smoke screen. An actual language scholar, she knew, would be able to get to the end of the clues, make the children believe that the quest was concluded and get the item without their knowing. I decided the safest course this evening would be to leave whatever the prize was in its current location and perhaps consider approaching the new owners of the house after the Morgans sold the property.
“Well, Katherine, I’m going to be heading out, since it looks like you all won’t be needing me any further.”
“Okay, goodbye,” she said distantly.
As I looked at her, I could see that she was deflated, knowing that the riches she had anticipated were gone. And I knew it was not the time to ask her out on a date. For the record, weeks after this evening we did meet for a coffee but the magic of this evening was just not there.
I walked out of the library and started down the stairs. Mark was standing at the door with a check.
“Here’s a donation for your services,” he said.
“Thank you.” I folded it and put it in my pocket.
Mr. Anikwe’s bags were already packed and sitting next to the door. He entered the foyer with my coat.
“There you are, sir,” he said, helping me put it on, his last official act as the Morgans’ domestic.
Mark retreated to the living room without another word.
Mr. Anikwe and I walked down the sidewalk toward the street. I took out my cell and started to press the numbers for my cab.
“You’re welcome to share a ride with me, if you’d like,” I said.
“No thank you, sir. A friend will be here shortly for me.”
As we stood waiting, I thought back over the evening.
“Thank you, by the way, for the wonderful meal,” I told him. “I felt sorry for you, needing to rush around so much for all this.”
He smiled. “You’re quite welcome.”
Suddenly a thought struck me. I put it all together in an instant and started to laugh.
“Something is funny, sir?” he asked.
“Congratulations, Mr. Anikwe,” I said.
“For what, sir?”
“First off, please call me Andrew.”
“And I’m Michael,” he replied.
“You spent years in that house caring for Dame Morgan. She was an invalid for the last thirteen of them. During that time you would have had ample opportunity to teach yourself all the classical languages with the resources in that library.”
“Such books,” he said carefully, “should not be wasted.”
“You were pouring me wine when I read the initial clue out loud.”
He raised one eyebrow.
“Following that, you went back and forth between attending to us and preparing dinner. But you also could have been stepping into the Library and working your way through the clues. You put them all back so as not to draw attention to what you had done.”
“I know you will not tell the Morgans of this,” he said. “And you and I both know that the Lady never believed those two would find the prize on their own.”
“Agreed. So, tell me, did the Acme one trip you up at all? I needed to resort to an Internet search for that.”
“No,” he said. “I have a particular fondness for Catullus and read him quite regularly.”
“Bravo. Can you tell me what the prize is?”
He produced a small envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to me. I opened it carefully and extracted an item protected in a cellophane jacket. It was a scrap of papyrus. I made out the single line of Latin on it.
“Pontius Pilatus Tatiano suo S.,” I read. “Pontius Pilate sends greetings to his friend Tatianus. Is this what I think it is?”
“It would seem to be the only authentic autograph of one of the more infamous Romans.”
This was behind the light switch?
Yes, he said.
  I gently put it back in the envelope and returned it to Mr. Anikwe.
“That’s gotta be worth somewhere way in the millions,” I said. “Where could Dame Morgan have gotten this thing?”
“We’ll never know.”
A car pulled up. A tall man got out and picked up Mr. Anikwe’s bags. I heard the two exchange greetings in what I assumed was an African language.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Michael,” I said, offering my hand.
“And good luck to you, Andrew,” he said.
My cab was pulling up as they drove off. I could not suppress my continued laughter as I opened the door.


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