An excerpt from
From the Ashes
Rockville, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
The home of Dr. Richard Leinhart, esteemed professor and world-renowned historian, was surprisingly simple. Just another house in suburbia, a concrete drive cutting a swath through its perfectly manicured lawn – which was still beautiful in March, if less green than it would be in summer months – to the double-car garage housing the professor’s silver Audi. It could have belonged to any one of the two-parent, soccer mom families with 2.3 children, a pension and a mortgage who populated the neighborhood, any of the young business-minded couples who were several years – and promotions – away from starting a family of their own who lived up and down the street. But this house belonged to one of the most highly respected academics living in the D.C. area – single, no kids, dedicated more to the advancement of his field than to keeping up with the Joneses. And, this morning, he was having a great deal of difficulty in gathering the strength to go to work.
All weekend he had been wracked with guilt, with fear, with sorrow. Why had this happened to Michael? Michael Rickner, one of the brightest, most dedicated, most insightful and perceptive individuals he had ever had the pleasure of mentoring. His work, had it been completed, could have rewritten much of the history of the twentieth century. And not just from an academic standpoint. Textbooks from the grade school level on would have had to have been rewritten, the government would have issued their typical denials, then apologies on behalf of their long-gone predecessors, the world would have changed the way they thought about one of the darkest periods in human history, rethought America’s white knight image as it pertained to that era. If Michael’s new theory proved to be true.
But had Michael committed suicide? He couldn’t see that, but then, didn’t everyone say that about suicide victims? They were so happy, never saw it coming, just weren’t the type. “The shadow,” Carl Jung had called it, the dark part of self that we fought to deny existed. The part that, in failing to acknowledge its existence, can be given power by our unconscious. Not that he bought into that psychobabble claptrap, but it did provide a possible answer to the unanswerable. And yet, even then it didn’t quite fit. Michael was cognizant of his dark side, his humanity, and his flaws despite his largely genial nature. He didn’t deny his “shadow”; he just always strove to rise above it.
In his long academic career, Dr. Leinhart had known students who had later committed suicide. Sadly, it was all too common among students at elite universities, especially at the graduate level. The pressure to succeed, the constraints on time, energy, and finances just proved to be too much for some students, and they sometimes took the easiest, hardest way out. And even though the professor had known several suicide victims, and had felt the requisite I-never-saw-it-coming reaction, the truth was, considering his proximity to the students and their workload, there was usually something in their actions, their speech in the weeks, days, leading up to the tragic decision that was simply not there with Michael. This one wasn’t stressed; he was elated. His life, professional and personal, seemed to be taking off in the right direction. He had committed suicide right between proposing to his girlfriend – who, knowing the both of them, Leinhart was certain had said yes – and going off to get the first eyewitness conclusive evidence to support his revolutionary theories? Not likely.
Which left an even more chilling alternative. He had been killed. By professionals, judging by their ability to stage the scene like a suicide. No one had held a personal grudge against him. Who could? He was far too likable. And he was genuine. Always genuine with his sentiments. But had his research managed to piss somebody off? Had he gotten too close to discovering something that someone, someone powerful, wanted to stay hidden? That was what his research alleged, wasn’t it? That was what he thought the Blumhurst guy from the article was supposed to be a part of. That was what he was about to follow up on, right before he was killed. If anything, his death seemed to lend credibility to his theory. And that terrified Dr. Leinhart.
The professor was surprised to find himself sitting in his car, key in the ignition, ready to back out of the driveway. His mind solely focusing on the inner debate that he had been going over and over since he’d heard the news, his body had been on autopilot, going through the morning ritual it had been trained in over the years. He grimaced, aware of how much this situation was bothering him, taxing his faculties. He should really think about taking a day off, maybe a week. A mini-sabbatical to get his head together. Deep breath. But no, not today. He was already ready. Press on, and make it through. He’d take it relatively easy today, but if he couldn’t make it all the way through the day… well, he’d just cross that bridge if he came to it. In the meantime, he’d just have to focus on the immediate task at hand and not let his mind wander into the fearful labyrinth of questions bouncing around in his head. And right now, that task was driving.
Forty minutes later, he pulled into his parking spot in the faculty lot, grabbed his briefcase, and started walking toward his office in Phillips Hall, its stark plate-glass exterior and seven-story height standing in contrast to the brick and stone buildings that composed much of the historic campus, making the building look more like a modern business building than the haven of academia it truly was. Upon exiting the elevator for the third floor and turning toward his office, he was greeted with a conflicting sight. The visitors who awaited him were welcome faces, but ones that had already plunged his mind back into the labyrinth.
Jon Rickner and Mara Ellison.
Leinhart forced a smile at the pair as he approached the door to his office. “Mara, Jon, how are you?”
Jon looked at Mara, then back at the professor. “We’re making it through, all things considered,” Jon answered. “Yourself?”
Leinhart sighed. “The same. You two want to come in?” he asked as he unlocked his office door.
“Very much so,” Jon said. “Thank you.”
Leinhart led the way into the room, closing the door behind them, and motioning for them to take the two seats in front of the antique oak desk while he moved to his own chair behind it. The walls of the mahogany-paneled office were adorned with myriad commendations, awards, and degrees. A framed map of the world drawn by famed Renaissance cartographer Gerardus Mercator hung prominently on the far wall. A large varnished bookcase lined the wall behind the desk, shelves of old leatherbound tomes and contemporary reference books – some of which bore the professor’s name on the spine – standing at the ready for consultation. His briefcase set to the side, Dr. Leinhart folded his hands atop the desk, leaned forward on his elbows, and frowned.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“You know about Michael, Professor?” Mara started.
“I do indeed. I can’t believe it. Such a tragedy.”
“Dr. Leinhart,” Jon said, “I went to Michael’s apartment yesterday and was attacked by an armed intruder. An intruder who then stole Michael’s laptop. I think – we think – that this guy might have killed Michael because of his research.”
Across the desk, a flicker of something flashed in the professor’s eyes.
“He was working on something big,” Jon continued, “something revolutionary, something that somebody might not have wanted to be discovered, right?”
“He was.” Leinhart had a mournful look in his eyes as he stared at his hands, folded in quiet resignation upon the desktop.
“Can you tell us what he was working on? What his theory was?”
“It was…” The professor’s eyes drifted to the closed office door, then back to Jon and Mara. “Are you guys sure you want to hear about this? If it got Michael killed…” His unspoken admonition hung in the air like a storm cloud.
“Yes,” Jon answered.
“Definitely,” Mara chimed in.
“It was about some government cover-up from the ‘thirties. Something involving the secret funneling of American dollars into the coffers of the Nazi party in 1932, and then, when Hitler became Enemy Number One for our allies in Europe, the government tried to cover it up by killing anyone who knew too much, or tried to find things out. God, if that wasn’t enough of a warning to Michael to tread carefully, I don’t know what would have been.”
Across the desk, Jon and Mara’s eyes grew wide, jaws slackened. Of all the international financiers to fund the Nazis, they never would have guessed it could have been Americans. Franco’s Spaniards, maybe. Mussolini’s Italians, perhaps. But not Americans.
“Seriously?” Jon spoke up. “But why? And how on earth could the government justify sending taxpayer dollars abroad – for any reason, much less funding the Nazis – when the economy here at home was still in shambles?”
“I have no idea, but that was the premise for his work. Outlandish, I thought at first, but he seemed to have a nose for hunting down obscure truths and piecing them together into a cohesive whole.”
“That sounds like Michael,” Jon agreed. He and his brother had made something of a pastime of digging for elusive truths in the mists of history and legend. And now it had gotten Michael killed. Jon bit his bottom lip, then forced himself to continue. “What was this interview he was going to do this past weekend?”
“Oh, that,” the professor began. “A witness, he believed. Not to the American funding of the Nazis but rather to the cover-up years later. He thought there was an office somewhere in the government responsible for keeping this potentially explosive secret under wraps. An office that employed assassins. He was researching the relationship between the Mafia and the press in the late 1950s, when he found a mob killing that didn’t fit the bill. The hit was right, but the motives were all wrong. The guy had never written anything about the mob, about money laundering, about any of the vice trades that the Mafia had interests in. But what he had written about just before he was murdered was a very strange series of events, beginning with a guy who was supposed to have died in Korea years earlier. Somehow, this long-dead veteran managed to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge with a noose around his neck.”
Jon’s eyes lit up. He reached into Michael’s backpack and pulled out his notebook. Flipping it open to the final entry, he plopped the article face up on the professor’s desk.
“That’s… that’s it. Where did you?”
“Michael’s apartment. That’s what I was doing there when the… assassin? …whoever he was, attacked me.”
“But he made off with the laptop?”
Jon sighed. “Yeah.”
“Shoot.” Leinhart said. “Most of Michael’s stuff was on there, I think.”
“Had he backed it up anywhere else?” Mara asked.
“Nowhere else that I’m aware of.” Leinhart shrugged. “He said that he didn’t want too many people to find out about it yet. If someone found out that he had that info, and his theories were true…”
“Sounds like they found out anyway.” Mara’s voice, the cold, bitter ire behind it, surprised even her.
Jon looked at her, an expression of sadness and concern on his face, before turning back to the professor. “Who exactly did he plan on meeting in New York, Professor?”
“One Catherine Smith, estranged daughter of Roger Blumhurst. Still alive after all these years, apparently.”
“Estranged? So how much would she have known?” Mara asked,
“I don’t know. Sometimes people, when they’re on their proverbial deathbed, try to make amends before the end. Maybe he tried to reconnect with her shortly before he killed himself. That’s what Michael was hoping. That’s what he was going to go find out.”
“Then that’s what we’re going to find out,” Jon chimed in. Dr. Leinhart looked at Jon in disbelief, then at Mara. They were both meeting his gaze with confidence and firm resolve.
“What? Why? You saw what happened to Michael. …I’m sorry, that… that was crude.”
Jon slapped his palm on the professor’s desk. “How many more people have to die, how many brothers and fiancées left to mourn because of this secret? If Michael was wrong, then we’ve got nothing to fear. If he was right… we’ve got to stop the cycle somehow.”
“Geez, Jon. But how? I mean, Michael was working on this for weeks. And he still hadn’t found conclusive evidence to bring the conspiracy into the light. He still hadn’t made any huge breakthroughs, nothing beyond conjecture and speculation. Educated conjecture and speculation, given, but nothing to make people take it seriously.”
“I don’t know, Professor, but I do know that it’s something I—,” Jon glanced at Mara, who gave him a nod, “—that we have to do. For Michael, for his memory and legacy, for all the other people who’ve died over the years and for those who can still be saved.”
Dr. Leinhart smiled softly despite the tightness he felt in his chest. “My God. You really are Michael’s brother, aren’t you?”
“He would be proud of you, Jon. I’m sure he would. He talked about you all the time, you know.”
Jon took a deep breath, and the professor picked up on his sign of discomfort.
“Sorry, I… I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I hope I didn’t—”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Jon answered, giving Mara a thankful glance in response to the hand she had placed gently on his arm. “It’s hard, but I’m fine, really.”
“So when are you two planning on embarking on your little expedition?” the professor asked.
“This afternoon,” Mara answered before Jon could.
“No time like the present,” Mara chimed more cheerily than might have been appropriate.
“I’m on break from Oxford,” Jon explained, “and Mara’s got bereavement time from her job. Dad’s somewhere in the Amazon, miles away from the nearest electrical grid or cell phone tower, so the funeral’s on hold until they can track him down, and it’d be great if we could clear this whole thing up for Michael by then. If this wasn’t suicide, which I think all three of us can agree that it couldn’t have been, then we want to set the story right by the time his eulogy is delivered.”
Dr. Leinhart nodded. “Good point…”
“Plus, Jon has a ton of frequent flyer miles,” Mara added. “Forty-five minutes and we’re in NYC.”
The professor raised his eyebrows. “Wow. You guys are serious.” The pair nodded at him, a cool confidence carved into their faces. “All right, I’ll tell you what; let’s swap cell numbers. That way we can stay in touch while you’re in Manhattan. You find anything, let me know, and I’ll try to work on it from this end. And I’ll let you know about anything I can dig up.”
“Professor—” Mara started to plead.
“No, no. I want to. It’s the least I can do.”
“Okay.” She smiled gratefully. “Thanks.”
Jon handed Professor Leinhart a prepaid cell phone, one of three they’d paid for in cash earlier that morning. “Untraceable. Just in case. Our numbers are already in there.”
The professor nodded slowly, his eyes growing worried as he seemed to be realizing the gravity of what was happening.
Jon started to stand up. “Well, I think we’ve probably taken up enough of your time this morning. Mara and I have some packing to do.”
The professor blinked, then stood in turn. “Any time, Jon. Mara,” he said as he shook each of their hands. “Just please, watch your backs out there.”