Inquest - Index   |  chapter 8   |  chapter 10

Chapter 9

Soraya's tour of the town - and then her return.
Life, for now, returns to normalcy.


       "I had forgotten to ask von Urnvalg when and where I might meet him the next morning," Soraya continued, "but, as I should have expected, when I went to the gate to see how I might get to him the chauffeur and the car were standing there, ready for me.
       "We drove back to the castle, but I barely had the opportunity to step inside when von Urnvalg hustled me out again, back into the car and off to town. He looked through the letters of introduction that the lawyers had provided me with, laughing.
       "'I suppose it is a necessary formality,' he said, 'but just between us: you know me and that is the only person you need to know.
       "The deference with which he was treated suggested he was right. Anywhere we stopped, everyone paid heed to him, standing, at the very least, not quite at attention but ready to drop everything and respond instantly to von Urnvalg's orders, should there be any. A cascade of heads bobbled lightly up and down the streets as we passed, and anywhere we lingered the bows grew deeper, the curtseys more elaborate.
       "Von Urnvalg waved it off -- though I'm sure any less respectful reception would have met with his stern disapproval. But to me he said with a shake of his head and a sigh: 'Subservience gets to be so tiresome -- but it must be so. They are lesser. They are my subordinates. And I am their superior. It must be acknowledged.'
       "We met the mayor, a pudgy little toady who bent neatly in half with each of his many bows to von Urnvalg. We lunched with the captains of local industry in the private dining room of the one town bank, a magnificent room larger and more elaborate than the bank's public space. We visited the local ... I suppose I must call it museum, and met its director, a sinister, squirrelly fellow whose eyes constantly darted back and forth."
       "What kind of collection do they have ?" Tancred asked. "Some sad assemblage of rough local folk art ?"
       "Hardly," Soraya said. "No, it is ... it is one of the most remarkable collections I have ever seen -- what I saw of it. But a dubious one. I have to look into it a bit more, but my gut feeling is that ... it is a collection of art-plunder. They didn't want to show me much, just a few front rooms with some huge canvases. Lush nudes, that sort of thing. Italian school. Looked first rate to me, most of them, though it's not at all my thing. But I'd stake my limited connoisseur-reputation that there was at least one Titian and a Tiepolo among them.
       "They rushed me through -- not sure how far to trust me, I suppose. Most of the rooms went unseen. I don't know if they were filled with art, but from the way everyone acted it seems likely. And it wasn't a museum in your usual sense. Tourists were clearly not wanted. I don't think any could have found it, anyway -- it wasn't in any of the guide books, that's for sure -- , but even if they did it looked like they would be turned away at the heavily guarded entrance. But there was a school class being led through when we left ...."
       "So what do you think it is ?" I asked.
       "Honestly ?" Soraya thought for a moment. "I don't want to project too much into it, but the feeling I got was that this is a stockpile of war booty. Liberated from the Nazis, and maybe from others. No one was to eager to talk about the provenance of the stuff, but they all seemed very proud of what they had. And from what I saw rushing through they certainly should be. First rate, really. The real thing.
       "Something I have to look into," Soraya said, a bit absently.
       "So those were the social calls," she continued. "As to the town itself. Fourteen or fifteen thousand souls, von Urnvalg said, though it has the feel of a smaller place. Most of the architecture is baroque, with very few modern structures. Not a building over three stories. It has twin town squares: a beautiful tidy one with a fountain, around which the important offices and fanciest businesses are located, and then one one street over which is dominated by a market during the day.
       "Rystwycz isn't a poor, peasant outpost either. The buildings are well kept up, the people well dressed, the stores -- at least in the main square -- surprisingly fancy. But no brand names anywhere. Not even a bottle of ... what is it called ? Cocoa Cola ? you know, that undrinkable carbonated sugar pop crap.
       "The houses, the fields ... quite idyllic. And no smoke-belching factories anywhere near. Local industry is dominated by two companies. A small motor manufacturer -- high-end industrial motors, built to specs, sold all over the world. And a computer company -- software mainly, though from the brief tour I got it was clear that they are doing some hardware research too. Fairly secretive about most of their projects, though banking and military applications are my guess from the papers and printouts I saw in the offices.
       "Both companies are privately owned, and seem to be doing exceedingly well. Responsible for almost fifteen percent of local jobs -- directly. And thus pump a huge amount of money into the local economy.
       "There is some farming. Some of the staples. Also: poppy -- though not of the opiate variety. Roses. Chestnuts.
       "Oh, and one more thing. Odd, really. There's no church in town. Anywhere else you go -- in all Europe, really, every hamlet with a few hundred people in it has a church, and any town this size would have some impressive cavernous structure dominating the town-centre. Here: nothing."
       "Well, a synagogue then," Tancred said. "Or a mosque, even."
       "No," Soraya laughed. "It was pretty clear there wasn't room for a synagogue thereabouts. Nor a mosque neither. But nothing vaguely Christian -- that was weird. There was no place of worship of any sort there whatsoever. And no old building that might have once been one, converted for some other use. Remarkable, really."
       "It might explain why Professor Morgenstern liked the place," Annabelle said. In Morgenstern's life -- as in ours -- religion played no role.
       "Yes," Soraya agreed. "Though I have to tell you: it's an odd feeling, this lacuna."

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       "There wasn't too much else," Soraya continued. Von Urnvalg had his chauffeur drop me off at ... where I was staying. I went through the house again and still couldn't find a trace of life, or a hint it had ever been ... inhabited.
       "A car was again waiting for me Saturday morning -- my original driver. And the long trek homewards began. Taking -- because of bad train connections -- even longer.
       "Sunday morning -- my god, this morning -- I finally arrived back in London, where Clotwold was there to receive me -- and debrief me. Very odd, that, too. We went to a marvelous restaurant, for a too-elaborate lunch, and he just kept asking me question after question. And he had me describe exactly who I had met and what had been said. It was all very amateur-spy-like. And he took extensive notes all the while.
       "The fact that the house had been so empty disturbed him too. 'No books at all ?' he kept asking, as if I was perhaps unclear of what he meant by 'book'. And: 'No papers ?' In his desperation he started asking me about writing utensils and paper and I'm surprised he didn't ask whether there wasn't clay out of which one might have fashioned tablets with cuneiform inscriptions .....
       "He was ready to ... sign us up for the summer and for more. He had all the paperwork and seemed very eager to get my signature on the various pages, but I wouldn't go for any of that. I reminded him that I had to discuss it with the other parties that would be involved. He didn't like hearing that.
       "Then I still had a bit of time to wander around London, which is always nice. And now I am here."
       There was an anticlimactic silence. But the children weren't fazed for long. "So when are we going ?" Tancred asked.
       "Well," Soraya said, "we'll have to discuss whether we're going. Honestly: it seemed something of a disappointment to me. Not that it wasn't lovely, but it was so ..."
       "So very Oakland ?" Annabelle suggested.
       Soraya smiled tiredly and nodded. "And no books and nothing Morgenstern. Which, I would have thought, was the point. And from what I saw I don't see the point at all."
       "Oh, Mum," Annabelle said, "you just weren't looking in the right way. Trust Morgenstern." She got up and nudged Tancred. "Mum's tired and we have school and we should go to bed," she said. Tancred followed her out sleepily. At the door Annabelle turned back to us: "But you should reserve the plane tickets now. It's much cheaper if you do it this far in advance."
       I cleared up. Soraya was fading fast, now that she had gotten her story out. We got the children tucked away, and then she unpacked, already in a semi-daze.
       "It was a lot," she mumbled. "And a lot less than anything I could have imagined. But you'll have to give me a day or two to get my bearings again and maybe refocus on it from the distance. Clotwold's probing ... this morning was enough to confuse me even more. He sounded so disappointed. When it should have been me that might have been disappointed. I'm glad the kids weren't. Or didn't say they were. They can tell me that tomorrow. And you ?"
       "We have enough time to ponder all of this," I assured her.
       Soraya bounced out of bed again just after we'd settled in. "I nearly forgot," she said enthusiastically. "I found this in London. I was so pleased. For you. Sorry that there's no wrapping, but ....."
       She handed me a small paper bag with a slim hardcover in it. It was the 1988 Jonathan Cape edition of Patrick White's Three Uneasy Pieces. I had been looking for a copy for years.
       "Never published it in the States, have they ?" Soraya said, pleased to note my delight with her gift.
       "No. Some disagreement with his literary agency here, I believe. From what I understand they inamicably went their separate ways before he wrote it, but despite severing ties the agency apparently still would have had a claim on a percentage from the later book and White wouldn't stand for that."
       "Good for White. God damn literary agents. They're rats, aren't they ? Every last one of them."
       "And tomorrow you get to listen and deal with them from morning to night ...," I reminded her.
       "Ah, yes, the benefits of being back home. Maybe we could book a flight to Rystwycz for tomorrow morning ..... I'm sure Clotwold would be glad to arrange it."
       Soraya quickly drifted off, and I lost myself in my new book -- practically the last of White's works that I hadn't yet read. Soraya's adventures lingered in my mind as I read, but I was able to largely push them aside. It would take a day or two for them to properly sink in.

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       Monday morning there was already some discussion of what Soraya had brought back with her -- the sights and sounds, encounters and events which she had recounted for us. We who hadn't been there had, overnight, shaped, re-cast, remembered and made them into something we could work with (or cling to). Mixed all the while with our expectations which, if not exactly dashed, had certainly been changed.
       Annabelle and Tancred tried to outdo one another in their enthusiasm -- perhaps because there seemed so little left of Morgenstern's proposal. Enthusiasm seemed essentially the only thing left of it. But both were still eager, insisting loudly and confidently that there was more to all this. Mainly they debated and discussed with one another, leaving Soraya and me out of it, not quite ready to withstand adult argument against this air-castle they were trying to construct.
       Soraya wouldn't have been much help anyway (or rather: she would have felled the whole structure in one sweeping blow), already lost in her work mode, going through the quickly-accumulated mail and the larger than usual piles of papers. She was out of the door before 8:00 A.M., to take advantage of a few quiet hours at the office before the rest of the publishing world began its day.
       I could afford to lean back and observe, and mull over what Soraya had brought back -- her reports as well as the White-book -- and what the children and she were making of things.
       "So, Dad," Tancred asked as we ambled to school, "do you think we're going to Rystwycz for the summer ?"
       Implicit in the question, and clear to us all, was that it was Soraya's decision. She was best-positioned to judge, of course, having actually been there, but even if I had been the scout we would have deferred to her judgement. "We'll have to think about it," I said, even though we all knew that wasn't exactly how the decision would be reached.
       "I think Mum should remember who is behind this," Annabelle said. "It's Morgenstern. And Morgenstern -- well, he always meant well, no ? And he always pushed you ... everyone in the right direction. He's probably just made these first steps more ... challenging ... well, who knows why. What I mean is that we should trust him. He wanted us to go -- he chose us -- and that seems reason enough to go."
       I agreed, though I didn't do so too emphatically there and then, hedging my bets.
       Annabelle saw through my ambiguous shrug. "I know you agree, Dad. It's alright if you aren't willing to commit to the position yet. We'll win Mum over. She'll come 'round."
       Walking on, alone, after seeing the children to school, I wondered what we would decide upon. Soraya was the only one who would be making a sacrifice if we did summer in Europe. Professionally she was in demand even during those slow months, and even if we were financially compensated (as Morgenstern had said we would be) a prolonged absence would hurt her career. Mine, too, of course, but mine was hardly a career and a few more dents and bruises to it weren't a concern to me.
       Soraya takes her job so damn seriously. But she had always taken Morgenstern very seriously too: he had been her mentor and her god, and even now his wishes surely counted for something too.
       It probably would come down to the question of whether or not Soraya had the same sneaking suspicion we did: that there was more to this than had met her eye.

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