Vienna, Austria Thursday, April 24th --- 5:00 p.m.
Beneath a dome nature had carved out of limestone, David Yalom circumnavigated the rim of the underground canyon without once glancing into its black crevasse. Nothing about his measured footsteps suggested he was aware of how dangerous the drop was even though only minutes before his guide had thrown a stone into the abyss that they’d never heard hit bottom. Finally, after four hours of rock climbing and trekking through the gloomy network of tubes and channels, wading through subterranean streams, crossing still pools studded with stalagmites and boiling lakes, he saw what he’d come here for. Up ahead on the right, exactly as Hans Wassong had described it, was a crude but massive arch cut into the rock, a cross roughly etched in the stone like some kind of religious graffiti.
“So this place you told me about really does exist.” David laughed, but it was a bitter sound that, instead of suggesting humor, suggested there was none left anywhere in the world.
“I told you that you could trust me.” To converse, these two men --- the Israeli journalist and the Austrian felon --- each spoke English with different but equally heavy accents. “This entire area is part of the larger tell site,” Wassong continued.
“Tell site?” David’s irrepressible curiosity got the better of him. He wasn’t there as a reporter, but a lifetime of digging deep into every aspect of every story was a habit that died hard.
“A tell site,” Wassong said, showing off, “is one that builds up in layers over time. A Jewish ghetto on top of a medieval city on top of an ancient Roman city. You’d have to raze all of Vienna’s streets to chart this underground world of sewers, cellars and catacombs.”
The area up ahead glowed in the beams of light streaming from the halogen lamps affixed to the men’s helmets. Everywhere else fell off into shadow and interminable darkness; each step they took vanished behind them. The last few feet of the dangerous ledge rose steeply until finally they reached the entrance. Wassong walked under the low-hanging arch but David had to stoop to follow him into the crypt.
At the sound of their footsteps a rat, its red eyes flashing, vacated an infant-sized skull and darted off, disappearing into a pile of age-bleached bones.
The noise alerted David and he pulled his gun.
Wassong reached out and lowered the weapon for David. “No, you could set off an avalanche. We could be crushed to death and I prefer to be buried where my relatives can come visit.”
All around them, intact skeletons rested in dozens of alcoves scooped out of the walls. Looking around the secret cemetery, David tried not to superimpose his own family’s features on these bones --- but failed. All dead had become his own dead, victims of his country’s enemies’ relentless efforts to commit genocide and the abysmal failure of those in charge to protect the innocent.
“Listen to these acoustics,” Wassong said, and pointed to the ceiling as if it were possible to see the music filtering down. “Astonishing that the sound reaches down this far, isn’t it?”
As the sour notes split the dank air, instead of violins tuning up, David heard an air raid siren before his brain acknowledged it was only an auditory mirage. He would kill to quell this constant onslaught of memories, except without them what would sustain him long enough for him to carry out his plan? Memory was a mystery. Why did he remember some moments --- was even haunted by them --- yet others, desperate as he was to remember them --- like the smell of his wife’s hair --- still eluded him?
“We’re directly under Vienna’s greatest concert hall now,” Wassong explained as he took off his glasses and wiped them with a navy bandana. David had used the mannerism to characterize the man in the first article he’d written about him. After putting the glasses back on, Wassong pointed to the north wall, which had several fissures in it.
“This area abuts an ancient shaft that leads up to the building’s sub-basement. The music is traveling through grates that were once part of an old heating system.”
“And you’re sure this area isn’t mapped?”
A clash of cellos, horns, flutes and oboes struggled but was unable to settle into harmony. One instrument dominated, then another and then another, all together creating discordant aggregates the same way David’s mind threw up distinct and separate memory snapshots. His wife’s face a mass of bloody, unrecognizable horror. Then Lisle’s face years before, laughing at one of his pathetic attempts to tell a joke on a lazy afternoon at the beach. His son, Isaac, at five, insisting on taking his bicycle to bed with him the first day he got it. Then the raw stump where Isaac’s left foot used to be. And on and on. David counted each memory as if that proved something. But what? That he had once been a sane man living a purposeful life? Or that he had valid and palpable reasons for what he was planning?
Hans was still explaining: “From the middle ages on these caverns were mostly used as burial chambers until they became so unsanitary that in the 1700s Emperor Joseph the Second shut them down. Who would map tombs?”
“That doesn’t look like an artifact from the 1700s.” David pointed to a crushed olive-drab metal pail half buried in a corner of the grotto. He’d learned when he was a rookie reporter that details told the truth even when people lied.
“During World War II the government reopened a few sections as bomb shelters. When the buildings above them were hit, some of the caves collapsed. Hundreds of people were crushed to death, and our underground city was once again abandoned, considered unsafe. Except, for some of us, it’s safer down here than up there, isn’t it?”
David ignored the conspiratorial wink in Wassong’s voice. “But there are people who know about this place?”
“There were, yes, but judging from the signs, no one has been here in decades.You can trust me on this, David. And you can also pay me. I believe that was our agreement. I deliver your site, you deliver my fee.”
Ten years ago, while writing a story about the Eastern European illegal arms market, David had met Hans Wassong, who’d been on Interpol’s watch list for decades, suspected of kidnapping, manslaughter and trafficking of both weapons and explosives. Over the years, the journalist had gained the criminal’s trust and used him as a source. Now their positions were reversed. David wasn’t reporting on a story this time; he was going to be the story and Wassong was the one who could expose him.
Unzipping his dark green knapsack, David pulled out the thick envelope and handed it to Wassong, who opened it, counted through the pile of two-hundred-euro notes, then wordlessly stuffed the envelope inside his jacket pocket and patted it down. “So tell me, when will you have everything arranged?”
“By Monday or Tuesday.”
“You’ll move down here then?” Wassong’s question sounded like urging.
“What have you heard? Is there any new chatter?”
“Tangentially. Ahmed Abdul has been spotted in Serbia.”
Serbia was slightly more than 500 kilometers away. Two thousand kilometers closer to Vienna than Palestine. Was it a coincidence? David had covered every International Security and Technology Association conference since 1995, and it would have been simple for the terrorist to confirm David was reporting on ISTA again this year and follow him to Vienna.
“You know you’re still on their list, don’t you?” Wassong asked when David didn’t respond.
“Of course.” The tone he used to acknowledge he was being hunted was the same as the one he would use to acknowledge his profession as a reporter.
The orchestra finished tuning up and launched into the stormy and heroic opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
“Fate is knocking at the door,” Wassong said.
“One day Beethoven pointed to the opening of the first movement of this symphony and said to his secretary --- ‘thus Fate knocks at the door.’”
“You surprise me, Hans. An arms dealer, cartographer, spelunker and now I find you’re a Beethoven scholar too?”
“It’s difficult to live in Vienna and not soak up the musical lore.”
For a few minutes the cold stones turned into plush red chairs, gilt molding edged the rock walls and the crypt became a concert hall as two men listened to a symphony, lost in its sound. David’s wife had especially loved the Fifth and, shutting his eyes, he allowed himself the indulgence of memory.
“Are you all right?” Wassong asked.
The music rose to a crescendo that filtered down to the bowels of the earth, reaching his core. David didn’t hear Wassong’s question. At least, he was thinking, next week, when they were all ushered out of this world it would be on the wings of music that belonged to the angels.
“How far down are we?” David asked, back to business.
“Twelve or fourteen meters,” Wassong said. “Too deep for ground-penetrating radar to find you and the perfect place to plant your explosives. Right here, right where we are standing. Nothing --- not the building, not the audience --- will survive the attack. You have to admit, it’s an excellent spot, no?”
New York City Thursday, April 24th --- 11:00 a.m.
Meer ran down the steps of the Natural History Museum on Central Park West, scanning the street for a cab even before she reached the sidewalk. When she didn’t spot one, she decided it would be just as fast to walk the six blocks to the Phoenix Foundation. She shouldn’t have agreed to leave work in the middle of the morning but Malachai Samuels wasn’t an easy man to say no to. Part shaman, part therapist, part confessor, even when he’d been unable to find answers he’d always been there to help her through the dark nights and lonely days, to soothe her fears and assuage her sadness.
On the phone, Malachai had assured her the meeting wouldn’t take more than an hour and that really was all she had to spare. Tonight’s fund-raising event was critical for the success of the Memory Dome project: a permanent study and exhibition space devoted to the exploration of memory. As the project’s associate curator she had too much to do to give up even an hour.
Eight minutes later she was listening to the ticking of the nineteenth century ormolu clock on the marble mantel that seemed to slow to creeping as if preparing to stop and then go backward. Impossible, except Meer knew that in Malachai Samuels’s office time didn’t always move in the same direction as it did everywhere else in the world.
“This is for you,” the reincarnationist said, placing a badly weathered and over-stamped envelope on the table between them. She recognized her father’s handwriting.
“So now you’re playing messenger? Did my father tell you why he sent this to me care of you?”
“So you wouldn’t be alone when you opened it.”
“Like a child.” Her smile was resigned.
“No matter what your age he’ll always be your father.” Malachai’s refined British accent made the sentence seem like a pronouncement. He looked refined too: his suits were always pressed, his nails always buffed. A hundred years ago he would have easily passed as a member of the aristocracy.
“Do you know what this is about?”
“He didn’t enlighten me.”
Picking it up, she ripped it open and pulled out the contents.
Unfolding the coarse yellowed paper she looked down on a little girl’s drawing done in gold, orange, red and brown crayons. The lines didn’t stay straight, didn’t meet at the corners, but still managed to represent a box. Not just any box but the illusory treasure chest she’d been morbidly fascinated with as a child. When her parents asked her why she kept drawing it over and over she didn’t know. When they asked where she’d seen it she could only tell them “before.”
Then they asked what else she remembered from “before” and she told them. It was like a very bad dream, except she only had it when she was awake and it was always the same. She was in a forest, during a storm, being chased by a man trying to get the box away from her. In the background, mysterious music played like it did in movies. And sometimes when she came back to “now” as she called it, she was crying.
The colorful details on the page her father had sent were just scribbles but they illustrated what she’d so clearly seen in her memory --- dark polished wood with elaborate silver fittings and a large silver medallion engraved with birds, leaves, horns, flutes, harps and flourishes. Once she’d told her father that the strange music she heard in the bad daydream lived inside the box but she couldn’t ever keep it open long enough to hear the song all the way through.
Rejecting what her father and Malachai believed, that the storm and the music and the chase were her past life memories, Meer had spent years trying to understand what she perceived as an affliction. The search eventually led to her getting a master’s in cognitive therapy along with a subspecialty in memory --- and an acceptable explanation. Meer maintained she suffered false memories: as a young child either her unconscious had distorted actual events, or she’d confused her dreams with reality.
“It’s just one of my old drawings,” she said with relief as she offered it to Malachai.
His dark eyes widened slightly as he inspected it for a few seconds. Then he removed a paper clip in the upper right-hand corner, and examined a second sheet of paper. The clock ticked away the seconds as it had done for over a hundred and fifty years. “I think you missed this,” he finally said as he handed it to her.
It was a tear sheet from an auction catalog. Under a block of text was a photograph of a dark wooden box with elaborate silver fittings and a large silver medallion engraved with birds, leaves, horns, f lutes and harps and a cursive letter elaborately woven into the design --- something a child would only see as flourishes but as an adult, Meer had no problem identifying as the letter B.
“Well, now we know the box did exist,” she responded quickly in a dispassionate voice as she dropped the tear sheet on the table. “That means somehow, somewhere, I must have seen it before I had any cognitive memory of seeing it. Maybe my mother was looking through a book of antiques that included a photo of this box. Or it was in an auction. She used to take me with her to auctions all the time.” Meer shifted back in her chair, moving away from her drawing. Away from Malachai.
There are dividing lines in everyone’s life. Meer knew the deepest depressions are the ones that define us, but the same way that the earth’s topography is easier to see from above, those lines are viewed most clearly from the distance of years. Only looking back can you pinpoint the moment a crack turned into a breach and a breach became a border. Meer was seven when she’d heard the strange music and told her parents about the box and the chase in the forest for the first time. Before, there had been no terror, and after, she was afraid of looking to the right or left for fear of seeing an oncoming disaster. Before, she hadn’t questioned the promises her parents made, and after, she knew none of their whispers that everything would be all right held any weight.
“Don’t you realize this could be proof that you’ve been having past life memories all these years?” Malachai’s ebony eyes gleamed. He reached for the auction catalog tear sheet again, and as he did Meer glimpsed his shirt cuff peeking out of his handmade suit jacket, revealing a white-on-white MS monogram. This was a man educated at Oxford, who quoted Aristotle, Einstein and Carl Jung to her, who enjoyed showing off his collection of playing cards that dated back to the fifteenth century, who had written an important monograph on the psychology of Victorian England’s preoccupation with the occult. When he discussed regression it never suggested psychic parlors with ruby-beaded curtains; he imbued the concept of soul transmigration with a scientist’s gravitas, making it hard to dismiss his words as anything less than the truth. Nonetheless, she didn’t believe what he believed. Or what her father believed. When she was younger she’d wanted to, tried to, even had been willing to be their guinea pig, but they’d never proved their theories to her satisfaction. The leap of faith they’d required of her was too great. Like her mother, Meer was a pragmatist.
“The description says the object is an early eighteenth-century gaming box that belonged to a woman named Antonie Brentano, who was a friend of Beethoven’s,” Malachai read aloud.
A metallic taste filled her mouth and made her teeth hurt. Her shoulders tensed and her jaw muscles tightened. A ripple of shivering shook her. She heard something, far away. Distant but distinct. Deep in her back, where she’d broken her spine when she was nine years old, the fused vertebrae throbbed. Suddenly, she felt sick. And even though she was no longer a child, but a thirty-one-year-old woman, she wanted to get up and run away.
She’d been running away that day too, trying to escape the haunting music that scared her because it always preceded the memory of that terrible chase through the forest. Her problem obsessed her parents. Had changed them into two strangers who argued about what kind of help she needed. The endless visits to various kinds of doctors kept her out of school, made her different and ruined the family’s plans.
That afternoon she and her father had been in Central Park f lying her kite. It had been winging its way higher into the sky than she’d ever imagined it could go when storm clouds suddenly rolled in, and with them came the awful, beautiful music.
Letting go of the kite she took off, running wildly, trying to escape.
Calling out for her, begging her to stop, her father ran after her, even managed to catch up to her and was only a moment away from pulling her to safety when a bike rider came around a bend too fast to stop. The impact sent Meer f lying into the air and she landed on her back on rocks near the road.
“Meer? Are you all right?” Malachai leaned toward her, pulling her out of her thoughts.
“When I was a little girl, I used to sit here and think about all the other kids my father told me came to you for help and how they must have sat on this same chair and heard this same clock ticking and how they must have all gotten better because I never saw any of them in the waiting room. I thought you’d cured them all. I was sure you were going to make me better too.”
Now on Malachai’s face, Meer saw sympathy. She much preferred his default expression: the arched eyebrows and aloof gaze of the objective observer. Compassion wasn’t what she wanted or deserved for succumbing to her old affliction. She knew how to fight the onslaught of an episode and keep it at bay. She knew her triggers and had avoided all of them. Yet, she could hear that old faraway music again…vague and indistinct, coming from beyond this room, this town house, this street, this city, from beyond this time. She felt the freezing anxiety that threatened to take her breath away and the terrible sadness that made her want to weep for something or someone lost to her now. It had been years since she’d been visited by this devil.
Gripping the couch’s arm, she tried to focus on taking deep, even breaths and hold on to the present, but the mystery flooded back with ferociousness she was unprepared for. Not all the years of Malachai’s help or numerous hypnosis sessions or the scientific theories about pseudo-memories that she adopted like a creed were a match for the enigma’s power.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine,” she said, not wanting to admit --- especially to herself --- that the ghost of herself as a child had risen up and that the child’s secrets were sucking the present out of the air, making breathing laborious, and that the haunting fears that used to encircle her, reach out with their sharp claws, pick her up and f ly her away to a distant dimension, were reclaiming her again.
Malachai put a glass in her hand. Until she drank the water, she hadn’t known she was thirsty, and then she couldn’t drink enough. Finally, she placed the empty glass down beside the manila envelope and the drawing.
“What’s real is now,” Malachai said in a familiar cadence. “What’s real is now.”
Nodding, she concentrated on that. It was one of the prompts they’d worked out when she was just a little girl.
What’s real is now. What’s real is now. She used the mantra to regulate her breathing. Shaking her head as if the motion would dislodge her memory, she pounded her fist into the palm of her hand. “I haven’t gone near a piano. I’m not writing music. I haven’t in twelve years. Why isn’t that enough?”
“Meer, you are being too hard on yourself, this isn’t something that’s your fault. We come back in this life to work out what we didn’t complete in our past lives and no matter how much we wish we could avoid our karmic debt we --- ”
Among his other talents, Malachai was an amateur magician who could turn a scarf into a white dove or a problem into a bouquet of possibilities but she wasn’t in the mood to hear him offer up his outrageous explanations.
“No matter what’s happening, I’m not going back on medication again to live in that fog.” Her voice stretched as tight as the muscles in her long neck.
“What is it? What’s happening?”
“The dreads are back,” she whispered, using the childhood name for the pervasive anxiety and terror she used to feel and the dissonant, conf licting chords she used to hear.
Vienna, Austria Thursday, April 24th --- 5:15 p.m.
For almost three hundred years experts had entered this same private viewing room to pore over treasures soon to be auctioned off. But how many of them had felt their hearts pounding as fast as Jeremy Logan’s was? Closing the door behind him, he turned the brass key in the lock and listened to the tumblers click into place. The inlaid parquet floor he crossed had been restored and the antique desk he sat at had been refurbished many times over but time hadn’t erased the pentimento of the important discoveries made here. Would his efforts today be added to that history?
At sixty-five, Jeremy was not only the head of the Judaica department of the auction house but the man they called the Jewish Indiana Jones. Over the last thirty-five years he’d recovered hundreds of the thousands of Torahs and other religious artifacts hidden or stolen during World War II. Some he’d dug up like buried treasure, others he’d smuggled across the borders of Communist countries or secured through brokering deals with dangerous operatives who only cared about the money he offered. Even with all these finds to his credit, the one treasure he’d been searching for the longest still eluded him: the solution to his daughter’s distress.
And now here was a possibility that he’d found a clue to that puzzle.
In addition to the whist markers, cribbage board, checkers and chess pieces and playing cards that he could see inside the box, an X-ray of the rosewood gaming case had shown a one-inch-deep false bottom containing a rectangle of either thin cloth or thick paper that even with their sophisticated equipment the technicians hadn’t been able to identify. Now, secluded behind the locked door, Jeremy Logan was about to find out what it was.
Taking off his oatmeal-colored cardigan sweater, he threw it on the chair and pushed up the sleeves of his navy turtleneck. He plucked his reading glasses out of his tousled salt-and-pepper hair, settled them on the bridge of his nose and examined the box. Now that he knew what he was looking for and was using a magnifying glass, Jeremy could see that behind the letter B, there was a constellation etched faintly into the background. This was the only aspect of the box that Meer had never included in her drawings. Studying it, Jeremy was astonished to realize he was looking at the Phoenix constellation, named after the ancient mystical bird that symbolized reincarnation. Along with Malachai Samuels, he’d always thought reincarnation was at the heart of his daughter’s crisis, maintaining that she was haunted by bleeds from a previous and troubled life.
He passionately believed in reincarnation and that circles of souls reincarnate with each other over time, which both makes it more difficult to come into contact with people we’ve had problems with before and easier when we reconnect with those we’ve loved. Family, friends, lovers and those you work with were all part of your soul group; he wished that he could convince Meer to have faith in those around her, to lean on him and Malachai and let them help her find her karmic way. But she was as stubborn a nonbeliever as he was a believer.
He picked up the box, which, like a recalcitrant child, had held on to its secret for all these weeks, and laid it on its back on a felt pad. Inlaid circles of various sizes, carved from different kinds of rare fruitwoods, were set in a random pattern.
The expert he’d met with yesterday in Prague had shown him a similar chest made by the same designer in 1802. It had looked equally enigmatic --- a puzzle without a solution --- until he’d pointed out the Taurus constellation etched into that box top’s medallion and demonstrated how, when the circles on the bottom were manipulated to match the star pattern, the hidden drawer opened. As if by magic.
Judiciously, Jeremy worked the circles on the Brentano box, as it was referred to in the auction catalog. The first glided easily into place. By nature impatient, Jeremy struggled to go slowly, moving on to the next circle and then the next. He’d been studying the Kabbalah for the last twenty-four years and one of the most important lessons he’d learned was that his impatience resulted from his not being able to tolerate what the present moment had to offer. In the Kabbalah, every letter of the Hebrew alphabet has several layers of meaning. In life, he had learned, every moment did, too. And in every past life.
Taking a deep breath, Jeremy moved the last piece into place and heard a tiny mechanical click as the box’s false bottom slid open. What had been impenetrable before was offered up without quarrel now and as he looked down on a folded sheet of paper that had likely been hidden there for almost two hundred years he was both exalted and, suddenly, frightened.
Excerpted from THE MEMORIST © Copyright 2011 by M. J. Rose. Reprinted with permission by Mira. All rights reserved.