Inquest - Index   |  chapter 2   |  chapter 4

Chapter 3

Soraya mentions speaking to the lawyers -
and Balfour, Tancred, and Annabelle wonder what they can expect.
Soraya relates what she has learned - and approaches to Rystwycz are considered.
Balfour and the children proceed more or less uncertainly --
everyone preparing in their own way for the first leg of their possible adventure.


       Soraya came by my the office in the early afternoon with her usual checklist. "I'll be done by ... let's say six, I'll be home by six," she said. "If you picked up the dry-cleaning, I'd be grateful." She looked down at the papers in her hands, drumming her pen against it: "Any word on the Drift manuscript ?" I shook my head. "And we have to keep Monday -- Monday next -- open. A gallery opening slash reading -- on a Monday ! -- people I need to see -- I need your support -- a touch of seriousness to sway them -- better impression if its us both. " She looked up at me, to see whether I had anything to add. I didn't. "Oh," she said, turning back as she was already ready to go, "I got in touch with Morgenstern's solicitors. The offer -- the offers -- we're meant to take them seriously. This Clotwold -- the lawyer, Erwin Clotwold, very solicitous --, I think he's already booked the plane tickets. But I'll tell you all about it at home." And she whirled off, back to her executive duties.
       Soraya and I both work for the same publisher. Now: the same subsidiary of the same publishing conglomerate. We both started out here, when it was still Oake & Eyre. Both doing editorial work. Soraya rocketed up the career ladder. Gathered experience elsewhere, then returned to the fold (the much larger fold, by then, with then-OE &E (already having added another E) meanwhile bought up and out by the German Hammerschmitt mega-conglomerate).
       Soraya had a knack for the business side. She knew how to find and milk the unserious, the pan flashes, the unaccountably popular. She had a nose for the first subtle whiffs of trends, guessing -- maybe half the time -- what the next hot topic might be and what personality could sell it. She bought the right celebrity bios, and she talked up (and bid up the prices) on the duds for others to waste their money on.
       I don't mind plebeian, but I do mind the bad: that limited my ascent in the book business. I maintained some literary standards; couldn't ever see my way beyond them. So I wasn't much of an asset for my employers; it's not the way things are done (and it probably wasn't ever). They prefer the spectacle and the spectacular, and the loud -- even if, in sum, there isn't any more money to be made with these titles than with my humbler choices (and, potentially, much more to be lost). Soraya said it was all business and barrelled ahead: spending a mint, and occasionally making one. She was better at it than most: the rate of return on the stockholders' investment was appreciably better than in the industry as a whole. But most of her books weren't anything to be proud of. Probably less than one in fifty would outlast the decade. (Mine ? One in five. I'm a backlist builder, while her success is all upfront.)
       We don't really discuss these particular philosophical difference, we don't have that generic death-of-books and lowered standards argument at home. Sometimes, for the kids' sake. But we don't really disagree. Soraya, after all, has higher standards than me. She is the one who looks down on ... essentially everything that ever was published. She has much less patience with what she reads on her own time and for her own interest than I do -- though she also has had much less time for pass-time reading the past few years. But the business we're in, she explains, is a business, and her standards would just get in the way of her job. I admire the way she can set them aside; I can't.
       Nobody minds much my lofty insistence on what passes, for me, for literary. I don't make OE & E (and Hammerschmitt) much money, but I don't lose them any either (despite its bad reputation, quality fiction does sell -- not spectacularly, but well and steadily enough). They don't take me that seriously -- and I'm presentable as a young enough old-school editor when they need that, to talk to the press, to help launch a "serious" title. They just wish I wore tweed.
       So Soraya is Managing Editor (and she'll be President soon enough) and she takes her duties seriously and it keeps her busy -- too busy for more than professional interaction with me most days, while we're in the office. So I'd have to wait until evening to hear what the lawyers said about Morgenstern's offer.

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       I was almost always the one who picked the kids up after school. Soraya could hardly ever get away from the office early, while the only ones who missed me if I left at three or four in the afternoon were my particularly late-rising authors (but they all had my home number). It wasn't the end of my workday -- I took manuscripts and files home with me, daily, -- but I did have a far more flexible schedule than Soraya. Those days when she needed the escape -- a couple of times a month -- and insisted on fetching the kids, I found it hard to stay behind and finish a full office-day (but we were agreed that we would try to maintain some sort of Sinclair-presence in the building during business hours, if at all possible).
       Annabelle gushed about some school-project gone awry when I picked them up, but Tancred remembered Morgenstern's offer and asked about it.
       "Your mother has been looking into it," I told them. "She called England and spoke with the lawyers, but she wanted to wait until dinner until she spreads it all out for us."
       Tancred was immediately ready to pack for a quick weekend-trip to Rystwycz. We stopped in one of the mega-bookstores on the way home (the local Barnes & Dalton) and examined travel guides, to see if we could learn a bit more about the place. There were few books that covered the region, and no more than passing references to Rystwycz in those. The historic overviews in the guide-books mentioned it -- armies had passed through Rystwycz, battles been decided nearby -- but there was apparently nothing of cultural or touristic significance anywhere in the vicinity.
       "Not a happening hotspot," Tancred noted.
       "But something about it must have appealed to Morgenstern," Annabelle said.
       "Maybe just that: that there is nothing there. No distractions. No ... preconceptions, so he could make of it what he wanted."
       I didn't say that even Morgenstern couldn't impose his will on a swathe of such ancient countryside. I thought it more likely that, as Soraya had suggested, his family originally came from the area, maybe even from Rystwycz itself.
       Once in the bookstore it wasn't easy to get out. Tancred insisted on looking at the (disappointing) history section, while Annabelle disappeared down the fiction aisles. There were temptations on the shelves, but we were all a bit directionless -- not quite sure were we were headed, and not wanting to prematurely commit ourselves. I recalled that there was some Jules Verne novel set in Carpathian regions, but, of course, it wasn't to be found at this so-called "super"-store. We left empty-handed.
       At home Tancred and Annabelle opened up the big atlas again, trying to get a better sense of the location of Rystwycz. They had been to Europe several times with us, including for some fairly extended summer stays, but we had never gotten anything approaching that far east. Still, in their minds' eyes, and with fingers pushing and pointing across the maps, they had no trouble imagining themselves in some illusionary "there".

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       "Yes," was what Soraya said when she finally came in. She was feeling affirmative: this was how she operated when she was working on a business-deal. Decisive, succinct, positive, to -- or beyond -- the point. We didn't know exactly what the "Yes" might be in response to, and yet we all felt we understood.
       The details came over dinner: "I talked to the lawyers," she told us. "Efficient and eager. They went to great lengths to assure me that Morgenstern was serious, and that he had funded this ... ambition of his very well. We shouldn't concern ourselves about that."
       Soraya would interrupt to take a few bites, but we hung on her words, barely touching our food.
       "They weren't very clear," she continued, "on the full extent of Morgenstern's ... ambition. Whether there's more to it than what we've heard about. My guess is that they know more than they've let on -- which was essentially nothing --, that they are just being careful. We'll see.
       "But they are at our complete disposal, they assured me, and from what I've seen that seems to be fairly useful. They are apparently not without influence, and they are terribly efficient. I wouldn't mind having them handling my affairs, so I don't mind them handling these affairs. They've booked a plane ticket for me, for next Tuesday. And they were able to expedite my visa request at the embassy. The consular staff knew all about it by the time I called them this afternoon; I just have to swing by with my passport for them to stamp tomorrow."
       "Only you are going ?" Tancred couldn't hide his disappointment.
       "I'm just popping over to go have a very quick look. It's a haul -- I fly into Budapest, travel all day to get to Rystwycz, and have to leave by Saturday to get back on Sunday. It's too much for you two, with school -- and so one of us adults has to stay here as well. And between your Dad and me he's probably better suited to hold down the fort here." Meaning she thought she could handle and assess Rystwycz better than I would. "And it is easier for me to make my excuses at the office than for your father." Which was, surprisingly, also true.
       "But we get to go next time ?" Tancred asked.
       "First I'll decide -- or I'll have a look and then we'll all decide -- whether there should be a next time. But if so, then, yes, it would be all of us. The lawyers actually made a point of that. All or none, even just for the trial-period. They were even willing to spring for plane tickets for all four of us for this short hop over, but I had to tell them that only one of us could go."
       I was -- as I had often been before -- surprised and pleased by how easily Soraya took charge and came to quick decisions. If it had been me that had called the lawyers one of us would probably also have headed to Rystwycz -- but six weeks from now, at the earliest. I needed more lead time to even consider thinking in these continental jumps. (And I have a harder time -- a much harder time -- thinking of even one of us apart from the rest of us for even brief periods of time.)
       It was more than we had anticipated. We shouldn't have expected less from Soraya, but it did put Rystwycz far closer than we were immediately prepared for. Tancred could talk of packing to go there, and he and Annabelle could follow the lines on some map leading there, but it wasn't really real to them yet. And now their mother would fly into some great distance, and be there in a week's time. And there was so much more than a dot in an atlas, or even what our imaginations could yet make of it.
       We didn't have many suggestions, of what she should or had to do there. Not yet. She had to take a camera, we figured: we wanted pictures of the place. She should take notes ..., someone suggested. But Soraya knew how to take charge. She wouldn't overlook what was important. We all knew she'd be able to report to us exactly about what mattered.
       If only one of us could decide whether Morgenstern's offer was right for us (or we for it), we would all agree that Soraya was best suited to make that call. Tacitly we had already left the choice up to her, I think.

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       Tancred traced the routes from Budapest to Rystwycz on the map. "You can get there by rail, almost," he told Soraya. "There's a last bit that you can't, but the railway goes fairly close-by."
       "Not quite so close, our solicitor friends tell me," Soraya said. "If you look I think you'll find that there are no lines marking highways or even back roads from the railway line to Rystwycz. Not anywhere in the area, at least."
       Tancred peered more closely, and Annabelle pushed to look as well. "You're right," Tancred admitted. "But there must be one there -- it's just not marked, or not big enough to appear here."
       Soraya shook her head. "There isn't."
       "Why is that ? Why don't they just build one ?"
       "There's something in between !" Annabelle realized. "Mountains or something -- look, the difference in heights here, you can tell by the shading."
       "A cliff, apparently," Soraya said. "Their very own tectonic shift. A long, solid wall, practically, several hundred meters high, keeping the areas that seem side by side entirely separate. Goes for some fifty kilometers, Clotwold said. A natural defense, but it seems also to have left Rystwycz and environs somewhat isolated. The thoroughfares and rails simply bypassed it: the major trade and travel route is less than ten miles -- no, kilometers -- as the bird flies, but essentially can't be reached, at least not except in the most roundabout way."
       "Why isn't there a parallel route to the north, through Rystwycz," Tancred sensibly asked.
       "The town is on a plateau, of sorts, and it is actually difficult to reach from all sides. The whole plateau. You can see -- there's only a thin line -- meaning some country road -- from the west side over to Rystwycz, and a little thread headed north. Clotwold said it is accessible from all sides except the cliffhanging south, but that the approach from the west was the only well-travelled one."
       "So how are you getting there ?"
       "Train to here," Soraya pointed. "Then about thirty kilometers by bus to here. And then hitch a ride. Clotwold says he already has it set up."
       "A bit more of an adventure than I expected," I said.
       "No kidding," Soraya agreed. "Though my main concern is how much of a backwater this place might be. I'm beginning to wonder whether they'll have electricity and running water."

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       Tancred continued to mine what few books we had on the area.
       Annabelle took down the Slavic fiction from our library shelves, looking for a novel or some short stories that might be about the region. "I'm not even sure which language dominates there," she complained. "From what Tancred has found it looks like it has always been an ethnic enclave under foreign rule. But not just one ethnic group: the population seems to have shifted as much as the powers that controlled it. People used it as a place of retreat, I guess. Last resort, maybe."
       "A hide out," Tancred suggested. "Where people went to wait for the tide to change again. But from what I can tell, they just got washed away by the next wave. Really, it seems almost an area without history. No one could get a firm foothold there: not great governments, not individuals."
       "So what is the local tongue ?" I wanted to know.
       "Take your pick," Tancred said. "German, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech -- or maybe Slovak. Hungarian. Even Romanian. All in widespread use at some point over the past 200 years. But which one now ? I can't guess."
       Annabelle admitted defeat. She put the books back on the shelves and retreated to the Congo.
       I leafed through atlases and reference works with Tancred, but we both had lost our focus. Rystwycz was now both nearer and farther. The next step was entirely Soraya's. We, it seemed, could only watch.
       And it was, surely, sensible to wait until Soraya returned. The amount of information accessible to us was miniscule in comparison to what she would be able to provide after her reconnoitering expedition. Annabelle was right not to get ahead of herself in going chasing down blind alleys. I said as much to Tancred.
       "No," he disagreed. This, too, I apparently saw wrong. "She'll be back, you'll see. It's too intriguing, Dad." He added: "And there's something to be found even at a dead end."
       He was beginning to sound like me at my pedagogic best. And he wouldn't turn away from the books, though I couldn't see the use of it. He must have uncovered every reference to Rystwycz and environs in every volume in the house; what else could he do ?
       "Imagine a foundation," he said when I asked him. "A framework. An idea. What Morgenstern might offer. If I can't work myself closer to Rystwycz -- yet -- then I'll work my way away from it. Outwards, in concentric circles of geography and history. Just to get a feel for what Morgenstern might have in mind."
       I envied him. I didn't see what I could do.

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       I felt like an observer all weekend.
       Tancred drew charts and outlines, chronologies and bibliographies. Lots of empty spaces, he acknowledged, but it gave him a better sense of what voids needed to be filled. It was, apparently, a worthwhile exercise, suggesting to Soraya specific things to be on the lookout for. I paid less attention to what they discussed than I should have, noting only Soraya's spitfire efficient fashion in accepting or dismissing what Tancred offered; not only was I a mere observer, I was a bad one.
       Annabelle curled up in corners with her books. Tancred had been right: curiosity got the better of her. She turned to Slavic dictionaries and grammars, memorizing vocabulary lists, mumbling inconsonant vowel-less words to herself all day, repeating the same greeting and simple sentences in half a dozen different languages. She stumbled over Hungarian (with Soraya constantly correcting her pronunciation). Her efforts at Romanian were the only ones I could half keep up with.
       The children seem to share Soraya's gift for languages, able to pick them up almost at will. But there is a lot of will and effort involved, a sort of concentration I am incapable of. All weekend Annabelle's face showed the strain, and even after immersing herself so insistently she only slowly made headway. Try as she might, she still struggled over every second word (and over the structure of every second sentence) in the books she tried to decipher. Soraya urged her to be patient, and perhaps focus more narrowly on a single language or two, or at least only the Slavic ones (as opposed to Romance Romanian and indefinable Hungarian); Annabelle would have none of it. She wanted to be prepared for all the possible eventualities, and she was still naïve enough to believe that if she only tried hard enough she could be.
       The children could look only ahead -- eagerly, dreamily. Meanwhile Soraya seemed completely rooted in the here and now, barely giving a second thought to her trip. I tried to bring the subject up several times, but beyond the essentials -- yes, she'd gotten her visa, confirmed the ticket, decided which suitcase to take -- she wasn't receptive to the topic.
       "For god's sake, Balfour," she said, "I'm going, I'll take a look, and we'll see what there is to discuss when I'm back. When I am back," she emphasized. "Everything else is premature. And while I admire the kids' undue diligence I don't have the time to spare right now to spin out fantasies or wonder which dialect they speak there. Given that I will be out of the office most of the week, something I had not planned when I was making my schedule for the week. Given the obligations I have."
       Ah, yes, the high-pressure world of publishing. Not the world I moved in, fortunately. But I backed off. The kids, more attuned to her mood (or too deeply immersed in their own pursuits), didn't even try to ask about her intentions in Rystwycz. Annabelle questioningly pronounced the odd Hungarian or Polish word in order to have Soraya correct her, but beyond that they made almost no Morgenstern-related demands on their mother.
       "Don't you have anything to do ?" Soraya finally did ask, when she noticed me standing, hands in pockets, perhaps looking even more bewildered than usual. There were always books to read, reports to write, errands to run, but I was torn between them all. I didn't know how to make myself most useful, so I just stood in the way. I shrugged.
       "I don't quite have the time to sort out your priorities, dear," she said, with just the smallest trace of impatience in her voice.
       "Morgenstern ...," I said.
       She was tired of that excuse. "There isn't that much to be done, until I'm back."
       "I realize ....."
       "And yet." She stopped, to think. It made me realize how she had been, during those past days, almost always in motion. Doing what had to be done, in her efficient autopilot mode. She had committed over a million dollars of the company's money over the weekend, bought and sold rights, mapped out a marketing plan for a new author (after deciding the publicity department had gotten it all wrong), rescheduled a dozen appointments, and she had done it all like a practiced hand does a crossword, with an intensity and yet almost, it seems, without thinking.
       "A record," I finally suggested. Reluctantly; I don't know why.
       "What ?" Soraya asked, shaken from her own thoughts.
       "Morgenstern asks for it. He wrote: document your progress, so that there is a written record of the success (or failure) of the exercise. It is something I could do." I had thought of it before. Almost right away. But it seemed presumptuous to claim the duty as my own.
       "A diary ?"
       "A record. Keeping track of it all."
       "That's what Morgenstern had in mind ?" she said. "An account book ?"
       "Quite possibly." I believed it
       "So his life-work is the filler material in a family chronicle featuring us ?"
       "I don't know, Soraya. But it seems important to keep a detailed record. He explicitly asks for it."
       She couldn't argue with that. "I'm sorry, Balfour," she said, trying to explain herself. "I still find it hard to reconcile his life with ... ours. I can't understand why he wants to set us out on this ... on his trail."
       "I think exploring that is what he had in mind."
       "Half the fun ?"
       "And you're volunteering to be our bookkeeper ?"
       "Just as you are our trailblazer."
       "So he's forcing you to become an author at last," Soraya smiled. "Well, better you than me."
       "I think I'll look at it as a purely editorial exercise. The material is given. I just have to organize it."
       "Better you than me," she repeated in a weak echo.

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