Aaron Elkins: Dead men’s hearts

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Aaron Elkins Dead men’s hearts
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Dead men’s hearts

Aaron Elkins

“All right, then, explain Drbal’s Phenomenon,” Bruno Gustafson demanded.

“Urn… Drbal’s Phenomenon?” Gideon said.

“The fact,” Bruno said, his ruddy face aglow with the pleasures of scholarly debate, “that if you leave an old razor blade in the Great Chamber of Cheops’ pyramid, oriented exactly north-south, in twenty-four hours it comes out sharp as new. This is a known fact, proved by Drbal. He could shave two hundred times with the same Gillette Blue blade.”

“Oh,” Gideon said, “that Drbal.” He sipped his Scotch-and-water. “Well-”

Bruno’s wife saved him, for the moment at least. “I thought it was Khufu’s pyramid,” Bea Gustafson said matter-of-factly.

“Same guy,” Bruno said. “But the thing is, it could have been anybody’s pyramid. Drbal made himself a mint selling little cardboard razor-blade sharpeners shaped like pyramids. Czechoslovakian patent number 91304. Don’t ask me why I remember.”

“Fascinating,” Rupert Armstrong LeMoyne said, beaming over his white wine. “Absolutely fascinating.”

That had been about the level of Rupert’s participation so far. This, Gideon thought, was understandable behavior from the University of Washington’s vice-president for development in the presence of Bea and Bruno Gustafson of Walla Walla, the alumni couple whose contributions to the school had been $150,000 in each of the last two years. Gideon also understood why the Gustafsons had been treated to a string of receptions over the past two days, had been given twelfth-row seats smack on the fifty-yard line for Saturday’s sell-out game between the Huskies and Arizona, and were now being entertained with drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the faculty club bar, prior to being escorted upstairs for dinner.

What Gideon didn’t understand was what he was doing there. He and Julie.

“What do you suppose accounts for it?” asked the fascinated Rupert. “Vibrations or something?”‘ Rupert’s academic training, long in business administration, was a little short in the sciences.

“Well, that’s an interesting question,” Bruno said. “I think that the idea is that a pyramid shape is like a, well, like some kind of a, a-”

“Resonator,” Bea said. “This fried mozzarella is wonderful, don’t you think so, Julie?”

“It certainly is,” said Julie, who hadn’t had the opportunity to say very much thus far.

“Resonator, right,” said Bruno. “For different kinds of- well, unknown frequencies from different parts of the, um, uh, cosmos.” He seemed to realize this was a bit weak. “Did you know that if you keep yogurt in a pyramid-shaped carton it just about never spoils?” he added, by way of strengthening his argument. “Known fact. They sell it that way in France. I’m thinking of test-marketing it here. Cheops’ Yogurt, what do you think? I don’t see how it can miss.”

Rupert shook his head appreciatively back and forth while he swallowed a mouthful of cracker and pate“ preparatory to speaking.

Just fascinating, Gideon said to himself.

“Just fascinating,” Rupert said. He dusted his lips with a cocktail napkin. “Well, if everyone is ready, suppose we trot along upstairs to dinner?”

On the steps, he and Gideon brought up the rear.

“Rupert, what am I doing here?”

“Shh, they asked for you specifically.”

“They probably want me to endorse Cheops’ Yogurt. You know, I just might do it.”

“Gideon, don’t be funny, please. It makes me nervous.”

“But only if he meets my price.”

Rupert’s fingers dug imploringly into his upper arm. “Gideon, be good. It’s not his fault if he’s a little odd.”

Bruno Gustafson was certainly a little odd. Jolly, red-faced, and sociable, he was one of those businessmen who didn’t have any business in particular. He had built (and lost) fortunes in plastics, in metal fabrication, and in food services. Reputedly a onetime pal of Spiro Agnew’s, he had been ambassador to Suriname (or was it St. Kitts?) for a few months during the Nixon administration. Now he developed commercial real estate in eastern Washington, dabbled in dairy farming, and pursued obscure studies in Egyptology, or rather on the loony fringes of Egyptology.

Gideon had met him three or four times, at one university function or another, and each time Bruno had eagerly peppered him with one crackpot theory or another. Last time it had been the proposition that the pyramids had been built as huge protective baffles by Egyptian priest-scientists who had discovered how to utilize the energy of the Van Allen belts by transporting it to earth along ionized laser beam paths. A slight accident in calculation, Bruno had told him, had created a momentary overabundance of power that had knocked the planet off its axis in 3001 B.C., prematurely ending experimentation along this line.

Despite all this, or possibly on account of it, Gideon had taken a liking to Bruno. He liked his energy and his amiable-ness, he liked his open-handed philanthropy, and he liked the enthusiasm with which he’d attacked Egyptology, even if he’d made straight for some of its nuttier byways.

He liked Bea Gustafson too. An intelligent, feisty, pint-sized woman about Bruno’s age-sixty or sixty-one-she had made a fortune of her own as an investment manager, and was obviously an equal partner, or maybe a little more than an equal partner, in the Gustafsons’ current financial activities. They made a good team: one the visionary, the dreamer, the man with the big but fuzzy ideas; the other the clear-eyed, no-nonsense realist who kept their feet on the ground and their cash flow positive.

Once upstairs, Rupert led the way to a table at the big window and arranged for Bruno and Bea to sit facing eastward, looking out over a spectacular view that took in Lake Washington with the floating-and occasionally sinking- Evergreen Point bridge in the foreground, and, farther off, the thrusting, jagged wall of the Cascades, glinting with an early layering of snow.

The setting wasn’t wasted on Bruno. “Some view,” he said appreciatively. “Right out over Husky Stadium.”

But as soon as they were seated, he was back to his subject, addressing them all. “Did you know that in 1799, Napoleon asked his men to leave him alone inside the Great Pyramid for a few minutes, just like Alexander the Great did, back in-whenever it was. And when he came out he was white as a ghost. When they asked him about it, all he did was shake his head and tell them he never wanted to talk about it again. No one’s ever been able to explain it.”

“If it smelled the way it did when I was there,” Gideon said, “I think I might be able to explain it.”

A smaller man might have taken offense, but Bruno merely laughed his happy laugh. “Okay, but there’s some kind of energy there. Explain to me why, if you wrap a wine bottle in a damp newspaper and stand on the very top of the pyramid, and hold it up above your head, and the conditions are right, sparks come out of-”

“Honey,” Bea said, “give the poor man some rest. Let’s go get our food, and then make your pitch.”

It was Mediterranean buffet night at the faculty club. Julie and Gideon found themselves facing each other across the salad section of the buffet table, over platters of hummus, cold stuffed grape leaves, and feta-cheese-and-tomato salad.

“Not that I’m not having a good time,” Julie said, “but have you figured out what this is about yet?”

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