from Private Sellers
Tom Harper was born in 1977 and grew up in West Germany, Belgium, and America before returning to England to study history at Lincoln College, Oxford. His conclusion to the short story “Death by the Invisible Hand” was published in The Economist in 1997, and his novels have been translated into twelve languages. He lives in England with his family.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Oxford, March 1947
Rage. The first word ever written in Western literature, it sets the theme for all that follows."
The undergraduate glanced up from his essay, obviously hoping for a reaction. Opposite, a pair of pale- blue eyes stared steadily over his shoulder and examined the smear of ice that clouded the window. A coal fire hissed and spluttered in the grate, but it stood little chance against the freeze, which had gripped all En gland since January. Least of all in the drafty medieval rooms of an Oxford college, whose stones stored five hundred years of accumulated damp and chill.
The undergraduate cleared his throat and continued. "All the characters in the Iliad are defined by rage. Some think they can manipulate it; others are overwhelmed by it. Mostly, they die because of it, which explains why the story has such resonance almost three thousand years after Homer wrote it. As recent history shows, rage and violence continue to be the dominant passions of the world. The Iliad is not a story about the past; it is the story of the present. We can only hope that we, like Achilles, will eventually allow humanity to master our rage and pride and build a better, more just future."
A pause. Across the book- lined room, Arthur Reed, Professor of Classical Philology, was frowning.
"Did I say something wrong?"
The blue eyes drifted down from the window and settled on the undergraduate. "A poem."
The student blinked. "Sorry?"
"It’s a poem. Not a story."
The undergraduate scowled, but swallowed what ever he wanted to say and stared at his essay. "Shall I go on?"
Reed settled back in his chair and sighed. The war had changed everything. In the thirties the undergraduates had been a callow bunch, eager to please and easily awed. This new generation were different. What could he, who had spent the war behind a desk, teach them about heroes?
A soft tap at the door interrupted the tutorial. A porter appeared and bobbed his head, studiously ignoring the undergraduate. "Beg your pardon, Professor. A Mr. Muir in the lodge to see you."
Wrapped in his wing- back chair, with a blanket over his legs and a thickly wound scarf almost swallowing his head, Reed was all but invisible to the porter in the corridor. But the undergraduate opposite could see him well enough— and saw the strange look that crossed his face, as if he’d bitten into a sour apple.
"Tell him I’ll come down when I’ve finished."
"He was awful insistent, sir."
"So am I, Mr. Gordon." Reed took off his glasses and began polishing them on the tail of his scarf— a sure sign, to those who knew him, that the discussion was over. With another bob of his head the porter disappeared.
Reed stared at the ash- white coals in the grate, so long that the undergraduate wondered if he’d been completely forgotten. Then, with a strained smile and obvious effort, Reed forced his gaze back to his student. "Where were we?"
An hour later, with the undergraduate slightly older but— Reed feared— little wiser, the porter returned. He had hardly opened the door before the visitor pushed past. He was a slim man, wiry and taut, who didn’t so much move as bristle. His ginger hair was cropped close as a scouring brush. Without taking off his coat he strode across the small room and dropped
into the threadbare sofa opposite Reed. The aging cushions sagged underneath him, doubling him up in an awkward, angular sort of crouch. Leaning forward, his legs spread apart, he gave the unsettling impression of a leopard poised to pounce. He rubbed his hands together.
"I’m sorry for keeping you waiting," said Reed mildly.
"You damn well should be. I’m a busy man."
"But you came all the way out to Oxford to see me. You could have phoned."
"I did. Five times— yesterday—and twice the day before that."
"Ah, well, I dare say the porter lost the messages. Anyway, you’re here now. How can I oblige?"
Muir pulled a cigarette from an ivory case and struck a match. He didn’t offer one to Reed. When the tip was glowing, he reached inside his pocket and extracted a stiff brown envelope which he tossed on to the coffee table between them. "What do you make of this?"
Reed took the envelope. Inside was a single photograph printed on heavy paper. He squinted at it, then unfolded himself from his chair and crossed to the desk against the wall. He took a thick magnifying glass from a drawer and held it above the image. "A clay tablet— or part of one. There’s a black band across the bottom of the picture that makes it rather difficult to see. There seems to be some sort of inscription on the tablet, though the picture’s too blurred to make it out clearly. Nothing else, except a wristwatch laid flat beside it." Reed put down the magnifying glass. "Did John Pemberton take this?"
Muir stiffened. "Why do you ask that?"
Reed tapped the photograph. "The watch. Pemberton always used it for scale when he was photographing artifacts. Rest his soul." He peered at the photograph again, then at Muir. "You’ve obviously heard of him? I hadn’t imagined you as an enthusiast for archaeology."
"When he wasn’t digging up lost civilizations, Pemberton worked for us." The cigarette had already all but vanished; Muir took the butt and flicked it into the fireplace. It raised a few forlorn sparks.
"Us?" Reed queried.
"Military Intelligence. We recruited him before the war— asked him to keep an eye on things in case Hitler set his sights on Crete." Another cigarette was already shrinking visibly in Muir’s mouth— at least he was doing something to heat the room, Reed thought. "This is all confidential, of course."
"We used Pemberton to liaise with the locals, establish contacts, that sort of thing. As an archaeologist he could wander pretty much anywhere and no one took any notice. It was a damn shame when he died on the first day of the invasion— set us back six months."
"A terrible pity," agreed Reed, shooting Muir an oblique glance from under his snowy eyebrows. "And now you’re looking through his snapshots?"
"We found the picture in a German archive after the war."
Reed scratched his neck where the scarf itched. "You’re not seriously suggesting . . . ?"
"That Pemberton was a traitor?" Muir gave a short, humorless laugh. "No. When the Germans captured the island they made Pemberton’s villa their headquarters, so they had plenty of opportunity to rifle through his belongings."
"Then why . . ."
"Never mind why." The second cigarette butt followed the first into the fire. Muir flipped open his case and instinctively reached for another, then checked himself and snapped the lid shut. He drummed his fingers on the ivory, a fast beat like a machine- gun. "All I want to know from you is what this picture shows."
Reed picked up the magnifying glass again and reexam-ined the photograph. "Probably late Minoan or early Mycenaean . . ."
"In English?" The cigarette case flew open as Muir’s impatient fingers gave up on self- restraint.
"Very well. The clay tablet in the photograph probably dates from about the fourteenth century BC and comes from Crete or mainland Greece. Not as old as the pyramids, but before the Trojan war." He smiled. "If, of course, you believe in that."
"So it’s Greek and it’s old as sin. What about the writing?"
Reed sighed and put down the picture. "Come with me."
He struggled into his overcoat and jammed a fur- lined hat over his head, then led Muir down the wooden stairs, across the quadrangle and out through the main gate of the college. Shovelled ramparts of dirty snow lined the road, almost waist high, and the few pedestrians who braved the icy pavements were hunched over by the wind that whistled down Turl Street. Roofs groaned under the burden of snow and icicles hung like knives from the gutters, while the college walls— so golden in summer— seemed gray as the sky.
"Were you here?" asked Reed as they shuffled across Broad Street and past the Gothic turrets of Balliol College. With their crusting of snow, they looked like something out of a fairy tale. "As an undergraduate, I mean?"
"Ah," said Reed, with what appeared to be genuine sympathy. "Procul omen abesto."
They walked on in silence, past a snowbound churchyard and across a street to the Ashmolean Museum. Its enormous neoclassical portico seemed out of place amid the medieval austerity of the colleges. A nod from Reed carried them past the guard, through the empty galleries, to a gloomy back room. It seemed to be some sort of cupboard for the clutter of forgotten civilizations. Tall statues stood shrouded in dust sheets, marble toes sticking out under the hems; gold- framed paintings leaned against the walls; and display cases with the glass taken out were pushed into corners like unused school desks. Most of their contents seemed to be missing, marked only by the dark shadows they had left in the bleached backing board, but one case still held a few exhibits. Reed crossed to it and pointed.
Muir leaned closer. The piece Reed had indicated was a clay tablet, blackened by age and split by three large cracks. Its edges were rough, but the face was smooth. Scratched into the surface, almost invisible in the dim room, were hundreds of tiny, spidery characters.
Reed turned on the lights and handed Muir the magnifying glass.
"What is it?" The bite had temporarily gone from his voice.
"It was discovered— the writing, that is— in about 1900. Sir Arthur Evans found it on Crete at Knossos and named it Linear B. As he was also curator of the Ashmolean at the time, a fair number of the pieces ended up here."
Muir put down the magnifying glass and held the photograph next to the tablet. "You mean there’s more than one of these things?"
"A few score. Maybe a hundred and fifty all told— though some of them are only fragments." Reed shrugged. "It’s not really my subject. I don’t know why you fagged out to Oxford through this terrible weather to bother me with it. You could have taken a taxi to the British Museum and found out as much. They’re very helpful there."
Muir ignored him. "Can you read it?"
Reed gave a short, shocked laugh. "Read it? Scholars have been trying to break this for almost fifty years. They’ve all failed. Solving it would be the most extraordinary breakthrough since Champollion cracked the Egyptian hieroglyphs. And he had the Rosetta Stone to work from, of course."
"Have you tried?"
Reed shook his head. "As I said— not really my thing. And I don’t know why . . ."
"I needed an answer quickly and you’re the only man with the clearance for this." Muir had put down the photograph and was striding around the room, chewing on an unlit cigarette.
"Clearance?" echoed Reed, baffled. "If this ever held a secret, it was more than three thousand years ago. I suspect it’s declassified by now."
"That’s where you’re wrong." Muir spun round and advanced toward Reed. "I want you to have a run at this. After the work you did on Ultra it should be money for jam. This stuff’s obsolete."
"It’s not really . . ."
"And I may need you in Greece. If that was where Pemberton took this photograph, who knows what else he found there?"
Now Reed looked genuinely appalled. "To Greece? But there’s a civil war going on there at the moment."
Muir gave a wolfish laugh and stubbed out his cigarette on an empty plinth. "At least it’ll be warmer than this fucking morgue."
It was dark by the time Muir got back to London, to the gray building off Victoria Street. Most of the staff had already gone home, but the night clerk let him into the archives. It took four hours, but at the end of it he had a name and a file. He started reading from the back, flipping quickly through the dry pages. Like most of the files in this section, it began in late 1938, sporadically at first—medical records, training assessments— then more urgently. Between 1940 and 1944 the reports came thick and fast, a Cook’s tour of the war’s many fronts— Paris, Moscow, Athens, Heraklion, Alexandria, Cairo— headed with a mind- numbing variety of ever-changing code words. In 1945 they slowed abruptly, ending in a few paper dribbles as the bureaucracy discharged him. And, on the final page, a single tele gram. After the yellowed sheaves of war records the paper was crisp and stark.
Muir whistled under his breath. "You silly bugger." He spent another five minutes checking back through the records, then picked up the phone.
"I need to get to the Holy Land." A pause. "No I don’t care if it takes a fucking miracle."
Excerpted from The Lost Temple by Tom Harper.
Copyright 2007 by Tom Harper.
Published in September 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.