Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE
PROVENCE, FRANCE

The unexpected vibration of my phone startled me, and I immediately regretted bringing it out here. I should have left it tucked in my jacket draped over the chair or dropped it carelessly on the kitchen counter. As it was, only a few people had this particular number, and I wasn't expecting a call from any of them. It wasn't that I didn't want to hear from Phil or Gwen or Elliot or Alison—all good people whom I would call friends—but not at this moment.

I'd been enjoying my evening of quiet reflection, lost in my thoughts, mulling over what had happened and pondering what I was going to do next. I needed to do something; I couldn't hide away forever, even if the idea was mildly appealing. I needed to get on with my life and my work, and just a few moments ago before this distraction, some acceptable ideas had started to percolate.

The phone vibrated again, rattling on the table next to me. And the caller ID showed Restricted, which made it even more bothersome, particularly now and especially here.

The south of France—with its beautiful beaches, superb wine, decadent men and women, and unbridled past—was where I went to escape or relax. It was a little of both this go-around. Amidst the centuries-old villages, I could read, eat, flirt with socializing, and recharge. I was content here, and after a few days or weeks, I would be fortified to thrust myself into the breach and face the big bad world.

I watched the phone vibrate once more—three times now—and debated whether to let it go to voicemail. I preferred that option. It was the better option. I didn't want to talk to anyone. Although I had my friends and colleagues and acquaintances and could attempt a front of affable charm now and again, in my truest form I was quiet, preferring the conversations in my head to those with actual human beings.

I was a historian and I preferred books to...well...just about everything. Books didn't need anything, just to be read and understood. They embodied a conversation with the author that was codified with ink on paper, there to be surveyed and contemplated and always available. People, on the other hand, tended to be complicated and unpredictable, some exhaustingly so.

But there it went again. My phone. Four rings now.

Voicemail, I thought. If the call was important, the person would leave a message or ring back, right?

But...

The phone vibrated once more, the noise jarring as it clattered on the patio table, demanding attention like the obnoxious party guest who spoke too loudly for the room and who no one could avoid. I think everyone has encountered those individuals at one moment or another.

And again—it vibrated.

Dammit.

I threw back the last of my wine and snatched up the phone. "Hello?"

"Hello. Am I speaking with Professor William Dresden of Princeton University?" asked a woman's voice I didn't recognize. She had a British accent and a confident tone, like one accustomed to chucking authority around.

"May I ask who's calling?" I replied.

"My name is Adeline, and I have something urgent to chat with the professor about."

"Okay," I replied, remaining polite but noting that she hadn't offered a last name.

"Are you Professor Dresden?" she asked again.

"I am."

"Good. Glad I reached you."

"What can I do for you?"

"I'll get right to the point. Neither of us like having our time wasted," the woman began. "My organization needs your assistance. We're aware that for the past few years you've been researching the lives of some lesser-known men from the nineteenth century. You've argued that they were driving forces during Europe's imperial era, and you recently gave a talk in Washington, D.C., about them. You caused quite a bit of controversy."

I didn't respond but she was right. My latest research had indeed caused a pompous cabal to descend from the Ivory Tower who were intent on ripping up my life's work. By focusing on the people that surrounded the famous personalities of the past—rather than the statesmen and generals themselves—I'd shown that the aides and deputies of history were often as influential as the principals. They worked behind the scenes, pushing here and whispering there, orchestrating events according to their own designs and those of their masters. Their obscurity was their power, and these lesser-known individuals had intrigued me for the past twenty years or so.
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