The Natural-Born Spy
James Daniel Ross
Some things are too close for a normal man to focus on at the time. Only decades after November, 1944, can I look back and realize the small stones in the road that diverted our lives so immensely. I could never know that when I walked into the professor’s office at Boston College I was to begin a journey that would lead me to places I never imagined existed.
I was sitting at the desk, pads of paper thrown out across the surface like machinegun fire, books opened to select pages and marked with new pads, pens, and other books. There was a quick rap on the door, and then it opened with a swing that spoke of impatient authority.
The man who entered was tall and straight, or maybe pressed. Yes, that was it: The man gave out an impression that if he were rolled over Niagara Falls inside a wooden barrel he would come out with every bone broken—but every crease of his suit intact. The man practically had starch in his walk and his shoes were shined to blinding brightness. The instant he entered the room, his free hand snatched the hat from his head, exposing only a furtive bristle of hair. His lantern jaw screwed his teeth more tightly together and his eyes narrowed as they took me in. In the non-hat hand there was a book, which he now pointed at me in accusation. “You’re not Professor Levi Stein.”
I blinked at him twice, swallowing hard as his disapproval smacked me across the face. “Um, no. I’m sorry. I noticed the appointment in the book for you, Mr. Smith. There was no telephone number so I decided to wait here to explain why the professor—”
Smith ducked his head out into the hallway, scanning both ways quickly before retreating back into the office and shutting the door. Then he spun on me, his eyes as hard and cold as nails. “Where is the professor?”
I cleared my throat, fighting the tears trying to well up, “The professor is indisposed.”
Then I had to grab a kerchief from my pack and dab at my eyes. “Permanently, sir.”
Smith glanced at the door darkly, but it was a moment or two before I heard a pair of shoes walk innocently by. He then turned back to me. “Who are you?”
“My name is Bruce Andrew.”
He tossed his Stetson on the desk and leaned on the free hand, looming over me and—now I am convinced—reading everything exposed in an instant. “You’re the professor’s star pupil.”
Maybe it was how quickly he dismissed the news of the professor’s death, or maybe how successful he was at intimidating me in a place I had come to regard as a home. Whatever it was, it gave me a little steel of my own, which I threw into my voice, waving my paring knife in front of his broadsword. “That’s right.”
He tossed the book, thick, heavy, and at least two centuries old, down in front of me. “Can you translate Occitan?”
The grin on his face was not friendly or encouraging. “The pages are marked.”
“And why should I?”
He glared at me as if I were a toy poodle barking at him from the safety of a rich woman’s arms. Then he took out his billfold and pulled out five large bills as crisp as his pants. They fluttered to the desk carelessly, but when they landed they sounded like gold bars to me.
I only let them breathe there for a minute before snatching them up and stowing them in my front pocket. I opened the heavy tome, and saw page after page of pen-work easily dating back to the sixteenth century. Still his demeanor and the heavy bills in my pocket brooked no questions. I could only manage, “This will take a while.”
He leaned in the corner and crossed his arms. “I’ll wait.”
And wait he did, though the longer I moved words across time and languages, the more I smiled inside at his foolishness. It was well past midnight by the time I put down my pen and handed him the sheet. I allowed myself a little smile as he took it. “No hidden treasure map there, sorry.”
I started gathering my own papers into organized piles as he devoured every syllable I had recorded. Only once he was done did he refocus on me, eyes sharp. “Did you understand anything about this?”
I rolled my eyes and shoved my own books into my knapsack, leaving the one he had brought conspicuously alone. “I did an undergraduate paper on medieval belief in faeries and their ilk. They’re really little gods and every culture has had them, like the house gods of Roman times—”
Smith made a motion like swatting away a lethargic fly. “You’re an expert in myths and legends, then?”
I shrugged. “Myths, legends, and I read a half a dozen dead languages.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Star pupil, indeed.”
I nodded once, chin set.
He snatched up his book, translated pages folded within, retrieved his hat and nodded a thanks as he opened the door to leave. He paused. “Have you ever thought about joining the army?”
I hated that question, and it had been asked often the last three years. I did feel some need to go serve my country, and lord knows there were no more evil forces on the planet than Hitler and Tojo. Still, I was tall but thin, with an Adam’s apple of prodigious size. My eyes were more attuned to reading letters than searching out Nazis. In fact, if there was someone less suited to armed conflict than I was, I had never met him. I just was not a soldier. I didn’t know Smith, didn’t much like him, and I never planned to ever see him again. So I settled on a terse, “No.” without regard to what he might think of me.
Then he left, and I locked up the professor’s office for the night. I went to his funeral the next Sunday. He was buried next to his wife in a beautiful ceremony. I stood by his grave for a very long time after.
The next day I received my draft notice. I tried to argue the point to anyone who would listen, but all I got were disapproving looks and olive drab walls funneling me into boot camp, where time ceased to have any meaning. I felt extra eyes on me the entire time, and extra attention paid to my training.
If you are thinking loving, paternal attention, think again. I was horribly out of shape, grotesquely inadequate with a weapon, and almost died on the first three-mile run. I could never keep my uniform clean enough. I was never able to properly express my ferocity. I never knew the right answers. I once stabbed a dummy with a bayonet and immediately fell over backward. I once passed out doing push-ups. The ten-mile marches were almost a death sentence. Let me be clear: I was a fantastic researcher, and an excellent linguist, but at six feet and one hundred and ten pounds, a hard-charging, bullet-chewing, Nazi-throttling grunt I was not.
It was something my drill sergeant never let me forget. He called me Ichabod . . . as in Crane. I was just glad they never found a pumpkin to throw at me as I suffered through the five-mile runs. Then, one night, I was pulled out of bed without warning. My scream turned into a cough as someone lovingly toed me in the solar plexus, emptying my lungs in one, fell whoosh. I tried to call upon my inadequately learned training and lashed out with hands and feet, earning a slap. My head was spinning as they efficiently shoved a cotton gag in my mouth, trussed me up with rough rope, yanked a bag over my head, and hustled me into the frigid night.
A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, James Daniel Ross has been an actor, computer tech support operator, historic infotainment tour guide, armed self defense retailer, automotive petrol attendant, youth entertainment stock replacement specialist, mass market Italian chef, low priority courier, monthly printed media retailer, automotive industry miscellaneous task facilitator, and ditch digger.
The Radiation Angels: The Chimerium Gambit is his first novel and is followed by The Radiation Angels: The Key to Damocles. He is also the author of I Know Not, The Whispering of Dragons(with Neal Levin,) and The Last Dragoon. Snow and Steel is his first sojourn into historical fiction. James Daniel Ross shares a Dream Realm Award with the other others in Breach the Hull, and an EPPIE award with the others appearing in Bad Ass Faeries 2.
Most people are begging him to go back to ditch digging.