But the upside was they didn’t need him for long. Only a few days. A week, at the most. And then they could cut him loose. And if anything happened to him in the process, he had no ties in the States other than his classes and his students. In virtually every respect, Gregory Angell had the profile of an ideal field agent. The languages, the experience, the
university cover, an anonymous appearance that enabled him to blend in anywhere, the lack of family obligations, even his recently acquired expertise with a firearm. He was driven, and did not give up easily once he had the bit between his teeth.
Problem was, he was just a little bit crazy.
Angell sighed, and made as if to get up and leave the agent there for the pigeons to anoint.
“Is there somewhere we can talk?”
For the first time Angell turned to look directly at his petitioner. Aubrey was shocked to see the expression in the professor’s eyes. Deep sadness, mixed with a hint of desperation, and what seemed to be a chronic lack of sleep.
The professor was exhausted. For a moment, Aubrey was reluctant to proceed any further with the recruitment. Angell looked like a basket case. But the stakes were too high to get sentimental about his target’s emotional state. Still, he could not shake a sudden bad feeling, an experienced agent’s intuition that this would not end well for Angell.
“What do we have to talk about? I told you, I’m not going back.” “I understand, Professor Angell.”
“I won’t try to appeal to your vanity, Professor. I know that won’t work, and I wouldn’t want to offend you that way. I also won’t appeal to your patriotism. You have already demonstrated that. But we are in a difficult situation, and only someone with your background … your unique background … can help us, help your country, and even help other people. Innocent people. Not only in America. I can’t tell you more until I know you’re with us, but I can say that this isn’t a localized issue. It has implications far beyond our borders, and I can’t emphasize enough how your specific profile is absolutely necessary at this time.”
Angell almost smiled. “You want me to save the world, is that it?” When Aubrey didn’t say anything, only stared back into Angell’s haunted eyes, the academic turned his head in disgust.
“Give me a break, whatever your name is. I’m not a child, and this isn’t an Indiana Jones movie. You don’t need me. I’m just convenient and probably too needy, according to the psychological evaluation in my file,
to turn you down. Well, you’re wrong. You’re all wrong. Go back to your masters and tell them you failed.”
Aubrey had no choice but to play his trump card. As Angell had turned to go, he spoke to his retreating form, his words like gunfire shooting him in the back.
“Does the name Francis Wayland Thurston mean anything to you?” Angell stopped dead, and slowly turned around to face his inquisitor.
The look of shocked incredulity on the professor’s face was impossible to
misinterpret. “My … What? What do my relatives, my … ancestors have to do with … with anything? Have you people lost your minds?”
He strode back up to Aubrey and stared at him, his fists clenched at his sides as if trying to keep himself from punching the older man in the face.
“Is this some kind of … of blackmail? Have you all really stooped that low?”
“It’s not blackmail, Professor. I know this is a sensitive issue with your family, and we would not bring this up if it were not relevant to the matter at hand. Urgently relevant, I might add.”
“You know about Thurston, so you know about George Angell, his grand-uncle. George Gammell Angell, of whom I’m a direct descendant. You know this. So you know about the rumors, and the stories. You know how that libel has plagued my family for almost a hundred years now. And you’re using it against me, just like every tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist and Sci-Fi conventioneer has been doing for at least as long as I’ve been alive. This is contemptible. It’s below even the government’s bar and that one has been set pretty damned low of late.”
Aubrey finally stood up from the bench to face his accuser.
“Then it’s time to put those rumors to rest, isn’t it? Once and for all? And if we can’t … if the rumors have any basis in reality … isn’t it just as important for you to find that out? Once and for all?”
Angell was still gaping at the man in disbelief. A cold shudder had gone through him at the mention of Thurston, the family’s black sheep. The one who told those tall tales about George Angell, the distinguished professor at Brown University, and the crank archaeological theories he came up with towards the end of his life. The ones that were eventually described in all their lurid detail by a deeply disturbed young Rhode Island writer of
hack fiction. The ones that destroyed the Angell family reputation for decades.
But how this had anything to do with national security, or whatever it was this strange government agent had come to him about, was some bureaucrat’s wet dream. It had to be.
“You can’t …you can’t be serious.”
“It won’t take long, I promise,” Aubrey insisted. “Hear me out. And if you still want out, you’re out. We won’t bother you again.”
He held his hands out to his sides, either in supplication or to show that he wasn’t armed. Or both. Angell held his gaze for another moment, and then nodded.
“This had better be good. If you’re lying to me, I just want you to know that I’m carrying a weapon and will not hesitate to blow your fucking head off, government agent or no government agent. Are we clear?”
Aubrey smiled to himself, but said in a straight voice to the crazed professor, “Crystal. There’s a place on Montague Street. It’s quiet this time of day. Let’s go there. It’s only a few blocks away.”
Angell didn’t stop to consider how a G-man from DC would know about local restaurants in Brooklyn and their seating schedules, but allowed himself to be led out of the Promenade and down Montague Street as if he was Dante and James Aubrey was a pinstriped Virgil in black wingtips.
Spiraling down into the deepest circles of Hell.
Watching them leave, a man in a retro denim jacket and a floppy hat got up from lacing up his running shoes at a nearby bench. He was a professional, so he did not need to pat his pocket to be sure that his weapon was in its place. He did not need to touch his ear to ensure that his radio was intact and operative.
Slowly, he stood up and stretched, rolling his head around and seeming to get the kinks out of his neck and shoulders. And then he began walking, following the two men out of the park and into the streets of Brooklyn Heights.
They had come from the stars, and had brought Their images with them.
—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights is named after Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of Britain’s ambassador to Turkey in the mid-eighteenth century, who resided briefly in the area. She is noted primarily for her reporting on Islamic customs in “the Orient,” one of the first western women in history to do so. Her relatives, the Pierreponts, gave their name to another Brooklyn Heights street.
Gregory Angell was not thinking of these connections at the time, though if he had he might have taken some solace in them. After all, there was a peculiar connection between this oldest of Brooklyn neighborhoods and the Middle East. In addition to the Lady Montagu link, there is also the fact of Atlantic Avenue which, in that area of Brooklyn, boasts many Arab shops and restaurants. It’s an area that Angell knew well, for his own apartment in Red Hook was close enough that he could walk it easily from Montague Street, across Atlantic Avenue and through Cobble Hill.
Capriciously, a restaurateur once decided to open an establishment named Capulet’s on Montague Street. The popular bistro is long gone, as is the Piccadeli and so many others that Angell knew from his student days. Instead, Aubrey led him to a Hungarian restaurant on the second floor of one of the older buildings on Montague, close to Court Street. It was, as the agent had claimed, deserted at that hour. The stock brokers had not yet returned home across the bridge from lower Manhattan, and their wives were busy at home with children, nannies, and the Food Channel.
Aubrey seemed to know the owners, and spoke to them briefly in Hungarian. They smiled, bowed, and disappeared into the kitchen as he and Angell took a seat at a table far enough from the window that they would not be observed.
“I know the owners,” he told Angell, redundantly. “They worked for us for awhile. Before the Fall.”
Angell merely nodded, and stared at his table cloth, playing with a fork while he waited for the agent to get on with it. The Cold War was before his time.
Aubrey sensed the man’s impatience, and sighed. He leaned back in his seat and fixed Angell with a steady gaze.
“Okay. Thurston. Back in the day, he was close to George Angell, the professor, who left him some papers. At least, according to the information we have. Stop me if I am in error anywhere.”
Angell looked up and shrugged.
“You probably know as much about this as I do, but go ahead.”
They were silent for a moment as the owner’s wife came out and placed some fresh bread and a dish of cucumber salad, seasoned with dill, on the table between them.
“You know that the Baghdad Museum was looted during the invasion.” Angell nodded. “I also know that most of the treasures were returned.” “That’s true. Many of the so-called looters were actually museum
personnel, saving the artifacts from danger. Some of them risked their lives
to save these items. It was nothing short of heroic.”
“What does this have to do with Thurston, or with George Angell for that matter? Or with me?”
The proprietor came over silently with a tray from which two glasses of Egri Bikaver—the deep red Hungarian wine whose name translates as “Bull’s Blood”—were set down in front of the men.
Aubrey thanked him, and the man left without smiling.
“George Angell had in his possession one of the stolen artifacts from the Baghdad Museum.”
“Now I know you’re crazy. George Angell died in the 1920s. The Baghdad Museum was looted during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2003.”
Aubrey’s expression was difficult to read. He did not reply immediately, but instead lifted his glass of wine and urged the professor to do the same.
“It’s really quite unique, this wine. No one credits the Hungarians as vintners—that honor usually goes to the French or the Italians, or maybe to the Spanish for sherry and Amontillado, the Germans for Riesling or the execrable Liebfraumilch—but this wine is actually quite good, in a heavy- handed sort of way. You should try it.”
Angell humored the older man, and raised his glass in a mock toast.
“I imagine I will need every drop of this if I’m to believe a single word of what you’re going to tell me.”
Aubrey took an appreciate sip of the wine, and then set his glass down with an elegant gesture.
“Your ancestor, George Angell, was a revered scholar, was he not? A man who had gone on archaeological digs throughout the Middle East. He was a contemporary and a colleague of men like Layard and Woolley. He had published widely, and was known for his collection of ancient Babylonian artifacts, many from the area around Nineveh.”
Angell sipped at his wine and held onto the glass, his elbow on the table and his eyes on the tablecloth, avoiding Aubrey’s gaze. They were venturing into delicate territory, and Angell was intent on keeping his composure as the inevitable scandal was eventually—if carefully—brought up.
“At least one of those artifacts, however, did not come from your ancestor’s own excavations. It was given to him by another man, an artist I believe. For identification.”
And there it was. The story that had bedeviled the Angell family for ninety years. The libel that had nearly destroyed old George Gammell Angell’s reputation long after his death, and which had resulted in at least three different university board decisions over the years to remove his name from the list of professors emeritus. Gregory’s own decision to become a Biblical scholar was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to restore his family’s dignity and its good name. Or maybe it was revenge.
“It never happened.” Angell’s voice was so low, Aubrey had to lean over the table to hear it.
“It never happened,” he repeated, building up steam. “There was no artist, no sculpture of some alien being. No correspondence with my ancestor. It was invented, conveniently after George Angell had died and could not defend himself. There is no truth to the story and there never has
been!” The last was said in a near shout. Fortunately, the restaurant was still empty except for the two men. The proprietor stuck his head out of the kitchen, looked around briefly, then returned to his pots.
“My God, you can’t take seriously a … a ghost story written in the 1920s! And what possible relevance does it have to anything having to do with national security?”
Aubrey looked up at his distraught companion who was now standing up over him, his fists resting on the table, his eyes boring into his own.
After a moment Aubrey said, “Please sit down, Professor. All will be revealed.”
Angell took a deep breath, and then his shoulders slumped and he dropped back into his seat. He turned his gaze to the window, and looked down on the street without seeing it.
“I work for a man whose name you don’t know, for a project you’ve never heard of. This man is very high up in the intelligence hierarchy. He’s no fool. He’s worked for our government since the Korean War era. He should have retired decades ago, but he refuses to do so until he has finished this one, final mission. Indeed, I doubt very much whether anyone else in government has the vision or the necessary intellectual chops to even conceive of this project much less carry it out.
“He has determined that you are the missing piece of this gigantic puzzle that he has been putting together since the 1960s. He knows your background. He knows what you’ve done for us so far. The mission in Afghanistan. The second one in Iraq. The briefings of our people in between those missions. He is sensitive to your reluctance to get involved in any intelligence work at this stage. And he also knows that you would resist any attempt to involve your personal family … connections … in this regard. But he knows things … things about you, about Thurston, things about George Angell … that even you don’t know, or don’t know that you know.”