Fiona bumped him aside. "Concerning this." She slapped a familiar book on the reception counter. It was the Darwin Bible.
Oh, God…he had left the book under guard on the jet.
Apparently not well enough.
"Fiona," Gray said in a warning tone.
"It's mine," she said out of the side of her mouth.
The clerk picked up the book and flipped through it. There was no sign of recognition. "A Bible? We don't allow proselytizing here at the hostel." He closed the book and slid it back toward Fiona. "Besides, my father is Jewish."
With the cat out of the bag, Gray proceeded more directly. "The Bible belonged to Charles Darwin. We believe it was once a part of your family's library. We were wondering if we could ask your father more about it."
The clerk eyed the Bible with less derision. "The library was sold off before my father took over this place," he said slowly. "I never did get to see it. I've heard from neighbors that it had been in the family going back centuries."
The clerk stepped around the reception desk and led the way past the hearth to an arched opening into a small neighboring hall. One wall was lined by tall thin windows, giving the room a cloistered feel. The opposite wall held a cold hearth large enough to walk into upright. The room was filled with rows of tables and benches, but it was empty, except for an older woman in a smock who swept the floor.
"This was the old family library and study. Now it's the hostel's dining hall. My father refused to sell the estate, but there were back taxes. I suppose that was why the library was sold half a century ago. My father had to auction off most of the original furnishings. Each generation, a bit of history vanishes."
"A shame," Gray said.
The clerk nodded and turned away. "Let me call my father. See if he's willing to talk to you."
A few moments later, the clerk waved to them and guided them to wide-set double doors. He unlocked the way and held the door. It led to the private section of the estate.
The clerk introduced himself as Ryan Hirszfeld as he marched them to the back of the house and out into a glass-and-bronze conservatory. Potted ferns and colorful bromeliads lined the walls. Stepped shelves climbed one windowed side, crowded with a mix of specimen plants, some looking like weeds. At the back, a lone palm tree rose, its crown brushing against the glass roof, some fronds yellowing in neglect. There was an old, overgrown feel to the place, unkempt and untended. The feeling was enhanced by the drizzle of water leaking through a cracked pane, trailing into a bucket.
The sunroom was far from sunny.
In the center of the conservatory, a frail man sat in a wheelchair, a blanket over his lap, staring out toward the back of the property. Rainwater sluiced across all the surfaces, making the world beyond appear insubstantial and unreal.
Ryan went to him, almost shyly. "Vater. Hier sind die Leute mit der Bibel."
"Auf Englisch, Ryan…auf Englisch." The man hauled on one wheel and the chair turned to face them. His skin looked paper thin. His voice wheezed. Suffering from emphysema, Gray guessed.
Ryan, the son, wore a pained expression. Gray wondered if he was even aware of it.
"I am Johann Hirszfeld," the old man said. "So you've come to inquire about the old library. Certainly has been a lot of interest lately. Not a word for decades. Now twice in one year."
Gray remembered Fiona's story of the mysterious elderly gentleman who had visited Grette's bookshop and searched through their files. He must have seen the bill of lading and followed the same path here.
"Ryan says you have one of the books."
"The Darwin Bible," Gray said.
The old man held out his hands. Fiona stepped forward and placed it in his palms. He settled it to his lap. "Haven't seen this since I was a boy," he wheezed. He glanced up at his son. "Danke, Ryan. You should see to the front desk."
Ryan nodded, stepping back reluctantly, then turned and left.
Johann waited for his son to shut the conservatory door, then sighed, his eyes returning to the Bible. He opened the front cover, checking the Darwin family tree inside. "This was one of my family's most cherished possessions. The Bible was a gift to my great-grandfather in 1901 from the British Royal
Society. He had been a distinguished botanist at the turn of the century."
Gray heard the melancholy in the man's voice.
"Our family has a long tradition of scientific study and accomplishments. Nothing along the lines of Herr Darwin, but we've made a few footnotes." His eyes drifted back to the rain and watery property. "That's long over. Now I guess we'll have to be known as hoteliers."
"About the Bible," Gray said. "Can you tell me anything else about it? Was the library always kept here?"
"Natürlich. Some books were taken out into the field when one or another of my relatives went abroad for research. But this book only left the household once. I only know that because I was here when it was returned. Mailed back by my grandfather. Caused a stir here."
"I thought you might ask. That's why I sent Ryan out. Best he not know."
"Ask about what?"
"My grandfather Hugo worked for the Nazis. As did his daughter, my aunt Tola. The two of them were inseparable. I learned later, whispered scandalously among the relatives, that they were involved in some secret research project. Both were noted and distinguished biologists."
"What sort of research?" Monk asked.
"No one ever knew. Both my grandfather and Aunt Tola died at the end of the war. But a month before that, a crate arrived from my grandfather. It contained the part of the library he had taken with him. Maybe he knew he was doomed and wanted to preserve the books. Five books actually." The man tapped the Bible. "This was one of them. Though what he might want with the Bible as a research tool, no one could tell me."
"Maybe a piece of home," Fiona said, softly.
Johann seemed finally to see the young girl. He slowly nodded. "Maybe. Perhaps some connection to his own father. Some symbolic stamp of approval for what he was doing." The old man shook his head. "Working for the Nazis. Horrible business."
Gray remembered something Ryan had said. "Wait. But you're Jewish, aren't you?"
"Yes. But you have to understand, my great-grandmother, Hugo's mother, was German, with deep local family roots. Which included connections within the Nazi party. Even when Hitler's pogrom began, our family was spared. We were classified as Mischlinge, mixed blood. Enough German to avoid a death sentence. But to prove that loyalty, my grandfather and aunt found themselves recruited by the Nazis. They were gathering scientists like squirrels after nuts."