The Einstein Prophecy

by Robert Masello




AUGUST 4, 1944

A boy, blond-haired, about twelve years old, clambered to the top of a pile of ruins, feeling his way over broken bricks and burnt timbers and shattered glass. His brown shirt was in rags, and his laceless shoes threatened to fall off at any second. But he moved with the agility of a mountain goat, nimbly making his way to the top of the rubble, where he stretched out one thin arm to claim his prize and wave it overhead in triumph.

Other boys, younger and less courageous—or foolhardy—watched from the cratered pavement of the street as the boy draped the strip of gleaming tinfoil around his neck and started down again.

“They’ll salvage anything,” Private Teddy Toussaint observed from the driver’s seat of the jeep. “When I was a kid, we collected bottle caps.”

“Baseball cards for me, but that was another time.” That time, Lieutenant Lucas Athan thought, seemed a thousand years ago and a million miles away.

“Yep, you can sure say that again,” Toussaint drawled, “and back then nobody was taking potshots at me.” From his front pocket, he removed a packet of Red Man chewing tobacco and gnawed off a hunk. “Lieutenant?” he said, extending the wet stub.

“No thanks.” Lucas watched the boy hop back onto the street and hold out the tinfoil for his friends’ inspection. The kid reminded him of his boyhood friend Paulie, showing off an arrowhead he’d unearthed on a school field trip. Above, dozens of other ribbons hung from the tops of bombed-out houses and barren trees. The foil had been dropped like confetti by German planes to confound Allied radio transmissions. The Nazis were nothing if not ingenious, and even here, on ground that they had for the moment deserted, they’d left behind an occasional booby trap, or a lone gunman perched in an abandoned clock tower.

Toussaint contended that a good chaw of tobacco sharpened his senses, and he’d proved it the day before by taking out a sniper lurking in the choir stall of a church they were inspecting. One shot and the Kraut had tumbled over the railing. “Won the Baton Rouge turkey shoot three years running,” he’d crowed.

As part of a clandestine advance guard, their route was perilously unprotected. Lucas was glad to have Toussaint watching his back. Soldiering was in the private’s blood, but it wasn’t in Lucas’s. He’d been diverted from the infantry into the CRC, the Cultural Recovery Commission, a minuscule cadre of experts in art and architecture, recruited and dispatched to find, preserve, and protect the treasures that the Nazis had looted so far in their conquest of Europe.

In private life, the CRC’s conscripts had been museum curators, art dealers, or professors, like Lucas, but before them lay an immense undertaking. The German army had already stripped Italy, France, Belgium, Poland, and the Netherlands of nearly two million valuable paintings, statues, and other objets d’art—and its appetite appeared to be unsatisfied still. Its booty was hidden away in secret depositories until it could be installed in the Führer’s museum once the war was won—an outcome that the Nazis had never believed to be in doubt.

Until the Normandy invasion.

Even two months later, though, the Allied forces were fighting grimly, and at huge cost, to reclaim the ground lost at the beginning of the war. The fierce battle over a little town called Saint-Lô, in northwestern France, had taken weeks and resulted in eleven thousand casualties. The area where Lucas and Private Toussaint were traveling was far beyond the front, and dangerous in the extreme. Alsace-Lorraine had been evacuated of its citizens by the Reich in 1939, annexed to Germany the following year, and repopulated only with Alsatians of German descent. Strasbourg’s famed Romanesque Revival synagogue, with its domed ceiling fifty-four meters high, had been reduced to cinders by the regime.

What made Lucas’s mission, precarious by any standards, all the more puzzling was that his orders hadn’t come directly from the CRC, but from their superiors at the Office of Strategic Services. The mission’s objective had to be of vital importance.

Folded inside the envelope jammed in the inside pocket of his combat jacket was a crude map to the local iron mine, where a sizable cache of stolen artifacts was reputedly hidden. The envelope also contained a grainy photo of the highest-priority item—an ossuary, or sarcophagus, that had been looted by Rommel’s Afrika Korps from the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. Lucas had no idea why this particular casket was of such value to the war effort, but because of his background in classical art and statuary, he’d been the natural choice for this task.

“Lieutenant,” Toussaint said, stepping out of the jeep, “it looks like the welcome wagon is on its way.” Toussaint held his M1 carbine firmly in his hands, though he kept the muzzle down as an old man, waving a white handkerchief tied to a broom, stumbled toward them.

“Ich bin der Buergermeister,” the old man said—I am the mayor—before asking if they spoke German.

Lucas answered him haltingly, grateful for the crash course given by army intelligence before his posting, “Ja ich kann das.”—Yes, I can—before adding that he was a Lieutenant with the United States Ninth Army.

The old man nodded. “The German soldiers are gone,” he said, waving one arm at the demolished stores and houses of the town as if to prove it. “They moved out two days ago. Only civilians are left.”

Lucas would have liked to take him at his word, but he knew enough to keep his guard up. Treachery was as much a part of war as bullets were. He’d learned that lesson early, when a young enemy soldier he’d tried to pull from under a crushing pile of rubble had used his dying breath to swipe at him with a broken bayonet.

“I’m looking for the iron mine,” Lucas said.

A wary look crossed the mayor’s face.

“Can you take me to it?” He hoped his tone was less a question than an order.

The mayor paused, leaning now on the broomstick, and said, “You won’t hurt the people there?”

It wasn’t uncommon for abandoned mines to become bomb shelters. “I’m looking for stolen artworks,” he explained. “That’s all.”

The mayor studied his face, as if searching for some sign of malign intent, then sighed. Turning, he gestured for the Americans to follow him. They left the jeep in the road—it wasn’t likely any other traffic would be coming through soon—and followed the mayor down the shelled-out street, through the bomb craters and the broken stones, with Toussaint scanning every empty door or window. Led by the blond boy in the ragged brown shirt, some of the children, still gathering up their own bits of foil, trailed along behind.