Prologue
 

"I had to kill them," the murderer said. "Don’t you see? I didn’t have any choice. And now, I’m afraid, you have left me without a choice."


The knife was pointing right at my heart, as threatening as any gun would have been. The killer was maybe six feet away from me, but it would take only a second to cover that distance.


One second to close the gap between us, two seconds to raise the knife and plunge it into my chest, perhaps another half a minute for the blade to do its damage.


Which left me, I figured, with about 33 seconds left to live.


And that’s when I saw her, standing in the hallway, her head cocked prettily to one side and a question shining in her eyes. What the hell, I wondered, was she doing there?


And, much more to the point, what the hell would she do next?


 
Chapter 1


While a pair of coeds I didn’t recognize were passing out the test papers, I printed my name and "History 527: Absolutism and Democracy" and "Final Exam" on the cover of my University of Michigan blue book and flipped it open. The eager beavers in the front rows were already scribbling, but I was hidden away at the back of the lecture hall, by the doors, and it'd be a couple minutes yet before the girls worked their way up to my neck of the woods. So I just sat there, watching Prof Harriman give us the eye and trying to convince myself not to worry.


Most of the professors under whom I’ve had the always dubious pleasure of taking classes have brought in elite squads of jackbooted grad-student storm troopers to proctor their exams for them, so they can hang out in their offices and sip sherry while we proles sweat through the mental obstacle courses they dream up for us, but not old D.S. Harriman. No, he was there himself, in living blubber, all 300 pounds of him. I think he really liked to watch us suffer.


He had on his usual size-87 dingy-gray suit – he only took about an 84, but he apparently subscribed to the "buy baggy" theory, so people would think he was busy losing weight – and, because it was final-exam day and a special occasion, his other tie, the one without the gravy stain. His bald head gleamed moistly under the fluorescent lighting of the hall, and his jowls quivered with delight as the first howls of anguish began to rise from the peanut gallery.


Rumor has it that the "D.S." in D.S. Harriman stands for something Biblical, something along the lines of David Samuel, but we history majors know better.


De Sade, that’s the nasty old bastard’s name. Has to be.


A pile of test booklets reached me from the right, and I took one and passed the rest on.
Here goes nothing, I thought, and, if I hadn't lapsed into fairly cynical agnosticism God knows how many moons ago, I’d’ve crossed myself and sent up a couple of Hail Marys, just to play it safe. As it was, I sighed out about six quarts of breath I hadn’t noticed myself holding and turned hopefully to the first question:


Discuss democratic theory – as evidenced in the writings of Jean Boudin, the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos and Doleman's Conference – to demonstrate that democracy is a justification for revolution.


"Mr. Farmer!" Harriman’s bloated baritone boomed at me from his lair at the front of the room. "You are not, I trust, discussing this examination with your neighbor?"


"No, sir!" I winced at the accusation. "Just talking to myself, sir. Sorry."


This was practically the truth. I had not been chatting with the dweeb beside me when Prof Harriman’s eagle eye had spotted my lips aflutter – perish the thought! But I hadn't really been talking to myself, either.


If the truth be told, I'd been petitioning my Maker, and what I'd been saying was, "Our Father Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. . . ."

* * *

"Time, ladies and gentlemen."


I dropped my pen and looked up in shock. Was it two hours already? Must be: my hand felt like I'd had a hungry lab rat gnawing on it for about 15 minutes longer than forever.


And there in the distance stood Harriman, fat and rumpled and grinning from ear to ear.
You’d swear the university paid him a bonus for every one of us he flunked.


He wasn’t flunking this boy, though, not this semester. The exam had been a mother, true, but I’d been ready for it. B- at the absolute worst, and, if the moon was in my seventh house and the Good Lord had been paying attention to my prayers, I might’ve even pulled myself an ace.


The damn thing was over with, at any rate, my final final of the term, so I was now officially on summer vacation, with nothing whatsoever scheduled until classes started up again in September – three lazy, hazy, crazy months in the future.


As they so aptly put it during the darkest days of the Reign of Terror: Lassez les bon temps roulez!


I tucked the test booklet inside my blue book, doubled-checked that my name was on the cover, and passed the package along towards the aisle.


Stood up and flexed my fingers, hoping to work some circulation back into my traumatized hand.


Wished a happy summer to a couple people I knew and started moving in the direction of the doors.


When a deep voice bellowed: "Mr. Farmer!"


Curse!


I turned back and looked down at him, and he was standing there on the stage, 30 rows before and below me, crooking his Jimmy Dean sausage of a finger with a fat smile on his face and an evil glint in his beady little eyes.


Now what?


He couldn’t think I’d really been asking someone for help, back at the beginning of the exam period, could he? No way: he didn’t know me well, but he knew me better than that. Well, then, what did the lousy glitter-dome want?


One way to find out, eh?


I fought against the current of escapees, feeling like one of those sockeye salmon heading towards the happy spawning grounds – only they gotta struggle upstream, don’t they, and I (hopefully not metaphorically, hopefully not for the third time) was going down.


By the time I reached him, I’d scared myself half to death. He thought he’d seen me cheating, the blankety-blanked jerk, and he was going to rip up my paper and make me take an alternate exam – or worse.


"Professor Harriman," I said in a rush, as soon as I got within range, "I – "


But he wasn’t sticking around for explanations. He turned away from me without a word and lumbered up the steps and out the back door of the lecture hall. I caught it as it was swinging shut behind him, and caught him as he was stuffing himself into the elevator.
We rode up to the fifth floor in silence; by then, I’d figured maybe I’d better keep my big mouth shut until I found out for sure what the old sleazeball was up to.


He waddled down the long corridor to his office, and from the looks of him you’d swear he’d completely forgotten about me. But he did hold the door open with a corny show of Old World politeness, and as he shooed me on in ahead of him I wondered if I would ever again emerge to greet the light of day.


Harriman’s "office" was actually just a miserable six-by-eight cubicle with a single grimy window overlooking the Quad and the other three walls lined floor-to-ceiling with bookshelves – except for the doorway, of course. There was a battered metal desk heaped high with books and papers, and a motheaten armchair with spots on it, and what had to be the original Underwood typewriter collecting dust on a wobbly stand placed at right angles to the desk. A faintly moldy smell hung in the air, and I wasn’t sure if it came from the books or the furniture – or, at these close quarters, from good old D.S. Harriman himself.


He waved me to the armchair cordially enough, and planted himself in the wide swivel number behind his desk, selected a pipe from a rack of them and stuck it between his teeth without lighting it.


"Coffee?" he suggested.


I scanned the office curiously. There was no percolater, there were no cups. As far as I knew, the only machine in the building was back down on the ground floor, near the elevator we’d come up in.


"Ah, no, thanks," I said.


"Mmmm. So, you’re all through for the summer, then, is that correct, Mr. Farmer?"
I could hear him straining to sound like a human being, and I’ll tell you what: if that was his best shot, I was not impressed.


"Yes, sir," I said, holding up my end of the conversation.


"Do you have plans for your holiday?"


"Plans? Well, no, sir, not exactly. I’ll go home, I guess, see the folks. Pick up a job, maybe, if I can find something where I don’t have to say, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ 40 times an hour."


He leaned forward and dumped his elbows on his desk and his chins on his palms. "And your young lady? Patricia, I believe her name is?"


Now, how the hell did he know about Pat? She was an undergrad – in English, no less – and she wouldn’t set foot in the history department if Hurricane Andrew came to town and Angell Hall had the only storm cellar on campus. Who was this guy, a latter-day J. Edgar Hoover?


"We, ah, we came to a parting of the ways about three weeks ago, sir. I guess your sources are a little late with the information."


Harriman lifted one eyebrow – a neat trick, I grant him that – and rumbled, real man-to-man-like, "Problems?"


I sighed. "No, well, not exactly problems, Professor. We tried living together for a while, only she didn’t want to give up smoking and I didn’t want to give up breathing, that’s all, so we – "


" – came to a parting of the ways. I see."


"More or less, sir."


He sat there sucking on his unlit pipe, and one of those sickly silences fell upon us, like in "Casey at the Bat."


"Uh, Professor Harriman?" I said at last.


He straightened up, then, and put away the pipe. "I’m a nonsmoker myself, these days." He smiled ruefully, if the grotesque shape his lips twisted themselves into could be called a rueful smile. "Doctor’s orders, I’m afraid. But I don’t suppose you are particularly interested in the state of my heart and lungs. Let me tell you why I asked you up here this afternoon."


I waited for it.


"I am working on a book, Mr. Farmer – my eighth book, in point of fact. I have been fortunate enough to be able to conduct the lion’s share of my research right here at our Graduate Library." (The U of M’s Ann Arbor campus has three main libraries – the Graduate, the specialized Business Administration Library, and the Undergraduate – generally referred to as the GLib, the BAd, and the UGLi. Bah-dump-bump.) "There is, however, some intensive work to be done on site. The project will take approximately two weeks, and I had originally planned to handle it myself, this summer. But another of my perhaps too-cautious doctor’s orders prohibits me from undertaking the significant amount of travelling which would be required. I am therefore interested in contracting you, Mr. Farmer, to complete my researches for me. I will pay all of your expenses, of course, plus a stipend of, shall we say, $500 per week? I would require you to leave immediately, if these terms are acceptable to you – or as quickly as is feasible, if there are arrangements you must make before departing. You will be back in a fortnight, having earned the sum of $1000, which I shall pay to you in cash, half in advance, and you will still have the bulk of the summer at your disposal."


I’d like to be able to report that I took this all in my stride, but the truth is that I may have goggled just a bit. (Okay, a lot, maybe.) It took me a minute or two to mull the thing over, and, when I had it fairly well mulled, the only reply I could think of was, "Why me, Professor? I mean, it’s not like I’m the only one of your students with a head for research."


He smiled again – or at least that’s what I think it was supposed to be. "Certainly not, my boy. Anatomically speaking, that is. But your head, I’ve noticed, has for my purposes the distinct advantage of housing a brain of sorts."


A compliment from D.S. Harriman! Would wonders ever cease?


"Does my proposal appeal to you, Mr. Farmer?"


"Uh, yeah, well, sure." I didn’t much like agreeing with this overbearing doodah about anything, but, hey, he was talking a thousand American crabcakes, here. "Only, well, where is it you want me to go?"


"To a place called the Begijnhof, in Amsterdam."


I swallowed. "Amsterdam? You mean like upstate New York, right? Near Schenectady?"


"Don't be absurd," he said impatiently. "You know perfectly well that my field is European history. I mean like the Netherlands, Mr. Farmer. Near Belgium."


Somehow he didn’t seem quite as repulsive as usual when he said it.

 

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