Book of Hours, chapter 1 – December: Killing the Pig
The reader pulled a book from the shelf and opened it. As he spread it wide and turned his body slightly towards the light something dripped onto the upper margin of the page. His first reaction was to brush the drop away – he was accustomed to dust and dirt and even small objects landing on him when he was consulting books on the lower floors, but as he wiped the droplet across the page it left a smear behind it like a tiny dark comet, shooting from the page towards the outer reaches of the margin.
It was inexplicable. He stared upwards, trying to focus his gaze through the criss-cross pattern of meshed iron, but the floors above him blurred into the gloom. Looking down he could see only darkness. The library, one of the world’s largest and most historic establishments, was shaped like a deep well, its internal walls and floors hollowed out and replaced by space-saving metal grille floors, so that more books could be crammed in, shelf above shelf, uninterrupted by superfluous masonry. Female readers wore skirts or heels at their peril. Small objects – pens or coins – clumsily dropped on the top floor tinkled and bounced their way loudly down through the grilles, crassly breaking the silence. Liquid, however, dribbled through silently.
Another drop fell onto the open book in the reader’s hand. He inspected it more closely, amazed. He wondered if it was oil, a newly-greased door hinge perhaps leaking through the grilles. He sniffed cautiously, touched the drop gently and held it towards the fluorescent light. Properly illuminated, it glowed red. Blood. He recoiled instinctively. The reader looked up again, more keenly this time. He thought perhaps he could make out a shape through the grille-work, several floors above. Perhaps someone had slipped and hurt himself. The reader was tempted to call up an inane “Are you alright?” but years of working in hushed libraries had conditioned him to silence and he felt reluctant to break it, even as he realised the probable answer.
The shape was motionless in the gloom. The reader was in the History section on the second level. Perhaps the injured person was in Religion on the fifth or sixth level. Suddenly he hurried to the metal stairwell and began to run up the first treads two at a time.
Fra Giacomo inspected the hole with a satisfied air. It was nearly done at last, although it had taken far longer than anticipated, to the great displeasure of the Holy Father. In his experience as the Prefect of the Vatican gardens he had never had to design any underground excavations. His most technically complex project to date had involved planting an avenue of trees or laying the foundations for small temporary garden structures such as archways or floral pavilions. However, on this occasion they had had to dig far deeper and wider than he had ever gone before and the earth at this lower level had proved much drier and more crumbly, less stable than he had anticipated. It had probably lain undisturbed since before the time of the Roman Empire. Fra Giacomo had had to supervise the construction of timber supports to safeguard the hole, and the Holy Father’s nervousness and impatience to have the matter resolved had transferred itself to him.
But the hole was now ready and this time when the Holy Father’s Camerlengo, his chamberlain, sent to query their progress, Fra Giacomo was able to respond with serenity and his customary composure. A summons to the palace swiftly followed.
Three floors higher, slightly breathless after his rapid climb and increasing anxiety at what he might find, the reader approached the prostrate figure of a man clad all in black. A dark hat lay a few feet away. “Excuse me,” he said tentatively, aware of the inadequacy of the phrase under the circumstances. He set down the bespattered book that in his hurry he had carried up with him carefully on the floor nearby. Then he patted the man’s shoulder timidly. Still no response. Taking a deep breath and somewhat gingerly, reluctant at what he might see, he grasped the man’s shoulder and rolled him over. A book, pressed between the man’s chest and the floor, fell with a small metallic thud to one side as he turned the body, the man’s hand still grasping it as he clearly had been at the time of his fall. He was very obviously dead. The grille floor had pressed its edges into his face and imprinted its criss-cross pattern over one cheek. Through the tartan weals the congested flesh looked pasty and bloodless. His rolled-up eyes were open, one of them framed in an embossed flesh square, obscenely left by the metal floor. The reader released the dead man’s shoulder in instant automatic revulsion, and the body rolled gently back into its original position. Suddenly he noticed something he had missed before, camouflaged by the victim’s baggy black clothing, sticking up between the man’s shoulder blades like a peg marking a row of seeds, stood a dull black knife handle.
The Papal chamberlain silently indicated the large wooden crate. The two men were deep within the private quarters of the Pope, where not even his general staff would normally venture. The Camerlengo was in charge of the Papal household, but as the Holy Father’s personal right-hand man it often fell to him to deal with other matters requiring discretion and close access to the papal ear. Fra Giacomo rarely entered the Vatican palace proper. Once every few months he delivered his reports and received his seasonal instructions from the Cardinal Prefect in charge of the gardens, but he himself was based in a far less grand part of the palace. He was responsible for day-to-day garden maintenance on his own. He organised the weeding, planting and maintenance schedules without interference from above. This hole had been a completely different matter from the start, and the departure from routine made the elderly priest uneasy.
He tried to wipe the soil off his boots as he entered the palace behind the Camerlengo, but he still felt unusually clumsy and muddy as he followed the important official through the corridors, into an area of the cellars he had never before seen. Staying only a few paces behind in the dark passages, Fra Giacomo thought that the first few corridors probably led in the direction of the rumoured secret escape routes via Castel Sant’Angelo, where it was said that Popes in danger could take refuge from marauding armies. But he soon lost all sense of direction as they twisted and turned in the subterranean maze, their footsteps echoing loudly in the darkness. The Camerlengo held up a lighted taper and the flame threw strange menacing shadows that danced on the walls and revealed half-seen alcoves and further mysterious corridor openings. The air was cold and dry, and Fra Giacomo felt his breath chilling as it left his mouth, his body temperature dropping as they descended into the depths.
After passing two or three more strengthened gates reinforced with iron oxidised over decades, the doorways became less fortress-like and more discreet, the corridors narrower and dustier, until they arrived at a final fortified door with three massive old locks. The Camerlengo handed the burning torch to the old gardener, while he deliberately searched for his keys and, one by one, inserted them into their respective holes. The gardener held the torch steadily and as close as he could, but hesitated to offer his assistance as the second lock proved stiff and hard to turn; the Camerlengo strained his narrow shoulders and suddenly the lock clicked and yielded. The Camerlengo pushed open the heavy door which creaked as though it was unused to moving. He seized back the torch and held it high, revealing a chamber, empty but for a large wooden crate, as tall and broad as the height of a man, but only just over an armsbreadth wide.
Fra Giacomo followed him into the room, and had enough time to catch a fleeting glimpse within before the Camerlengo swiftly pushed a wooden slat of the crate into place. The gleam of gold that had caught his eye was extinguished. “We’ll have to nail all this shut properly,” said the official abruptly, eyeing his companion suspiciously. “How many men will you need?” Fra Giacomo put his shoulder to the crate to test its weight. When he tensed, it moved slightly. “At least four. Six would be safer.” The Camerlengo weighed up the disadvantages of spreading the secret between more men, against risking damage to the precious crate. “Do you have six you trust absolutely?” Fra Giacomo considered. He was a deliberate man, not given to rush decisions; plants and trees were not usually in a hurry. “I will bring four. It is bulkier than it is heavy. An awkward shape, but we will manage with four.”
The Camerlengo nodded. “Make sure they know nothing, and that they will never speak of even that nothing.” Fra Giacomo nodded. If he brought a small wagon, they should be able to lever the crate onto it, and then carefully wheel it down the corridors and out towards the garden. It would not be easy, and they would have to manhandle it up a few short flights of stairs.
“I will ensure the corridors are empty. Remember: silence, discretion. Under pain of excommunication,” the Camerlengo reminded him threateningly, placing a finger over his thin lips.
The death in the library attracted little attention from the newspapers. After a flurry of tabloid headlines – ‘London Library Killer at Large’, ‘Whodunnit in the Library with the Dagger?’ – the papers dropped the subject. The victim, an orthodox Jew called Dovid Katz, was not blonde or pretty, it was highly unlikely that he had ever slept with anyone famous, and so the papers lost interest. While the tabloids moved swiftly onwards to gorge themselves on the latest TV celebrity scandal, London’s literary and political weeklies devoted a few inches of space to Dovid Katz’s death. His wife, clutching the two youngest infants (out of a brood of six children, clearly regularly produced at very close and religiously approved intervals), was cautiously interviewed by two policewomen and a community liaison officer. She vehemently and convincingly denied any knowledge of any enemies he may have had, or what he might have been doing in the library. All she appeared to know was that he had leased a small jewellery shop in Hatton Garden with a business partner and travelled frequently abroad, often to Israel or Amsterdam. It was clear she was completely devastated and confused by the death of her husband.
Professor Daniel Lowenstein was reading his usual paper in a new Polish café. The old Hungarian one that served Viennese coffee just the way he liked it had closed down when the proprietor’s shaking old hands could no longer balance the full cups and the books. The Professor had remained faithful to the old cafe, patiently tipping the coffee from the brimming saucer back into his cup without complaint and gently reminding the proprietor about the forgotten croissant, long after most of the clientele had decamped to the smooth services of the nearby multinational barista. Now he savoured his efficiently-served coffee and home-made cheese cake, the perfect preparation for the day’s work. He planned one of his monthly visits to the library to return loans and take out the next pile of books essential to his current research.
He was distracted by a young mother trying to get her buggy past his table and got courteously to his feet to move a chair out of her way to let her pass. Returning to his paper and his cheese cake he skimmed past the small announcement of the death of Dovid Katz, and continued to read through the rest of the paper. He leafed dutifully through the business pages, and savoured the obituaries where for the last decade or so friends and colleagues increasingly put in interesting appearances. He was sure his own obituary was already prepared. What would it say? For such a long life, he thought wryly, with its fair share of relationships, he had depressingly few close relations to mourn him. A wife and child who had predeceased him long ago, and – somewhere – another estranged child, about whom his colleagues knew nothing. A faithful housekeeper? Did that count? In fact, he hoped that, like his colleagues, his obituarist would know very little about the personal aspects of his life, but would focus on his publications, academic positions and honours. Meanwhile, as half his brain continued to visualise his impending obituary, something was niggling away at his subconscious, and suddenly he flipped back the pages, hunting for the small item about the murder in the library. He read it again, frowning heavily, and then carefully and deliberately tore out the little square from the paper, discarding the rest, alongside the empty cup with its low tide of foam where he had hurriedly drained his cappuccino.
They lowered the crate carefully into the hole in the ground, the four brawny helpers letting out the ropes slowly to ease it gently into place. Fra Giacomo fretted and gave anxious instructions first from one side, then from the other. His round face was puckered with anxiety. The contents of the crate were clearly of great importance to the Camerlengo, and judging by some comments he had made, to the Holy Father himself, and the weight of responsibility was almost more than the little priest could bear. The workers had not been disturbed; the gardens had been closed to everyone else, including the other gardeners, since the excavations started, but even the unusual quietness and emptiness of the gardens had begun to unnerve Fra Giacomo. But with the crate once eased delicately into place, it was quick work to shovel the spoil back into the hole, though it took them well over an hour to barrow away the surplus displaced earth and spread it unobtrusively elsewhere in the gardens. Fra Giacomo had prepared the almond sapling which was to be planted on top of the excavation; it was one of the reasons the hole had had to be even deeper, to leave enough space for the tree roots to spread. When they had finished they stood back, well satisfied. The sapling was a three-year old whip, straight and healthy, supplied by one of Fra Giacomo’s horticultural correspondents who ran a monastery garden near Civita Vecchia, Rome’s coastal port.
“Remember, if anyone should ever ask, we were excavating an ancient Roman statue. You must never mention the wooden crate. Under pain of excommunication.” The men nodded solemnly. Fra Giacomo was not worried. They had been chosen not only for the strength of their digging arms, but also for the taciturnity of their characters, and the stolidity of their temperaments. These were incurious, solitary and God-fearing men, and the threat of excommunication would remove any lingering temptation.
But that night Fra Giacomo himself slept badly, haunted by the weight of responsibility and dreams of the golden object he had glimpsed before the wooden crate was nailed shut and buried forever beneath the roots of the little almond tree.
Professor Lowenstein decided to visit the library anyway. He had made a plan for his day, the books he wished to return were already prepared on a small table in the hall and he saw no reason why he should alter his routine as a result of some irritating criminal. At the library, however, he found that things had not returned to normal. He was able to return his books, but the main part of the library was still closed. His favourite librarian, Melanie, a dowdy woman wearing cliché librarian garb of tweed skirt and sensible shoes, hurried over to apologise to him. The forensic investigators, she said, slightly flustered with the excitement of the last few days, had finished their work, but the specialist cleaners were there this morning. The problem was that because of the design of the building all the floors were implicated, and the usual cleaners of course couldn’t be expected to deal with such a gruesome task. They hoped to re-open fully the next day. She apologised profusely for the inconvenience. She seemed inclined to enlarge on the exciting events, and as the Professor had his own reasons for finding out more about the victim, he encouraged her to tell him how he had been discovered and anything more that Melanie might know. Besides, he found he had time on his hands as he had planned to spend an hour or two picking out his new loans.
The information that the librarian supplied almost quelled his interest. The police were on the case, they would swiftly find the murderer. There was no reason for an old man to stick his oar in. They had interviewed everyone, at great length, they were taking it all very seriously. And yet…
The Professor’s dealings with the police had been minimal – the theft of his bicycle years ago, and the occasional motoring offence when he let himself get carried away by the powerful acceleration and speed of the elegant cars for which he used to have a weakness. Nothing had ever led him to suspect the police of any great intelligence, but then perhaps their finest brains had been busy on greater crimes, such as this murder. Should he contact them and tell them of his background knowledge of their library victim? Or was it perhaps incidental, merely a hobby indulged in by the victim, and irrelevant to the crime itself? He worried away at this thought until the following day. He drank his coffee once more at his new café and perused his newspaper from start to finish, but found no further reference to the murder. Feeling disgruntled he came to a decision. He would pursue a few of his own investigations and then he could rest easy that all was on track and justice in safe hands.
Simon Asmundsen thought it curious that despite the fact that finding a dead body in the library is no one’s idea of a good time, it had actually been the most exciting thing to happen to him in years. When the police interviews ended, he felt oddly bereft. It may have been that his life now was so quiet – most would say dull. He was an academic, and his research dealt with minutiae, piling tiny details one upon the other until the result added up to something that could be published in a specialist historical journal. He spent a few months of each year in Rome or Munich where he made valid but minuscule contributions to large scale international cataloguing and dictionary projects. The even tenor of this kind of archive work suited his need for calm security, after the stress and excitement of his previous life. He had come to academia after another career, one which he never mentioned and tried never to think about, but the events in the library had re-awakened old and well-buried emotions.
Despite his attempt to return to his calming research, the body in the library kept disturbing his thoughts. He tried to put the experience out of his mind, but the image of the wide, dead, staring eye, framed by the pressed flesh square of the metal grille, kept intruding. In the calm of his office, the sound of a ringing telephone suddenly interrupted his train of thought and made him jump slightly. Asmundsen reached for the receiver automatically.
“Is this Dr Asmundsen?” enquired a lightly accented, cultured but elderly voice. Its failure to cope adequately with the “th” sound that required the tongue to brush out between the teeth signposted its central European origins. “My name is Daniel Lowenstein.”
“I’m sorry, did you say Daniel Lowenstein?” Asmundsen almost stuttered. “Professor Daniel Lowenstein? Who wrote The History of Religion, all those articles…” He could hear himself babbling, but his astonishment at receiving a call from one of his intellectual heroes made him slightly incoherent. “I well, yes, I’ve read your books, I’m a big fan, I …” he trailed off lamely.
“Yes, thank you. I hope you found them interesting.” Asmundsen began to mumble a response, but the Professor was continuing. “I hope you don’t mind but I am ringing about a different matter. You see, I obtained your name and number from Melanie, the librarian. She said you might be able to answer a few questions from me about the unfortunate incident you witnessed.”
“Well, the body in the library.”
“Would you mind if I ask you some questions about it?”
“Of course not. What do you want to know?”
“Tell me everything, from the beginning. Was it you who discovered the body? Did you hear anything? What exactly did you see?”
And Simon Asmundsen, wondering slightly at the Professor’s curiosity but happy to help someone whose books had in great measure awakened his intellectual interest in history, repeated everything he had told the police. No, he had heard nothing, seen nothing of any perpetrator. “I ran upstairs, and when I got there, he was just lying there completely still. I tried to talk to him, then I rolled him over, just – you know – took his shoulder…”
“And did you recognise him? Have you seen him before in the library?” The Professor was gently probing, and Simon found his dispassionate questioning somehow reassuring. “No. I suppose I knew as I turned him over that he was an orthodox Jew. I wasn’t really thinking straight, but afterwards I realised that these sort of silken fringes coming out from under his jacket were part of his prayer shawl. And there was a dark hat that had been knocked over by the stairs. But it was really when I rolled him over… he had those ringlets at his sideburns… they were all messed up.” He shuddered at the memory. “His face… it was a horrible sight.”
“And then?” prompted the Professor.
“Well, nothing really. Maybe I shook him a bit to wake him up, but he was obviously dead. He had this book which had fallen under his body. Then I saw the knife handle in his back, and I dropped him back down and ran to the reception and we called the police.”
“Hmm.” There was a short silence as the two men visualised the scene, Simon recalling his shock and revulsion faced with the dark-clad, motionless man, the book which had been pressed to his chest crushed between body and grille as he fell, the dead hand still clutching its spine.
Asmundsen cleared his throat. He was recovering gradually from his astonishment, and the Professor’s sympathetic manner was encouraging. “The thing is, I’m a bit worried that the police haven’t a clue about the significance of the book. I don’t suppose they paid it any attention. I expect they just bagged it up for forensic testing, and probably haven’t even looked at it properly. To be honest, it’s been worrying me, but I haven’t known what more I could do about it.”
“Ah yes, I expect you are quite right. The British constabulary, they are – how shall we put it delicately – perhaps not as interested in books and manuscripts as we are. And why should they be I suppose. As academics, we naturally see paper as the very meat of our profession, not just a piece of evidence with some blood on it. So you recognised the book?”
Asmundsen needed little encouragement. “It’s an obscure catalogue published in Hungary, listing the illustrated manuscripts that were thought once to have been held in the library of King Matthias Corvinus in Budapest.”
“The Raven King?”
“Yes. King of Hungary and founder of one of the greatest libraries in the world. I expect it will take the police hours – if not days – even to recognise that the book is written in Hungarian, even assuming they think it worth bothering to work out.”
The Professor chuckled. “I wonder if the Met’s finest have ever heard about that mythical library? Or care.”
“Well, that’s the thing Professor. I suppose it might be irrelevant, but it really worried me. The police wouldn’t tell me anything, except they kept asking whether I had seen his wallet and briefcase, so I guess they’re both missing.”
“The murderer must have taken them.”
“I did try to say something about Corvinus’s library to the investigating officer, but he just cut me off, saying ‘thank you so much Dr… er… If we require any more information we have your details.’ Anyhow, the next day I looked up the book.”
“It’s out of print and unavailable through second-hand booksellers; this library held the only copy available for loan; the only other library in the country with a copy is the British Library. There are only a few books that deal with Matthias’s library, and they are mostly in Hungarian. One is in English, one in German; one is illustrated, the others are not; all are academic.”
“Very interesting Dr Asmundsen, very interesting,” said Lowenstein thoughtfully. “Though mysterious. I wonder why Mr Katz would have been reading about a Hungarian library?”
“Well, I also did a bit more ferreting around.” Asmundsen was pleased to share his knowledge with someone. Now, with the famous Professor warmly encouraging his small initial discoveries, he felt that the information, however slight and seemingly irrelevant, would not be scorned. “I looked up the other books on the library of Corvinus. The shelving stack where the murder had taken place was closed for a while for forensic investigation, but I asked the librarian to check for me as soon as it re-opened. She rang a few minutes before you called. She said all the few books that they have about the Hungarian library have gone missing. And they are really missing, not just lent out to other readers.”
There was a silence while the Professor absorbed this information. “I would guess that the attacker must have taken them, perhaps along with the man’s wallet and any other files or papers he may have had, but he missed the one book because it was hidden beneath the body.”
“So what is so special about the library of Corvinus? The victim went straight to that area. The librarian said he had only just taken out membership of the library. It seems he had needed some help with the catalogue and the shelving stacks from one of her colleagues. She said he seemed to be in a hurry. And then I found him a few hours later, so presumably he was searching for his books for a while before he was attacked.”
“It’s a rabbit warren there,” agreed the Professor, and it took Asmundsen a moment to realise he was not discussing a foreign rabbit. “It’s very hard to work out where everything is, especially if you’ve only just joined. On the other hand, it’s probably perfect for the discreet escape, maybe via a fire escape or across the roof. The readers open the windows, they need some fresh air. And I don’t suppose the library has CCTV. I have always rather enjoyed that kind of ostentatious old-fashionedness.
“Dr Asmundsen,” he continued somewhat hesitantly. “We could assume that you and I have complete faith in the abilities of our worthy detectives to solve this crime. But even so, I confess that I am intrigued. How about if you and I were to go for a cup of coffee and put our heads together to try and see if we can make any sense of this story, or shed any glimmer of light on it.” He interpreted the younger man’s hesitant swallow as reluctance.
“The truth is, Dr Asmundsen, I also have something to share with you. I would like to explain to you how I became familiar with poor Dovid Katz.”
“You, Professor Lowenstein?” Simon sounded surprised. “You knew the victim?”
”Yes, well,” the Professor coughed sheepishly. “He was not exactly, er, a friend. But I explain all this when we meet, if you are willing.”
Simon stuttered his agreement, and the Professor continued happily. “Good, bring any information you have. Let’s – what’s the expression our department administrators keep using? – brainstorm, and see if we come up with anything that makes sense, then if necessary we can go to the police.”
At about the same time that Professor Lowenstein and Dr Asmundsen were agreeing to meet, the telephone rang in Jo Berne’s apartment in New York. She listened carefully, said very little, and at the end of the conversation began to pack. Only a slight tightening of her lips showed that the news was not entirely welcome. She would have liked a few days at home for once, but it rarely worked out that way.
Since buying the apartment three years earlier she had barely spent more than two nights in a row there. Only the books seemed to betray a personal touch. There were two walls of shelves and the books on them looked well-read, or at least well-travelled. They were arranged by author or, in the case of the factual books, by subject, regardless of size or binding. It was the library of an enquiring but well-ordered, even methodical, mind, and brought a hint of colour and wear-and-tear into the rather impersonal, almost sterile apartment.
Apart from the books it looked and felt like an expensive hotel – boutique, not chain, but nevertheless designed and lacking warmth at some very basic level. It was her own choice. She was very well paid but rarely took her holiday allocation, and since she travelled so much for work, her colleagues barely knew her. Even when she was there, she remained aloof and never joined the others for an after-work drink or a lunch break. After a few firm rebuffs, no-one enquired about her personal life or tried to deepen a working relationship into friendship.
Since joining the Suter Institute on the personal recommendation of the founder, she had rapidly gained a reputation for swift and insightful analysis, accompanied by a series of clear and logical suggestions as to viable solutions. Her remedies were not always implemented, and were sometimes rejected for being too ruthless. But they were usually proved correct. A five-yearly review of the individual analysts’ performances showed her results to be amongst the strongest. When implemented, her policies had been effective, when ignored they were soon regretted. She was most successful on strategic and governmental analysis. If she had any weaknesses these lay more in cases where strong emotions held sway, for instance where political leaders had irreconcilable personal difficulties, or where an economic scandal had erupted following a crime passionel. The Institute had learnt the hard way that this analyst had little sympathy for emotional fragility, whether in her research or in her relations with her colleagues, and she would be best deployed elsewhere.
But the murder in the library of a man with close links to a potentially dangerous extremist group that had been on the Institute’s radar for some time seemed to require her particular skills. Initial contact had already been made with the local police force, her flight was booked, an encrypted dossier of the case was waiting in her inbox. She picked up her bag, cast a swift appraising look round the apartment and pulled the door to behind her.
A few hours later Simon Asmundsen stood before the door of the Professor’s office readying himself for the meeting. He ran his hands through his hair, noticing suddenly how long it had grown, now past his collar. He was not much interested in his looks, and there was no-one in his private life to comment. He shrugged and knocked. He was excited at the thought of working with Professor Lowenstein, partly because his curiosity was piqued by the mystery, partly by the thought of co-operating with such a well-known intellectual, but also because the conversation on the telephone had been so pleasant. Simon Asmundsen was not a man who exchanged easy small talk any more, and yet there had been no awkwardness between himself and the Professor when they had spoken.
The Professor briskly pulled open the door and held out a hand in greeting. “Dr Asmundsen? Thank you so much for coming. Come in, come in.”
Asmundsen noticed immediately that the Professor was much shorter than he was. But the handshake was firm and there was a certain robust compactness about the older man that belied a lifetime spent in libraries. He guessed that the Professor had been a good sportsman in his youth, and continued to look after his health. His skin had none of the papery paleness that usually afflicted elderly academics who had spent too much time bent over their parchments, and he had a full head of silvery hair that flowed back from a broad forehead and piercing dark eyes that twinkled as he greeted his visitor.
The office was large, indicative of his prestige or at least of longevity within the department. It was filled with wall-to-wall shelves crammed with books in many languages. There was a large old-fashioned desk of dark wood and the rest of the space was filled with a couple of flabby armchairs covered in aged dark red material with worn patches on the arms, and three upright dining chairs, presumably for students, although two were piled high with more books.
A kettle stood on the windowsill alongside a few mugs celebrating past academic anniversaries, a box of teabags, a coffee percolator and a packet of digestive biscuits of indeterminate vintage. There were none of the signs of glory that Simon had half-expected, no self-referential portraits of the Professor with the presidents, prime ministers or royalty that he may have met and advised, no obviously paraded Legions d’Honneur or honorary awards, although Asmundsen was sure he must have received many such accolades. The Professor bustled around with the kettle and produced a couple of mugs of tea and they settled into the armchairs, Simon awkwardly leaning forward to perch his drink on his knee.
“So, I promised to tell you how I knew the murdered man, Mr Katz,” the Professor began slowly. Simon nodded. “Katz has – had – a small jewellery business with a partner selling silver knick-knacks, watches, cutlery, that kind of thing. He’s an active member of a strange website. I’ve been keeping an eye on his group for a few years now, initially because I thought it was rather amusing, but as religious fanaticism of all kinds began to grow I started to take it all a bit more seriously.”
He fished out his teabag, squeezed it gently on the side of the mug, and threw it in the waste paper basket. Asmundsen followed suit.
“They have news mailings, a discussion forum, blog, twitterfeeds and so on. Anyhow a few months ago, the whole tenor of the site seemed to change. Instead of preparing with fervour but no real urgency for an event in the far-distant future, their postings suddenly took on a note of seriousness. It was as though it had moved from the “wouldn’t it be nice never-never” to – “probably next week.” I was obviously only accessing the public postings, but I really got the feeling that they were planning very seriously behind the scenes. Katz was one of the main people posting messages about how everything was shifting up a gear, and how – very soon – people would begin to take them seriously.” The Professor paused to sip thoughtfully. “And sadly, it seems someone did.”
After a few seconds of silence Simon broke in.“Sorry, I… What was this group? What were they hoping to achieve?”
“They are still hoping. They want to rebuild the Temple,” said the Professor flatly.
“THE Temple. The original Temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon’s temple, then rebuilt by King Herod, where Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables. The original temple was destroyed by the Romans, and the site now sits directly below the Golden mosque of Al-Aqsa and that whole Moslem complex at the centre of Jerusalem. They want to rebuild the whole Temple, just as it was in the time of Solomon.”
“Where the Wailing Wall stands now?”
“Yes. The Wailing Wall – as you probably know – is the original western wall of the Temple, where Jews come from all over the world to pray, the holiest place in the whole world for all Jews. But to rebuild the entire temple now you would of course have to remove the mosque on top. Which is one of Islam’s holiest sites, I think the sixth holiest after Mecca, Medina and so forth. Which would naturally be unthinkable to a rational person. But these are not rational people!” As the Professor became more excited, his central European accent became more marked. “Merely for an Israeli politician to go for a walk around the grounds of that mosque was enough to provoke a major uprising, the second Intifada, amongst the local Moslems; it’s a constant source of tension ready for the smallest spark to it alight, so you can imagine the unspeakable outrage if the whole building were to be removed in some way and a group of Jewish fundamentalists started to rebuild the Temple in its place.”
“It’s clearly unthinkable. Appalling. All Islam would rise up. World War,” agreed Simon, shaking his head in disbelief; a few drops of tea spilled onto his knee. “But surely this is just a small group of lunatics posting their mad aspirations on a website somewhere. The internet is full of madmen and dreams. Surely you are not taking it seriously?”
“I quite agree it is not a sane proposition. And no, I didn’t take it seriously for a couple of years, although it annoyed me and even worried me a bit.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Call it a quirk of mine.”
“Sorry, a quark…?” For a moment, the accent flummoxed his listener.
“Yes, a quirk. Since my seventieth birthday – now some time ago I must admit – I have taken to the internet like the proverbial duck in the water. One day I was looking up something, I forget what, and I came across this website. The internet is very good for distracting one from the main subject.” He frowned at his mug as though blaming it for the many distractions that so easily led him through interesting internet byways away from his original purpose. “At the time I thought Katz and his friends were just rather scary religious nuts, very much on the fringe and not too much to worry about. Mad but harmless. But it seemed no-one else was taking an interest and in a sort of intellectual game of ‘Better the devil you know’ I made it my business to keep an eye on those little devils.
“Well, Katz’s blog shows that all the golden utensils and furnishings of the new Temple are ready – everything they require to turn it back into a functioning building for prayer, sacrifice and so forth – all the little golden urns and jugs for pouring holy oil and collecting sacrificial blood et cetera. All is ready apparently, all except the one last piece, and now they seem to have located that one too, the most important one, so they believe it’s time to start the actual work on the building.
“What exactly is this one last most important one?” asked Simon, trying to retain his grip on the facts in the rushing stream of the Professor’s enthusiasm.
“The menorah, the huge golden candelabrum that used to stand in Solomon’s temple, that is the most sacred and significant piece used in the ancient rituals.”
“You believe they’ve found it?”
“It seems impossible. They were so clearly mad, but then I became very uneasy about their ambitions, especially recently when they were somehow even more excited.”
Professor Lowenstein shrugged diffidently. “And now the man is dead, undeniably murdered. Does that mean that there is something in his mad aspirations? Did someone get fed up of his rantings? Or is his death completely unrelated?”
“It seems to me that one of the strangest elements in all this is the link to the library.” Simon got up from his chair and took a few paces around the crowded office. He stopped and looked over at the older man. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an orthodox Jew in a secular library.”
“No,” agreed the Professor. “I don’t think I have either. And my knowledge of Katz from his website postings gave me no sign that he was interested in medieval history, or in fact in any history apart from that of the one obsession, the history of the Temple. So is there any link between the Temple and the Hungarian library?” The two men stared at one another, bemused.
“Have you told the police about the Temple website?”
“No, I haven’t been in contact with them at all.”
“Well, you must tell them,” Asmundsen insisted.
“I don’t think I can, not yet. Just imagine the scenario: “Hello Detective Smith. I am an old Professor. You know the man who was murdered in the library? Well, he has been planning the re-establishment of the Temple in preparation for the return of the Messiah. No, officer, not the Christian Messiah, the Jewish Messiah, the one that hasn’t come yet. Which Temple? You know, the one in Jerusalem that the Roman Emperor Titus destroyed in AD 70, when the Romans suppressed the Jewish revolt. What evidence do I have? Well, Josephus described it in detail in his History of the Jews… Haven’t you read it? No, it’s not a recent publication… Oh, sorry, you mean what evidence do I have that Katz was planning to rebuild the Temple? Well I believe he was trying to recreate or relocate the missing Menorah… What’s a menorah? Oh, yes, sorry officer, it’s the big eight-armed candlestick that Jews use at Hanukkah. So as I was saying, your murder victim is part of a bigger conspiracy. How do you spell Hanukkah? H-A-N-U… It’s like Jewish Christmas, officer….”
Asmundsen grinned despite himself. Though it sounded ridiculous he could quite see it happening exactly in that way. The stolid officer who had interviewed him would have fitted perfectly into the Professor’s imagined scenario.
“I tried to point out something about the library books to them, but they just didn’t want to know,” he offered, nodding agreement with the Professor’s conclusion about the probably police reaction.
“But are you really saying they have prepared all that stuff – the urns and things?”
“They claim so.” The old man shook his head despairingly. “No, I don’t think I am ready to talk to the police about this yet.”
“But do you really think that this group are preparing seriously for the re-establishment of the Second Temple?”
“But that’s impossible.”
“Well, you tell them that. Over the last decade or so they have researched and then prepared all the subsidiary implements for the Temple ritual. The scholars have been working out all the correct dimensions and shapes, using Biblical and archaeological material, and they have commissioned goldsmiths and craftsmen to recreate these implements. They were beginning to toy with the idea of recreating a menorah, the great golden Temple candelabra, accurately designed and cast, when suddenly a rumour reached them that the original menorah itself might have been rediscovered.” Asmundsen realized his jaw was starting to hang open and he shut it hastily.
“Or at least,” the Professor amended, “There have always, through the ages, been rumours about the survival of the menorah. It’s one of those mythical great lost treasures, along with the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, whose search has provided centuries of storytellers with inspiring material, and kept generations of conspiracy theorists happy.
“It holds roughly the same religious significance for Jews that the Holy Grail does for Christians. The Jews adopted it as the symbol of Israel. It’s on all the country’s stamps and coins. According to Exodus, Moses was commanded to create a golden seven-branched lampstand, a menorah, and the Temple in Jerusalem was built to hold these objects. After the destruction of the original Temple of Solomon, the second one was built on the same site five hundred years before Christ. The Festival of Hanukkah came later; in 164BC when, under Judah Maccabeus, the lights miraculously burned for eight days with barely any oil. That’s what is celebrated each year around Christmas-time at the Festival of the Lights, when the Jews light one more candle every night for eight days, but the menorah itself is of far greater religious and symbolic significance than just Hanukkah.”
Asmundsen was thinking fast, dredging his memory for any information. “But how could it have survived? It would be amazing…. Wasn’t it taken in Triumph to Rome? Isn’t there an image of the menorah carved on Titus’s Arch near the Forum?”
“Yes, in 70BC when the Romans destroyed the second Temple, before Herod rebuilt it once more,” said the Professor slowly. “It was always thought that Titus rescued it from the flames of the old Temple when his men accidentally destroyed the building, and took the candelabra back as a trophy for his Triumph. Ever since then there have been rumours of its survival, in Rome or Constantinople, and recently these have got louder. In the 1990s a priest supposedly saw it at the Vatican, though that was almost certainly an unsubstantiated rumour. But as a result the President of Israel formally requested that the Pope return it, which of course provoked strong denials from the Vatican that they had ever had it in their possession.”
“But if the Vatican had it, why would they not have given it back years ago?”
“The Vatican only established full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel in 1993, and they have always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the Jewish state. And how would the Vatican explain how it got hold of it in the first place? Admitting you have it leads to all sorts of awkward questions, and then giving it back leads to many more. You can imagine, the return of the menorah to its place of origin – it would be absolutely incendiary, it would be unthinkable. Think of the Elgin Marbles coming back to the Parthenon, then add messianic fervor from Jews and Christians, sprinkle on top of Islamic outrage and … how do you say? Kaboom!!” He threw his hands out to emphasize the size of the potential explosion. “No, better by far at this stage for it to remain hidden away in some Vatican cellar.” He took a digestive biscuit from the packet and held it out to his guest. “If that’s where it is.”
“But is it?” asked Asmundsen, extricating a biscuit and absent-mindedly dunking it in his tea.
“There has never been any convincing proof of that,” admitted the Professor. “Just rumours. Some think it remained in Rome after being shown at Titus’s Triumph. But there is some evidence that it was shipped off by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, ending up in Constantinople, where it remained for many years.”
“How big is the menorah?”
“The ancient books say it is eighteen hand-breadths high, and was beaten out from one ingot of gold.”
The two men looked at each other. “I’ve no idea how much gold is in an ingot, or how thinly you could beat it out, but a handbreadth …” Simon had put down his empty mug and now measured out with his hands, rising to his feet to reach up. “Why, that could be nine foot, maybe three metres high!” he exclaimed.
“Well, on the carving on the Arch of Titus it looks about the size of a man, and there are about eight men carrying it. It’s certainly not something you can pop in your pocket.”
“But even if they think they know exactly where it is, access to it can’t be that easy. You can’t just walk into a cellar in the Vatican and waltz out with some 3-metre tall candlestick.”
“Unless you are a priest perhaps. Or have some good links within the Vatican. A religious Jew wouldn’t have a chance.” They fell silent. Asmundsen frowned and ran his hands distractedly through his hair.
“It doesn’t make sense. We have a man whom you say was obsessed with re-establishing the Temple, putting together all the golden bits and pieces in preparation for its re-creation. Finally he is on the cusp of finding the menorah, the most important of all the Temple instruments, when suddenly he is struck dead clutching an obscure catalogue of Hungarian manuscripts, and his assailant vanishes – presumably with an armful of reference books on the same subject.”
The Professor nodded. “Quite so.” He paused. “Dr Asmundsen, I’m hungry. Are you?”
“Call me Simon, please. And yes, I’m starving.”
“Well then, Simon, let’s continue this discussion over dinner. I can’t think on an empty stomach.”
There was something inexorable about the Professor’s enthusiasm; it never seemed to occur to him that Asmundsen would not be interested in solving the riddle, and indeed Asmundsen found himself carried along quite willingly. His interest was piqued and he felt his imagination begin to whirr. What if they really found the menorah! What a thing that would be.
But now the Professor was putting on his coat and scarf and suggesting a famous and expensive local restaurant. Simon’s heart lifted; it was a long time since he had bothered to eat out at a decent place. With a spring in his step he held open the door for his new acquaintance.
To read on, go buy the book… coming October 2015.