The Wind Chill Factor - Thomas Gifford - ebook

The Wind Chill Factor ebook

Thomas Gifford



Decades after Hitler's fall, Nazis are still trying to kill John Cooper. His marriage destroyed by drinking, John Cooper returns to Cambridge, Massachusetts, trying to recapture the joy he felt as an undergraduate in Harvard University's sacred halls. He is just beginning to piece his life together when he gets a telegram calling him home to Minnesota. The message comes from Buenos Aires, and with Cooper's family history, that can mean only one thing: The Nazis are staging a comeback. To John and his brother, their grandfather was a kind, distinguished old man. But to the American people, he was the worst kind of traitor. An industrialist who spent the 1930s in business with Fascists, he became infamous as "America's Number One Nazi." When Hitler's old lieutenants decide to get together a Fourth Reich, the Coopers are the first family they call. John hasn't even made it to Minnesota when the first attempt on his life comes - a message that if he isn't ready to honor his family legacy, he will die for it. Decades after Hitler's fall, Nazis are still trying to kill John Cooper. His marriage destroyed by drinking, John Cooper returns to Cambridge, Massachusetts, trying to recapture the joy he felt as an undergraduate in Harvard University's sacred halls. He is just beginning to piece his life together when he gets a telegram calling him home to Minnesota. The message comes from Buenos Aires, and with Cooper's family history, that can mean only one thing: The Nazis are staging a comeback. To John and his brother, their grandfather was a kind, distinguished old man. But to the American people, he was the worst kind of traitor. An industrialist who spent the 1930s in business with Fascists, he became infamous as "America's Number One Nazi." When Hitler's old lieutenants decide to get together a Fourth Reich, the Coopers are the first family they call. John hasn't even made it to Minnesota when the first attempt on his life comes - a message that if he isn't ready to honor his family legacy, he will die for it.

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About the Book

Decades after Hitler’s fall, Nazis are still trying to kill John Cooper.

His marriage destroyed by drinking, John Cooper returns to Cambridge, Massachusetts, trying to recapture the joy he felt as an undergraduate in Harvard University’s sacred halls. He is just beginning to piece his life together when he gets a telegram calling him home to Minnesota. The message comes from Buenos Aires, and with Cooper’s family history, that can mean only one thing: The Nazis are staging a comeback.

To John and his brother, their grandfather was a kind, distinguished old man. But to the American people, he was the worst kind of traitor. An industrialist who spent the 1930s in business with Fascists, he became infamous as “America’s Number One Nazi.” When Hitler’s old lieutenants decide to get together a Fourth Reich, the Coopers are the first family they call. John hasn’t even made it to Minnesota when the first attempt on his life comes - a message that if he isn’t ready to honor his family legacy, he will die for it.

About the Author

Thomas Gifford (1937-2000) was a bestselling author of thriller novels. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, he moved to Minnesota after graduating from Harvard. After eight years as a traveling textbook salesman, he wrote Benchwarmer Bob (1974), a biography of Minnesota Vikings defensive end Bob Lurtsema. The Wind Chill Factor (1975), a novel about dark dealings among ex-Nazis, introduced John Cooper, whom he would revisit in The First Sacrifice (1994), and was one of several books he wrote set in and around Minneapolis.

The Wind Chill Factor

Thomas Gifford




Bastei Entertainment is an imprint of Bastei Lübbe AG


Copyright © 2015 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Schanzenstraße 6-20, 51063 Cologne, Germany


For the original edition:

Copyright © 2012 by The Mysterious Press, LLC, 58 Warren Street, New York, NY. U.S.A.


Copyright © 1975 by Thomas Gifford


Project management: Lori Herber

Cover adaptation: Christin Wilhelm,

Cover design by Michel Vrana


E-book production: Jouve Germany GmbH & Co. KG


ISBN 978-3-95859-294-0


All rights reserved, including without limitation the right to reproduce this e-book or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

I am not I;

he is not he;

they are not they.


THERE WEREN’T MANY PEOPLE ON the platform. It was cold and the chill felt good, cleansed my pain. I leaned against a pillar. A few feet away a family waited, middle-aged and tweedy with a little blond girl holding her mother’s hand. She was smiling with the expectancy and excitement of the very young who are up long after their normal bedtime. She let go of her mother’s hand and began to pace ever-widening circles around her parents, until she came close enough for me to see her cornflower-blue eyes. She smiled up at me and I smiled back. She was well dressed: her coat had a velvet collar.

Tentatively she came closer, staring up at me in a child’s unrelenting manner, her smile fading. Again I caught her eye through the pain and weariness engulfing me and tried to smile. She reminded me of pictures of my little sister Lee taken many years before.

Finally, somewhat discomfited by her staring, I leaned forward to say hello. That was when she began a high-pitched screaming, a wail, as if I’d attacked her. I felt myself toppling forward, no strength in my knees, and I gripped the pillar. I was befuddled: why was she screaming? Her mouth, a cavern into which I seemed about to fall, reminded me of the wound in Alistair Campbell’s forehead.

Her parents turned to stare, her father rushed forward saying, “Here, here,” and reaching for his daughter. The woman came closer, her face scowling and full of reproaches, and then she stopped short, covered her mouth with a gloved hand, and I heard her say: “Oh, God, Henry, look at his face, he’s all bloody. …”

I wiped my hand across my face and it was sticky and my stomach turned; there was blood smeared on my fingers. I tried to hold fast to the pillar but everything was slanting and voices came to me as if from a distant echo chamber. The little girl had stopped screaming and I could see that the rain falling on the railroad track had turned to snow drifting down.

A voice near my ear said tiredly: “Jesus, Cooper, look at yourself, another fine mess.”

The voice was familiar, but when I turned, my sight was going quickly and I could see only a shape, a pinpoint of light, a face in the pinpoint, but it was too late and I saw only the snow blowing in great soft gusts, heard only the dim sounds of trains very far away and I was falling and I simply didn’t give a damn. …




I had been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for several years, since my divorce from Digby, and found that, while I could not recapture the feelings of my Harvard undergraduate days, there was still a certain comfort in the place. I arranged for the use of Widener Library; I came to depend on the Coop for my department store needs; there were several new and used bookstores at hand, stationers, newsstands, tobacco from Leavitt & Pierce, the Crimson and the New York Times to read with breakfast, walks to take down Boylston Street, past Eliot House, where I had once lived, and along the Charles River, where I had fallen deeply in love with a woman who was destined to go away, who had been the reason for my divorce.

In Cambridge I amounted to myself: there were few aspects to my own definition there which did not stem directly from me. In that sense, it was entirely unlike New York, with its telltale evidence of Digby, who had so many friends and was so much better known than I, unlike—even more significantly—Cooper’s Falls, where our family, which had given the place its name, was in many ways public property.

On the morning in question, something past the middle of January, I sat at the table in the front room overlooking the gray, dead grass in the courtyard below, snow in patches like a ramshackle case of baldness. Coffee steamed in a mug, butter dripped into the tiny craters of an English muffin, and I contemplated with some satisfaction a pile of yellow legal pad pages full of my cramped, rather constipated penmanship. A mystery novel—set at Harvard during a student uprising and titled Tumult—was coming on nicely. I hadn’t had a drink for six months and my physician had almost convinced me that the alcoholism which had nearly ruined me was a thing of the past. I was free of women and growing happily used to it. I was thirty-four and more or less broke and sufficiently well adjusted to feel unafraid of the day ahead, the month to come, the rest of my life.

I was sitting that morning in the middle of an oasis I had made for myself: I’d managed the trick, pulled myself together, survived.

And then, to keep me honest and in my place, the telephone rang.

“Western Union calling for Mr. John Cooper,” a woman said.


“We have a telegram for you from a, hmmm, from a Cyril Cooper?”

I suggested that she read it to me, suddenly aware of that clammy chest-tightening sensation Western Union inevitably produces.


She offered to repeat the message and I took her up on it, listened with relief: not an overt disaster, anyway. I stared into the street below wondering what the hell it meant. I asked her the point of origin.

“Buenos Aires,” she said with a perfected tone of total disinterest. I thanked her and reflexively reached for a pipe and a tin of Balkan Sobranie, stuffed the blackish tobacco into the bowl, applied a wooden kitchen match, and pulled mightily, tasting the mixture and watching the burning shreds of latakia rising above the rim of briar.

First, it was no fake. Only my brother Cyril would have wasted three words on CHEERS, OLD BOY.

Second, urgency in Cyril’s life was not a colloquial expression. It meant precisely what it said.

Third, 20 January was not an approximation. It was precisely when he wanted me back in Cooper’s Falls and there was no room for excuses on my part.

Fourth, the message was not only tantalizing: it was intentionally provocative, yet revealed nothing. Cyril never did anything without a reason and if he was being obscure there was a reason behind it.

Fifth, Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, far from Cyril’s normal bases of operation, most of which were European. And yet Cyril would have had an excellent reason for being in Buenos Aires.

After a second cup of coffee, I had made my own calculations. Then I was packing a bag, putting my bits and pieces in order, and heading downstairs for the garage and the Lincoln.


THE LINCOLN WAS A LEFTOVER from a time when money was plentiful. I had kept it and taken care of it in the face of an avalanche of personal and economic difficulties, clinging to it as a sort of talisman. The automobile was a joy, humming very quietly, gulping fuel like a Saturn rocket, warm air rising toward its predetermined comfort level. Built in 1966, my Continental reflected a gray world in its gunmetal finish, held me secure in its deep leather interior. It didn’t occur to me to get home any other way. I had everything checked: gas, oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, battery water, air pressure, fuses governing all lights inside and out and all other power assists.

Snowflakes began littering the windshield. The washers were full of winter solvent. The wipers, new, swept across the vast windshield with authority. I was ready.

I spent the first day out from Boston driving a paltry 380 snowblown miles, snow whipping past my vision and skittering across the highway only to disappear without accumulating anywhere. My thoughts naturally settled on my brother Cyril.

Cyril Cooper, two years my senior, was a boy and then a man of extreme affability, determination and, not to put too fine a point on it, sheerest, nakedest greed. His greed, his joy at turning his business life into a series of Harvard Business School case studies, had made him exceedingly rich in his own right. His decency had left him, presumably, without enemies, a rare condition in so rich a man. His business interests included scotch whiskey, two lines of retail clothing shops of trendy persuasion, television taping equipment, advertising, specialty publishing, shipping interests under the flag of Liberia, and land development in Great Britain, France, and Spain. He had taken a loan from our grandfather at the age of twenty-one and systematically built a stairway to tycoondom.

As I drove through the darkening afternoon, puffing on a beautifully seasoned Barling Canadian, my reflections inevitably turned from my brother, always the picture of robust thickchested good humor, to the rest of the family which had, by some peculiar thrashing of genes, produced not only him but someone so utterly different, so bookish and introspective a fellow as myself, to say nothing of our little sister Lee, who had died in the London Blitz.

Cooper’s Falls had been founded in the northern part of Minnesota, in a crook of the exquisite St. Croix River, some short distance above the bubbling foamy falls which even in the icecrack of winter never gave up their churning. The original Cooper, my namesake John, had made his fortune in the railroads and the grain which had combined eventually to give the world a goodly number of colorful millionaires and the thriving, energetic city of Minneapolis. But the Coopers were on balance a singularly retiring bunch, until my grandfather hit his stride and made up for a good deal of lost time.

My grandfather Austin was a deeply committed man who grew richer and richer as the nation prospered after the turn into the twentieth century. He knew well and was friend to the more proudly exhibited financial giants of the time: Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon. But at some point, due very likely to an unnamed psychological trauma which, like an old piece of wartime shrapnel, worked its way to the surface and finally suppurated and burst messily through, an unsettling vision overtook Austin Cooper. While visiting Germany during the twenties, he became sympathetic to the plight of the Germans suffering under what he called “the yoke of punishment inflicted by their conquerors following the Great War.” He was not alone in his feelings: many humane observers felt the same way and subsequent historians have frequently seconded the view that it was an unjust peace which produced nothing other than a second Thirty Years’ War dating from 1914 to 1945. However, reacting in his own fashion, Austin Cooper was not content with simply noting his own point of view in his nightly diary and letting it go at that.

On subsequent visits to Germany my grandfather sought out, with some perception and determination, those men he believed would be the voices of a new Phoenix-like Germany. On the one hand he allied himself with the Krupp family, socially as well as financially, operating as a bridge between various German and Anglo-American moneymen.

But Austin also courted and was eventually courted in return by political leaders he believed to have the gumption—that was his word—to turn Germany around and get it moving once more toward its own particular manifest destiny. As an American, he was useful to these new men. He could move in circles to which they were denied entrance by the force of social convention.

Thus Austin Cooper began his service to two angry and exceedingly able Germans who sought a new world. One, oddly enough was a hero of the Great War, which appealed to Austin’s reticent sense of grandeur; the other was a bit harder to take in some ways but was the most hypnotically powerful and brilliant man Austin had ever met, ever would meet.

Hermann Goering.

Adolf Hitler.

Austin Cooper.

Cyril Cooper.

Buenos Aires.

Cheers, old boy.

The names lingered and played across my mind as I lay propped on my motel bed, too tired to read or even pay attention to the television. But I was too wound up to fall asleep: I was tense from driving through the snow and, having thought so long about the family, I was developing a certain apprehensiveness about the whole thing.

It had been a long time since I’d seen Cooper’s Falls, a long time since I’d let my mind dwell so pointedly on the family. And I had so many miles, so many hours to go. I had begun to wish I’d taken a plane, but that would not have been true to my nature. Anyone who knew me would have known I’d take the Lincoln.

Finally I climbed under the blankets and listened to the wind whistling at my door until I fell asleep.

The next day they tried to kill me.


THE SECOND DAY OF MY trip home was a more intense version of that first afternoon out from Boston. I drove westward into the face of a gray and shifting curtain of blowing snow which cut visibility and speed to a minimum. Shapes were constantly being overtaken and recognized almost as you were upon them, and headlights made lovely but unproductive halos on the snowflakes. The radio warned continually against any travel, reeling off great lists of school closings and canceled meetings. But I gave no thought to stopping, to the possibility of arriving late. Cyril had said the twentieth and the twentieth it would be.

In Indiana and Illinois the weather cleared and I let the Lincoln off its leash to run flat out for a while, learning by radio that the storm was ahead of me, lying in wait once I turned north from Chicago on the Illinois Tollway and headed on up into Wisconsin. But for now there was hazy sunshine and I tried to ease the tension in my arms which had accumulated during the hours of wheel-gripping zero visibility.

It seemed peculiar in 1972 to be driving along through a country which had developed its own set of new-old problems and crises while thinking back to my childhood in Cooper’s Falls with a grandfather whose name had become, through the years of German rearmament in the 1930s, a synonym for the idea of Americans who were admirers of the Nazis, who sympathized for whatever personal reasons with Nazi aims in Europe.

In the mid-30s, before I was born, the anti-Semitism being practiced within Germany was not much known in our part of the country, was not a matter of overriding concern. It was, in a widespread view, a question which would doubtless be with us always and, in the end, each nation had to deal with Jews—and particularly Jewish wealth and leverage—in its own way. In my grandfather’s view, Jews were thought of in a business sense exclusively, and if you couldn’t really trust them then they weren’t that different from anyone else. There was certainly no reason why you couldn’t coexist with them. They were a fact of life and while he would not go out of his way to rescue a Jew, neither would he have gratuitously done one any harm. They were simply a group apart and how they handled their problem was their own business. He might have said the same of the Catholics.

Austin Cooper was not, then, a crazy racist or bigot. He was, beneath the glaze of colorful and inaccurate publicity, a rather cool realist who felt that Europe was an ailing, faltering giant which must somehow be made strong again for the long-term good of both the world’s and Austin Cooper’s economy. It was his bet that Europe would best be served by the emergence of a dynamic leader, or group, which would give birth to a new pride, a new nationalism, a new confidence which would bring Europe back to her feet again. His belief grew with the Depression and so did his involvement with Fascist politics in Germany, Italy, Spain, and England. Nationalism was the answer and if it made for war, so be it. Money survives war, thrives on war. War was no problem. There have always been wars. Mankind loved wars. The point was to make wars pay.

What concerned me, as a child innocent of politics, were the purely personal aspects of having Austin Cooper, America’s Number One Nazi as he was called in Liberty and Collier’s, for a grandfather.

My brother Cyril and I were far closer to our grandfather than might normally have been the case. We were too young to have suffered any particular shame at his exploits. For us he was a lean, exceptionally well-tailored elderly man with coins and books for us, a rather sad demeanor, a precise manner of speech, and a surprisingly quick laugh for so serious a man. He played croquet with us on the immense back lawn during the war; he was in his early sixties and wore a white shirt and black tie; by then it was no longer felt safe for him to go out in public for golf or any other occasion.

But if he was only a solemn benevolent figure to us, there were other aspects to having him around, aspects which were a terrible burden to our father, who was a grown man in the company of other grown men. They associated him with the American Nazi photographed on the front pages chatting with Adolf Hitler, riding in an immense open car with Goering and Speer and Frau Goering, meeting behind closed doors with Alfried Krupp and then coming out to engage in smiling handshakes, sealing God only knew what kind of fiendish bargain.

That was what our father had to contend with. Born in 1910, Harvard 1932: a handsome, artistically inclined man who wanted at one time to be a painter. He traveled with his father to Germany in the sparkling days of Berlin’s glories in the 1920s, again in the 1930s, when there was a somewhat different aura, met the great men who were deciding how to reshape Europe and, as sons do, he reacted violently against all they—and by association his father—stood for. So, while Austin Cooper came to stand for American Nazism, our father Edward, in his all too brief life, did what he could to oppose the Nazi wickedness. Finally, in 1941, he gave his life flying for the RAF in aerial combat over the English Channel. His Spitfire was never found, his body never recovered. There were articles written about them at the time: one the living traitor to all that America meant, the other his son martyred for freedom. It made hellish good copy, I suppose, if the men in question were not your grandfather and father.

On December 8, 1941, by order of the President, our many-chambered mansion on the estate looking down on that lovely river and the falls which bore our name was put under armed, uniformed Army guard and so it stayed until several months after the war ended. Austin Cooper was cordoned off, protected from all those with reason to wish him ill.


CHICAGO LAY SMOKING AND VAST, a smudge of industrial haze frozen in the sky above it. As I swung northward against the grain of wind the overcast swept toward me. Soon I was in it again, feeling the two-and-a-half-ton Lincoln take the blasts on its great slab sides. And the snow came swirling across the frozen fields and the sun was reduced to nothing more than a dim grayness behind the howling wind and snow.

I pulled up off the tollway to one of the Fred Harvey emporiums. The place was virtually deserted, cups echoing in saucers: there was an unreal, unearthly quiet about it all, as if, insulated in its cocoon of snow, Fred Harvey had opened a space station. There was a curious moment when I felt as if I’d fallen among automatons and was the only living thing within reach.

The spell was broken when the girl brought my coffee. She smiled past some remnants of high-school acne and commented on the weather. “It seems like night already,” she concluded and went away. Two men came in to the eating area and sat down, ordered coffee. One of them, a tall, balding man in a sheepskin coat came over and asked if he could read the Tribune lying on the counter beside me. I told him it wasn’t mine and he was welcome to it. He smiled and shook his head at the snow blowing across the expanses of glass, obscuring the view of the highway below us.

“Heading north?” he asked with a friendly, gaunt smile.

“All the way to Minnesota,” I said.

“You may not make it,” he said sadly as if we were all facing this common enemy together. “I hear it’s bad, worse the farther north you go.”

“I suppose it is,” I said.

“Well, it’s a hell of a thing.” He lit a Kool and folded the newspaper in large, long-fingered hands. He looked like a cowboy, herding cattle home through the drifts. “Thanks for the paper,” he said and went back to his companion.

They were quietly drinking coffee when I put my gloves on and went back outside to my car. I was wearing my favorite turtleneck sweater, a heavy oily thing woven by some little old lady in the Hebrides, nothing but thick wool, yet soft as glove leather. The car surged to life immediately, and I ran through the checklist in my mind making sure everything was functioning perfectly. I drove slowly across the service area past a black limousine standing by a bank of pumps. The men inside the restaurant had come back outside. They were standing by the black car, and sheepskin coat waved to me as I passed him and rolled down the ramp to the empty white pit that slowly revealed itself as the tollway.

I was daydreaming without losing my concentration on the road. I would let Cyril dominate my thoughts for a time, then Digby would take his place and I’d be bringing her back to Cooper’s Falls for the first time as I’d done so many years ago. My father would be talking to me, the way he’d never had the opportunity to do in reality; my grandfather would address the croquet ball, deliberately, black tie flapping in a summer breeze, and I could hear the solid sound of mallet on ball. …

Early evening had overtaken me and the snow was thicker. The roadway had grown slippery with packed snow and ice. Visibility was a joke. I hadn’t seen more than a half dozen other vehicles in an hour and I had just passed the state line into Wisconsin when I saw the black limousine suddenly beside me, only a few feet away on my left. It was sliding toward me and there wasn’t time to react before I felt the impact, felt the Lincoln gliding off the road unable to grab hold on the hard-driven snow.

Like a pair of gigantic ice skaters, we slid through drifting snow, plowing slowly on down a ridge of crusty whiteness. I spun the wheel, took my foot off the gas, hoped that somehow the snow tires would catch. The black limousine finally detached itself, pulled away and ahead of me, stayed on the shoulder as I slid downward. Finally I felt solid footing behind the rear axle and in an uncharacteristic instant of clear thinking I shoved the gearshift into low and hit the gas, hoping to regain control. Curiously, the maneuver worked and I felt the Lincoln gather itself together, push through the snow below the level of the highway, and claw its way back up to the shoulder, snow rising like waves in front of me, beside me, all around me. I suppose it took only a few seconds from the initial impact until I was back on the shoulder, but it seemed an agonizing lifetime, a nightlong terror which left me suddenly sick to my stomach, shaking, dripping with sweat. I sat clutching the wheel, gulping air in an attempt to keep from vomiting.

The black limousine appeared again out of the snow, its lights blunted against the storm. I could hear it honking, saw the sheepskin coat waving to me, watched as it pulled in ahead of me and stopped. In view of my own lights, doors opened on either side of the limousine and the two men got out and hurried back toward me, leaning into the wind. I pushed open my door, which creaked sorely at the hinges and stepped out, feeling the full blast of wind and a coldness which had not been there when I’d left Fred Harvey. It cut through the sweater and the gaunt man in the sheepskin coat was shouting to me.

“Are you all right?” His voice was nearly smothered by the wind. Snow bit at my face and eyes.

“Yeah, I’m okay, I guess,” I said.

“Jesus, I couldn’t help it,” his companion said, a short stout man in a blue duffel coat. “I’m sorry as hell, fella.”

We stood looking at the damage: paint scraped off, door and front fender badly creased. “Shit,” I said.

“I’ll look back here.” Sheepskin coat ducked his face down behind the fleecy collar and walked toward the rear of the Lincoln. There was no sound but the raving of the storm.

Blue duffel coat beckoned me toward the front wheel, pointing at the fender. He knelt in the snow, seemed to be tugging at the fender, pulling it back from the wheel. I joined him, on my knees in the snow. The fender didn’t seem to be rubbing against the tire and I turned to say so.

I never got the words out. I felt instead a blunt, numbing sensation on the side of my head. I heard the sound of something against my skull, heard a man grunt softly with exertion near my ear, felt the snow rushing against my face and then there was nothing.


HOW LONG CAN YOU LIVE lying in the snow in below freezing temperatures? I don’t know. But I survived. I was stiff with cold when I awoke and when I lifted my head it bumped against the undercarriage of the Lincoln: somehow I had half hidden myself underneath the car. I had survived the attack for two reasons. Sheepskin coat had done an ineffectual job of bludgeoning me and the warmth from the huge engine, retained against the cold, had kept me from being frozen to death.

Slowly, painfully I wriggled into the open. Our films and television have insulated us against the reality of physical violence because our heroes survive it each week and in each film. I had suspected we were being fed something less than the truth. Standing beside the Lincoln, leaning desperately against its wounded side and puking into the snow, I found my suspicions confirmed. It was more horrible—both the physical reality and the knowledge of menace hovering over me with a tire iron in its hand—than I could possibly have imagined, even in the delirium of drunkenness. Those sons of bitches had left me in the road to die, actually die—and I had lived by a quirk of chance. Suddenly I was aware of the weather: I opened the door, hauled myself back up into the driver’s seat, and turned the key. The Lincoln fired back to life with me, spraying warm air around the leather interior, defrosting the windshield. The Lincoln was saving my life.

The side of my skull was sticky with blood and terribly tender to my fingertips’ pressure. I sat in the warmth trying to calm down and get my thoughts sorted out. Then I got back out of the Lincoln, washed the side of my head with snow, washed the blood off my hands, and set out again. The front tire was not rubbing the fender.

The night was dark. I was back on the road. I couldn’t see far enough ahead to push much past forty, and it occurred to me in one of those delayed-action double takes that the black limousine might appear once more, that these bastards might keep doing this to me until they did it right.

It wasn’t until I saw through the storm the highway equipment, red lights flashing, pushing a path in the snow, that I began to feel reasonably safe again. There were men in those huge vehicles, men in the trucks full of sand—normal men doing their jobs, trying to protect me from the storm rather than lying in wait to kill me. Slowly, deliberately, I clung to the plows and sanders all the way to Madison, which glowed through the storm like a friendly apparition.

Undoubtedly I ought to have checked my head at a local hospital emergency room, but instead I eased down off the highway, made a cloverleaf to the right, crossed the southbound lane, and pulled up the steep grade to a Howard Johnson’s, its orange roof peering out through the snow. After a few polite but mildly perplexed looks at my mussed condition, I was given a room facing toward the rear parking lot, away from the highway and backing against a sheer looming bluff of stone several times higher than the motel itself. The parking lot was well lit, snow in a constant filtering of whiteness, cars parked with six inches and more frosting roofs, hoods, trunks. I lugged my bag out of the rear seat, slid the glass door to my room open from the outside, and discovered the room clerk turning on lights, pointing toward the bathroom. He had a butch haircut, the first I’d seen in a long time. His eyes smiled from behind horn-rims.

“Thought I’d come back and see you got in all right.” He nodded his head like the man in the sheepskin coat had done at Fred Harvey’s: a weather comment was coming. “Nothing much happening on a night like this. All day long we’ve been getting cancellations from salesmen snowed in somewhere else. Of course,” he said philosophically, “most of our salesmen decided to stay an extra night, so we’re back to even, I suppose.” He watched me throw the bag on the bed. I pulled the sliding door closed. “Heat’s over there,” he said, motioning to a wall dial. “Bathroom’s in here, color television if you’re one of those guys just can’t stand to miss the Carson show.” He pointed to a blanket folded on the bed. “Brought you an extra blanket.”

“Very kind,” I said. “Do you have any Excedrin? I have an Excedrin headache, definitely.” He went away. Standing at the floor-to-ceiling wall of glass, staring at the white, fluffy parking lot and listening to the wind gnawing at my feet, I realized exactly what I was doing: I was scanning the parking lot for a black limousine with a dented side. I didn’t see one and the smiling desk clerk was telling me that here were my Excedrins and didn’t I look a little pale?

“Yes, I probably do look a little pale,” I said, “but that’s only because my head aches, I’m sick to my stomach, and I’ve been throwing up in the snow on the freeway. Otherwise, I’m fine.”

“Well, you’d better get to bed, then,” he said. Smiling from the doorway he said: “This flu, it’s been going around. Just murder. So get a good night’s sleep.”

Just murder. Oh, boy.

For a while the Excedrin kept me awake and I kept seeing the man in the sheepskin coat smiling at me and telling me I might not make it to Minnesota. But why had they attacked me? Thrill killers? It didn’t seem likely: surely such psychopaths would have enjoyed the act of murder, would have made very sure. Thieves, then? But they had taken nothing: no papers, no money, no credit cards, nothing. Yet, they had painstakingly lured me into a trap and tried to kill me. How else could I interpret it?

I finally drifted off to sleep, the snow scurrying across the glass wall and the shadows falling in stately bars.


AS I LEFT MADISON AND headed north on January 20, my head ached slightly, a patch over my left ear was swollen and tender, but I’d had no recurrence of vomiting. All things considered, with bacon and eggs under my belt, I felt reasonably well. The man at the Texaco station had checked under the hood for loose hoses and leaks, pronounced everything all right. Aside from her cosmetic damage the Lincoln was purring, giving ample evidence of her fine disregard for the economics of fuel consumption. The sun was bright in the east. The sky was glacial. The temperature had fallen to ten degrees.

January 20. Somewhere Cyril was approaching Cooper’s Falls, was perhaps even now landing at Minneapolis/St. Paul. By evening I would know what he wanted, what all the urgency was about.

I knew no more now than I had when I set out from Boston. There was the telegram: URGENT YOU MEET ME COOPER’S FALLS 20 JANUARY, DROP EVERYTHING, FAMILY TREE NEEDS ATTENTION. CHEERS, OLD BOY. CYRIL. I had it memorized.

And it meant nothing to me, nothing I could put my finger on. Decorating the family tree, obviously, was the matter of my grandfather’s political eccentricity, but how might that need “attention”? Austin Cooper had died peacefully in his eighties, the family’s oldest friend at his side. It was Arthur Brenner himself, in fact, who had written me of my grandfather’s death a few years before, had told me how my grandfather had peacefully slipped away with Arthur at his bedside. Arthur Brenner had been my grandfather’s attorney, a dear friend of my father’s, although a good many years his senior, and had broken the news to me not only of my grandfather’s death, but of my father’s, my mother’s and my little sister Lee’s, as well. Arthur had helped my father get into Harvard through his own Harvard connections, had aided him in being attached to the Royal Air Force, and had subsequently helped me go to Harvard. And Arthur Brenner himself had commented upon the death of Austin Cooper that at last the family slate was wiped clean. Time would pass, he’d said, and eventually the memory of my grandfather’s Nazism would be gone, and then the memory of my father’s heroism would pass, the family would scatter, and Cooper’s Falls would be only a name on a map without a living soul attached to it.

I pushed on into the afternoon, farther and farther north, closer to home. By early afternoon the sun was gone, the sky the color of my gray suede driving gloves. The radio reported a blizzard developing in the Dakotas and in the western edges of Minnesota. Swinging north, following the river at the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, darkness began and it was no longer as warm inside the car. It seemed as if the fan blowing warm air had slowed, so I reset the temperature controls upward and stopped to refuel. The service station attendant seemed never to have seen the workings of a Lincoln before and had no theories about the failure of the heating system.

Back on the road, which was now a simple two-lane strip cut between banks of fir trees which grew thickly almost to the roadside, I began thinking of the man in the sheepskin coat, wondering if there could be some connection between two such curious events—the telegram from Cyril in Buenos Aires and the attempt to kill me in a blizzard on a highway in Wisconsin. But that was absurd. Surely, I had been victimized by coincidence, and nothing more. Such violence is terribly complex once you begin to analyze it and realize that there is no apparent motive.

For the last stage of the journey, I turned off on a trunk highway, blacktopped, narrow, totally dark. There was no moon; no starlight; no other travelers. I turned the radio off. There were forty miles yet to go and the fans suddenly stopped blowing altogether. There was no heat in the car and what little there had been was quickly dissipated. I stopped in the middle of the road and wrestled my own sheepskin coat out of the back seat and struggled into it, afraid to open the door to the harsh wind. Snow eddied across the frozen snow adhering to the blacktop. It seemed as if I’d been engulfed in a thick blowing fog.

Driving on, it became colder and colder. At first my hands hurt, stung with cold, then they began to lose feeling. I tried to stomp feeling back into my feet. My breath began to freeze in my mustache, in the hair in my nose. Passing familiar turns in the road, I knew I had twenty miles yet to go. I turned the radio back on. They kept saying that it was very cold, that a blizzard was on the way, that it was twenty-five degrees below zero in Duluth.

The car was trying to kill me, I thought. Maybe the Lincoln, which was behaving so uncharacteristically, could accomplish what the man in the sheepskin coat hadn’t. What in the hell was the matter with the heating, anyway? I fastened my eyes on the Lincoln’s hood ornament, pretended that in some miraculous way the chrome ornament was pulling the car through the frozen night. I remembered a movie I’d seen as a child in which there was a motion picture studio called Miracle Productions. Their slogan said: “If it’s worth seeing, it’s a Miracle.”

And finally, in the ragged nick of time, I made the final turn through the trees and eased back off the gas. In front of me were the two stone towers at the entrance to the drive, the gates of my childhood where Cyril and I had waited for the school bus. I sat there, half frozen but forgetting my discomfort for the moment, grinning. Nobody, nothing had killed me. It was still January 20, and I was home at last.

Poplars lined the stretch of road, forming a discreet natural barrier between the Coopers and the curious world: now, in winter, the lights of the Lincoln picked them out against the blackness like gaunt survivors of a death march. Beside the gate on the right was a stone gatehouse with a heavy oak door and long, ancient-looking hinges. During the war years Cyril and I had come down to play with the soldiers who were young and bored and very happy not to be crawling along Omaha Beach. We had touched the Garand rifles and climbed on the jeep and on a few memorable occasions we had gone into town on errands with the soldiers in the jeep, the wind tearing at us as we laughed with the excitement of it all. There are still photographs somewhere of Cyril and me in our regulation suntans, clip-on Army ties neatly in place, properly fitted out with insignia and caps, uniforms our guards had given us one Fourth of July.

The snow was deep and smooth in the driveway. The wind raked off the road, across the immense lawn, and only the vaguest outline in the drifts against the shrubbery indicated the path of the driveway. I chanced it with the new snow tires and slowly but firmly the Lincoln settled into the snow and worked its way forward.

In a while I saw the house, the elms and oaks which shaded the lawn in summer, the veranda which seemed long as a football field, the six squared white columns rising all three stories to the roof with its own tier of cupolas, chimneys rising out of the roof in faint shadows.

The house was dark. There would have been a light for me if Cyril had arrived. He wouldn’t have gone to bed, not with me on my way. He wasn’t here yet. The snow had held him up. No one was here. I left the car running and plodded calf-deep through the virgin snow. I had decided to spend the night in the cottage down by the little private lake on which we’d sailed and ice skated as children: it had always been my favorite spot. But first, hopelessly cold and tired as I was, I wanted to step inside the great house itself. Five years. … I had been away five years and all that time the key to the front door remained on my ring. Turning my back against the wind churning along the veranda, I fitted key to lock and stepped into the front hall.

My footsteps echoed in the parquet-floored entry. Reflexively I reached for a switch, snapped it, saw a dim yellowish light come on against the wall. The yellow shaded bulbs had been fitted into the old gas fixtures. Although the house was no longer lived in, arrangements had been made for Emil Blocker, who had been the caretaker for forty years, to come by once a week with his wife and keep it dusted, clean. I stood looking the length of the foyer as it widened to take in the huge, gently sloping staircase. On either side there were sliding doors, opened, giving on shadowy expanses of drawing rooms. I had grown up running wildly through these rooms, playing tag and hide-and-seek with Cyril, making far too much noise and being hushed by our nanny or grandfather’s secretary. Now I couldn’t even summon up a ghost. I had never felt more alone in the stillness, listening to the wind and snow outside, the inevitable banging of something that had come loose at the back of the house.

I went through one drawing room, turned on another light, and walked into the library. It had been my refuge in the house from early on, even before I could read the books. My grandfather would let me sit in a huge leather chair, cracked and split and incredibly ancient, while I turned the pages of encyclopedias and historical atlases and obscure magazines which have long since passed out of existence.

Now the room looked as warm and comforting as ever, as if my grandfather had just gone up the stairs to retire for the evening. Logs had been laid in the cold grate opposite his desk with its brass student lamps. Books lining the walls had been dusted. The World War II position map was still punctuated with colored pins. I stepped closer to it and realized that my grandfather had been refighting the German breakthrough in the Ardennes during the winter of 1944–45, called the Battle of the Bulge ever after, when he had died.

Another series of pins, all white, marked the corridor which was to have been used for Hitler’s escape at war’s end. A realist at all times, my grandfather had always labeled those who thought the escape route might actually have been used as “romantic idlers.” Hitler was dead, and in my grandfather’s view Hitler’s fate had been earned by his own gross excesses and perversity, was richly deserved for having squandered his chances.

But there was still a good deal of wallspace given over to framed and frequently autographed photographs of my grandfather in the company of world leaders. There was even one of him puffing a token cigar with Winston Churchill when Churchill was alone in the wilderness of the 1930s. My grandfather was, of course, at political swords’ points with Churchill but admired him enormously. Most of the black-and-white photographs were, however, efforts to capture forever moments with the Nazi leaders: sitting in slatted lawn chairs in slanting late afternoon sunlight with Hitler in some flower garden, chatting with Hitler and Eva Braun at a table laden with the remains of a casual luncheon while a pair of German shepherds drowsed at their feet, peering intently at a bottle of wine being exhibited by von Ribbentrop, who bears an expression of such vacuous arrogance as to be laughable, standing by an immense Mercedes-Benz touring car with a vague smile on his face as if trying to ascertain the reason for Goering’s obvious mirth.

There were also a great many family pictures, one of which showed me holding a baseball bat, wearing a Chicago Cubs cap, smiling at my grandfather, who wears a characteristic suit and tie. There were pictures of my father, young and quietly concerned, and my mother laughing, holding my little sister Lee, who died. …

The house was moaning in the wind and there was no point in standing in the library getting sentimental. I was very tired. I took a bottle of Napoleon brandy from a cart against the wall by the large, functional globe, and went back outside, turning off the lights and closing the front door.

I let the Lincoln roll back into the whiteness, eating it up, down around behind the house, following the railing barely visible over the snow drifts. Inside the car it was still ice cold. But I was all right. I parked beneath the blackened branches of an oak tree which in summer shaded the cottage.

I got the bags out of the trunk, hauled my gear into the cottage. The screened porch was deep with snow and in the light I could see that the cottage was not kept up as carefully as the main house. It had a mildly stale quality and as I stood in the faintly musty room I realized what was missing, what I’d noticed in the library, in the foyer: cigar smoke. The house still retained the aroma.

The furnishings were wicker, flowered cushions of green and summer yellow against white painted wicker. It was very cold in the cottage and I stacked wood in the fireplace in the living room, checked the flue for snow and birds’ nests, and lit it, listened to the dry birch and oak crackle in the flame. Then I went to the bedroom, saw that the bed was made, and laid another smaller fire in the bedroom fireplace, lit it.

While the house was warming up I went around opening all the windows a crack to get rid of the stale smell. Then I went to the kitchen, found that it was stocked with certain necessities, and made coffee in a glass percolator on a gas burner. I lit my pipe of Balkan Sobranie and the two smells, coffee and tobacco, began to fill the house, along with the dry burning wood, getting rid of the closed-up dead smell. I poured a cheese glass of brandy and toasted my homecoming.

It was something past midnight when I took a cup of coffee into the bedroom. I brought with me Blandings Castle by Wodehouse, a dog-eared copy which had probably been in the wicker bookcase for forty years, my brandy, and my pipe. I bunched the pillows up behind me and pulled the covers up to my chin. There was a dim bedside lamp and the shadows from the fireplace crackled, danced on the walls and ceiling. I listened to the wind as I read and sipped my coffee and brandy and smoked my pipe and I felt safe and secure, the way I’d felt as a child in the cottage.

I wasn’t wondering where Cyril was and I wasn’t thinking about the man in the sheepskin coat. It would all be all right and in the morning I’d get it all straightened out.

Then, exhausted, I turned off the lamp and slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!