Click on image to enlarge.
by Aaron Elkins
Description: In April 1945, The Nazis, reeling and near defeat, frantically work to hide the huge store of art treasures that Hitler has looted from Europe. Truck convoys loaded with the cultural wealth of the Western world pour in an unending stream into the compound of the vast Altaussee salt mine high in the Austrian Alps. But with the Allies closing in, the vaunted efficiency of the Nazis has broken down. At Altaussee, all is tumult and confusion. In the commotion a single truck, its driver, and its priceless load of masterpieces vanish into a mountain snowstorm. Half-a-century later, in a seedy Boston pawnshop, ex-curator Ben Revere makes a stunning discovery among the piles of junk: a Velazquez from the legendary Lost Truck. But with it come decades of secrets, rancor, and lies, and the few who know of the painting's existence have their lives snuffed out one by one by an unknown assassin. Revere must travel back to the grand cities of Europe to unravel the tangled history of the lost truck and its treasures before fifty years of hatred, greed, and retribution catch up with him.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1999
eBookwise Release Date: November 2010
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [489 KB]
Reading time: 306-429 min.
"Unbeatable?a fast-paced, terrific book?Elkins's story has it all." - Kansas City Star
* * * *
Altaussee Salt Mine, Altaussee, Austria, April 19, 1945, 11:35 A.M.
For two days and nights the mud-spattered trucks with their bone-tired drivers and their canvas-covered payloads had flowed without pause up the mountain road, four convoys in twenty-four hours, until the mine compound overflowed with filthy vehicles jammed willy-nilly against each other, all pretense of organization long ago swept away. Drivers who had managed, against all odds, to successfully unload their cargoes tried futilely to get back down the mountain to the control point, cursing and blaring their horns and even ramming trucks that blocked their way. Men at the ends of their tethers screamed and fought, gouging and rolling in the rutted mud like animals. The guards shouted and threatened, but few paid attention. Not at this point in the war.
For Dr. Professor Erhard Haftmann, the chief registrar, it was a nightmare beyond comprehension. For 40 hours he had gone without sleep, without changing his clothes, remaining on the receiving dock and growing more desperate with every hectic minute, every new, improperly recorded shipment. He had screamed himself hoarse and bitten his lips raw with frustration. His ulcer stabbed at him like a knife, his hemorrhoids tormented him, and the fiery rash encircling his waist and running down the backs of his legs had erupted again, in long, spiraling streaks that no lotion, no cream, could soothe.
Confusion piled on confusion, irregularity on irregularity. There were drivers with consignment orders that were not complete, that were for the wrong shipments, that weren't there at all; there were partial inventories, and missing inventories, and illegible inventories. And even if everything had been in order, there was no time to process it properly, not with the unending, impossible crush. Ever since the Allies had mounted their round-the-clock bombing of the cities there had been a tidal wave of art rolling up the mountain to the safety of the mine chambers, but never until now had it reached such insane proportions.
The system, he thought, with tears stinging his eyes, the system was in shambles, a tattered ruin. When would there ever be time to record and catalogue the new material? What would he do tomorrow, and the next day, when still more convoys streamed out of the repositories at Neuschwanstein, at Hohenfurth, at Wiener-Neustadt?
Where was it going to end?
For three years, since the day of his appointment, Professor Haftmann had proudly, gratefully dedicated his life to the system. First to its creation and then to its maintenance. Long before the first shipment had arrived, while the technicians were still laboring underground to put into place the immense network of shelving, electric wiring, and protective sheathing that would physically protect the treasure that was to come, Haftmann was constructing the even more vast and elaborate structure of forms, procedures, checks and cross-checks that would take chaos and make from it order. No museum--not the Louvre, not the Metropolitan, not the National Gallery--had ever devised so meticulous and efficient a record-keeping system under such demanding conditions.
And he had been successful. Every last one of the vast forest of art objects in their underground chambers could be classified, identified, and instantly found. Never--not once in all this time--had anything been miscatalogued or lost once it had been admitted through the great iron doors. Reichsleiter Bormann himself had sent him a letter of appreciation in which the Fuhrer's personal gratitude was handsomely expressed. Haftmann had it still, mounted in a silver frame.
But now . . . now the Fuhrer was no longer expressing personal gratitude from his rambling chalet in Berchtesgaden. He was said to be raving mad, said to be in hiding under the rubble of Berlin, from whence poured--always through Bormann--a wild sequence of contradictory and impossible orders supposedly to be imposed by a demoralized SS and a shattered, incoherent Wehrmacht, most of which was on the run from the Russians in the east or from the Anglo-Americans in the south.
For weeks the mountain passes had been lousy with defeated, straggling remnants of the once-mighty German Sixth Army. The Americans, so they said, were already on the outskirts of Munich, the Russians even now raping and plundering their way through Dresden.
Yet through it all Dr. Professor Haftmann had kept an iron grip on his matchless system of ledgers, registers, and precisely cross-indexed card catalogues. Whatever was happening above ground, whatever the eventual outcome of the war, the Vermeers, Rembrandts, Durers, Michelangelos--thousands of priceless masterpieces, the greatest art collection that the world had ever known--would continue to repose in orderly, minutely documented security in the quiet, dark chambers of the ancient salt mine beneath his feet.
But now, with this impossible--
"You wanted to see me?"
He started. How had he failed to notice the man come up? Soon, somehow, he would have to lie down somewhere, to close his eyes for a few minutes, but how, when?
"Yes, I wanted to see you," he said curtly. You are the commander of the convoy from Neuschwanstein?"
The man barely dipped his chin, not bothering to take the thin, ill-rolled cigarette out of his mouth. The corners of his lips curled down. "I have that great honor."
So, one of the surly ones. A sergeant he was, older than Haftmann, in his fifties, with a week-old beard, a greasy, misbuttoned uniform, and an insolent manner. Not a career soldier but a man with some education, too good for the job he was doing, or so he thought. A schoolmaster, Haftmann guessed. No, a civil service bureaucrat; a petty functionary who had safely sat out the war behind a desk and resented being forced at last to do something useful for his country.
Haftmann spoke with asperity. "How many consignments are in your convoy?"
"Ah, trucks," the man said with a smile, then shrugged. "About thirty."
Haftmann's eyes narrowed. "About thirty?"
"Thirty-five, I think."
"You think?" He drew himself erect, put out his hand, and snapped his fingers. "Your register, please."
The man opened a button in his tunic, pulled out a stained leather wallet, and handed it over.
Haftmann removed a grimy document and compared it, line by line, to a sheaf of papers of his own, making an irritable gesture with one hand. "Please blow your smoke elsewhere."
The sergeant shrugged and stepped back to lean against the stucco wall, picking away with a clasp-knife at the whitish mud that caked his boots. Dried clumps pattered on the wooden floor. Haftmann checked his temper. His insides were in enough turmoil as it was. All morning, the bile had been backing up into his throat, bitter and burning. After a minute he nodded and handed the papers back.
"You verified this register personally?"
The sergeant shrugged again. "What's all the fuss about, is there a problem?"
"Yes, there's a problem. Your register lists thirty-five consignments from Neuenschwanstein, as does the pre-shipment inventory."
Through the haze of cigarette smoke the man gave him a careless nod. "As I said."
"But there are only thirty-four trucks here. Truck number N30, containing lots 408 to 444, is not present."
The sergeant regarded him indifferently. "Is that so?"
"Yes, that's so," said Haftmann, his temper beginning to get the better of him after all. "You're in trouble, sergeant. This discrepancy should have been accounted for--by you, right here, on the cover sheet, before the convoy ever started. Do you have any idea how much work your slipshod attention has already cost my assistants?"
The sergeant's red-rimmed eyes half-closed. He let smoke drift slowly from his mouth and sucked it back into his nostrils. "Fuck your assistants."
Haftmann's ulcer tweaked at him, exactly as if a pair of pincers had nipped his insides. In a burst of rage, he flung the sheaf of papers at the man's chest. "You're not--you think--" But he was stopped by a rasping, choking cough that ground on and on. The sergeant picked up the papers and looked non-committally on.
At last the coughing fit was over, leaving him sore and winded. He removed his spectacles--they'd been on so long they pulled away some skin--and squeezed the bridge of his nose between his fingers. This was what came of the terrible, unrelenting pressures of his work. He would make himself ill yet. But this sergeant, arrogant as he was, wasn't to blame; if not for the awful toll the war had taken on Germany's true soldiers he would have been back in Berlin where he belonged, supervising letter carriers or railroad inspectors, not leading an important convoy at the front.
"Here is the situation, sergeant," Haftmann said with frigid calm. "I do not intend to validate your voucher until the discrepancy is accounted for. You will please explain in this space, in your own writing--"
"And just how the hell am I supposed to do that? How do I know what happened to the damn truck?" He hunched his shoulders. "It was there when we started."
For a moment Haftmann couldn't speak. "How . . . do you mean to tell me you left with thirty-five trucks, with your full complement? That you . . . you lost one?"
For the first time the sergeant's tired eyes seemed to snap into focus, even to gleam. He took a last drag on the cigarette and savagely flicked the stub into a corner.
"Do you have any idea what's going on out there? Do you ever go outside this compound? Have you seen the soldiers coming back from the front with their ears and noses frozen off? Without faces, without fingers? There's no food to be had in the villages, do you happen to be aware of that small fact? Crazy old grandmothers are on the roadsides trying to sell themselves for a potato, a candy bar, a cigarette." He gave a fierce little laugh. "You want me to worry about a few pictures going into a cave?"
"But, but it was your responsibility! Those pictures, those pictures are--"
"Yes, I know what those pictures are," the sergeant snapped. "A million years ago I was a professor of Western civilization, so I know, all right. I also know that in Lauffen we saw an old man, a veteran from the last war, wearing his raggedy old uniform; a genuine hero he was, with a tunic full of medals. And what was he doing, this genuine hero? He too was standing by the side of the road. He was trying to trade a beautiful little Correggio St. John he'd stolen from some church for a pair of boots. A pair of boots! That's what your precious pictures are worth."
He leaned back against the wall, the bright, brief light in his eyes extinguished, the heat gone. "Everything is over, the Fatherland is destroyed. Germany will never recover from this, never."
His knees watery, Haftmann stood as if paralyzed. It had happened then, it had finally come to the worst, the unthinkable.
One of the consignments had been lost.