The Newton Enigma.  A novel by Linton Herbert

Chapter 12 a


Baltimore, October 29, 2 PM


Baltimore is the gateway between North and South.  It has been called the city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm; charm indeed if your landscape is of the human spirit rather than scenery and architecture.  Many years ago a liberal spirit overtook the city, and it was decided that the world would be better off if more people owned their own homes.


Laws were passed and safeguards established so that it was possible to own a house but not the land on which the house was situated.  Under these provisions it became possible to build private houses very cheaply.  Row houses were put up, narrow high dwellings that shared a wall with each adjacent house.  Rent was paid on the land but not on the house itself.


The resulting neighborhoods meant that people who could never have owned a home in another city could own one there.  One of the marks of pride was the white marble steps.  Many houses had a single white step up to the entrance.  One of the chores of the household was for the mother to go out each morning and scrub the step with great earnestness.  It was a labor of pride.  It meant a freehold. 


With homes so cheap, people found they could not move out easily.  Many could never have afforded a home in any other city.  So the spirit evolved that one made or broke ones career there in Baltimore.  Nay, there in that very neighborhood.  So in the end the city has become one of the most conservative on earth.  There are more than twenty ethnic communities in Baltimore.  Each is so jealously guarded that if a house or store is sold to someone from another community, even if the place is on the border between them, the whole city is scandalized.


They celebrate their diversity with an annual event when each community puts forward its best food and dance and outlines its traditions.  But beneath the genuine camaraderie is a genuine stability that has resulted in some unusual things. 


One trademark is the food.  Perhaps the best food for the best price anywhere is available in Baltimore.  It has been claimed that a diner in Washington can drive to Baltimore, eat dinner and return, and not only will he save money on the transaction and eat better, but it will take less time.  The proprietors know that their local reputation is everything.  The mighty of the earth often sit elbow to elbow in Baltimore with the poorest eating crabs at some modest counter; they do it not because it is fashionable but because they like the crabs. 


The infrastructure of public services is so good that great ocean going freighters will call at Baltimore in preference to other seaboard cities because they know that they will be drinking Baltimore water on the outbound voyage.


Here Edgar Allen Poe lived and did much of his best work.  Here he died under puzzling circumstance, and here is his grave, which is much beloved.  There is a rumor that on each Halloween night a whisky bottle appears on his tomb.  His house on North Amity Street is open to the public.  One of Poe’s characters declared that he had spent so much time studying the ruins of Mesopotamia that it had destroyed his soul.  Terra Lane might have understood that better than any other.


The Walters Art Gallery has a splendid collection.  Classical ancient statues stand in halls raked by sunlight through the high windows.  Giant oil paintings are more sheltered.  There is a painting of a saint being beheaded; her pose is serene, but her neck muscles bulge in anticipation of the sword stroke.  In the ancient Greek section there is a gold bracelet on display shaped like a torque with rams’ heads at the ends.  It is so elegant you will not find its match in a jewelry store, although local artisans can duplicate it for you.  They tell the story in Baltimore (but not in New York) that when the New York Metropolitan Museum requested copies of the collection of Japanese prints at the Walters, the Baltimore museum answered that they had the original blueprints of the Met, and the Japanese section was not large enough to house the prints requested.


It was in Fredric, an hour west of Baltimore, that Barbara Fritchie waved her ragged flag in defiance of Jackson’s men.  


Boston has her Constitution, much celebrated as Old Ironsides in the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  Baltimore has the frigate Constellation, which is bigger, older, fought more battles and won more battles.  But while there were plans to destroy Old Ironsides in Holmes’s time, the Constellation was still in active service.  She was flagship of the North Atlantic during World War II, a dock-bound office building to be sure, but serving none the less.  And it was from the same pier that Steven Porter launched his campaign against the British, venturing as far as the Pacific and even to the Marquesas Islands.  In those days the Marquesas population numbered some hundred thousand.  Now it is about seven thousand.  The decline has never been well explained.


As the car approached Baltimore from the south Ivan remarked, “You know, Baltimore is the strategic keystone of America.  The army that controls a corridor between here and the mountains at Harper’s Ferry cuts the United States into three parts – North, South and West – and they have a deep water harbor plus access to the Shenandoah Valley as well.”


It was this tactical consideration, rather than revenge for Porter’s depredations that led the British to attack Baltimore during the war of 1812.  That campaign led to one of the great American icons, the “Star Spangled Banner.”


Some day before you are much older make occasion to visit Baltimore on the Fourth of July.  It seems half the city turns out for the reenactment of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, which guards the approach to Baltimore.  Depending on the year, there will be a floor show.  And as you stand in the dark you will recall the circumstances.  The British commanding officer had been killed in a skirmish while leading his men overland toward Baltimore.  The less experienced new commander decided to take his fleet in and bombard Fort McHenry and then sail right into the harbor and command it.  It seemed like a good idea.  There was a time when a single man o’ war could sail up to a defiant Scottish castle and blast it to gravel in a single day.


On the battlements of the fort there may be cannon the night you are there.  It turns out that there are cannon clubs all up and down the eastern seaboard.  The city invites them to participate.  So during the night, while boats out in the bay shoot off toy skyrockets a gun occasionally answers, where some gunner presumably thinks he has a chance because of the placement of his gun and the trail of the rocket.  There will be the roar of the cannon and a jet of flame that illuminates the uniform clad gun crew.


Along toward dawn, having missed your night’s sleep, you will begin to think, “Soon the sun will come up, and we can sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and go home.’”  As every school child should know, the words were written by Francis Scott Key.  He had boarded a British vessel seeking to secure the release of a friend who had been captured.  As the fleet prepared to begin the siege he could not be permitted to disembark, so he watched the battle from the British side and wrote his song on the back of an envelope.  For the occasion, the high spirited defenders had made an inordinately large flag as a gesture of defiance.  It was this remarkable flag that he saw.


The night wanes and you consult your watch as you look forward to a good day’s sleep.  Beyond the floor show and the occasional volcanic flare of a gun it is utterly black.


And then over a matter of seconds it goes from total black to one shade less than black.  It is still very dark, but you can distinguish the horizon.  There is a difference between sky and sea.  And in literally less than a minute, there is a dim light.  And you can see all these sailboats out there.  And then the guns on the fort start firing very fast indeed.  It was a new day.  And the new nation would not be overthrown.  Then they strike up the music. 


As the black Grand National sped across the city Hapgood remarked, “Baltimore was the home of Babe Ruth.”


“It is also the biggest center for sex change operations,” countered Tracy. 


That morning they had gone to Johns Hopkins to look for someone who would talk to them.  When they had parked and were walking toward the medical center Tracy happened to glance at the Baltimore Washington monument far across the city.  The great man was standing on a column and holding a scroll at his hip.  From where they were the scroll looked like a portion of his anatomy projecting in the rudest possible way.


They were advised to speak with a graduate student at Baltimore City Hospital, far to the east.  It was while making their way there that they had been able to be of some assistance to Gamal. 


Thousands of drivers daily see the hospital from the interstate as they approach the Baltimore Tunnel from the north.  It is off to the right, standing alone on a vast expanse of open lawn.  During the Civil war it was a hospital for wounded Union soldiers.  Later it became a tuberculosis Sanatorium.  It is now a big city general hospital.  Here was here where the first ambulances were introduced that could be in radio contact with the emergency room, so that they could – for instance – radio in an EKG of a heart attack victim and treat him under a doctor’s supervision even before the speeding ambulance could reach the hospital.  Here a technique for cancer treatment was developed; anti cancer drugs were given at greater than lethal dose to kill the tumor.  The drugs also killed the bone marrow.  But there would be a bone marrow transplant before the circulating blood was entirely exhausted.  The technique had had much success. 


Before the Civil War it had been an insane asylum. 


It was early afternoon when Tracy, James and Ivan left their car and strolled up to the main entrance of the new wing.  They inquired of a receptionist and were told that the man they were looking for had just returned and would come to meet them.  Presently a young Arab approached them.


“Welcome.  My name is Aden Kamali.  I understand you wish to speak with me.”


“Yes, if we might,” said Ivan.  “I’m Ivan, this is James and Tracy.”


“My office will be quieter.  We shall go through the tunnel.”


Aden took them down a flight of stairs.  The underground part of the hospital did not have the gloss of the new wing.  The tunnel walls in the newer section were naked concrete lit by harsh lights with grated metal guards.  The tunnel trended upward slightly as they went in the direction of the old wing.


The tunnels in the subbasement of the oldest wing of the hospital were stone.  They had been well built, and they seemed safe but of an antiquity rarely seen in America even around Baltimore.  The four turned a corner and the stonework become more regular, as if the masons intended the area to be more presentable than a simple access tunnel.  The ceiling rose and became vaulted overhead.


Aden waved at some iron manacles hanging by chains from the walls.  “Handcuffs.  Before the Civil War this used to be an insane asylum.  They hadn’t invented the straight jacket then, so they had to do something if a patient was trying to hurt himself.  They would bring them down here and chain them up.  I imagine it was very noisy when the place was full.”


“Grim,” said Ivan.


“Yes, but not all that bad,” said Tracy.  “Look how low the handcuffs are.  You could sit or even lie down with those.”


“You’re right.  I always think of people chained to the wall with their hands over their heads,” said Ivan.


“If your arms are higher than your heart, they begin to hurt after a while,” said Tracy.  “But these chains don’t do that.  They were put here for safety, not for torture.”


They entered a more modern tiled space where hydro therapy and electroconvulsive therapy had been applied. 


Aden said, “Probably Edgar Allen Poe visited this place.  Not at the time these were here, but earlier, when the handcuffs were used.  When I read his story ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ I imagine it happening here.”


They went up a flight of steps to an ordinary basement and found an elevator.


As the elevator went up in the old building, a Land Rover was slowly picking its way through a pitch dark night up the lower slopes of an enormous mountain.  The driving light, bright as a sun, flooded the landscape ahead revealing rock disintegrating with age and weather.  A billion cycles of day had fried the rock with sunlight that would kill an unprepared man in the time from sun going up to sun going down.  A billion cycles of night the envious fingers of frost had clawed at every microscopic flaw, heaving, tearing, not to be denied.  It looked like the land Allah forsook, but Allah forsakes never. 


Not so high as Everest, the mountain none the less had a larger footprint.  From the furthest extreme where its flanks at last merged with the plain below to furthest extreme it was about three hundred miles.  It was a single massif the size of New England.  By day it had an unobstructed command of land to its northeast that went to the horizon.  By night the driving light found beyond the rocks only void.  The mountain, by mild coincidence, was one hundred twenty degrees east of Jon’s apartment in Tampa at the same latitude, and if you drew a great circle from mountain to apartment, the circle would go through Ivan’s home near Ocala.  The coincidence was reduced if you considered the size of the mountain.


Every cruel foot between here and Mecca was holy land to the Arab.  This was Mount Sinai, by tradition the place where Moses was given the Ten Commandments.  The Land Cruiser had driven for two hard days all the way to stumble up its forbidding slopes.  At last it paused and a man got out holding a small rug rolled under one arm.


Ali Kamali rolled out his prayer rug toward Mecca.  He cleansed himself and then bowed and prayed fervently for guidance.  Something in his heart was burning for action.  But he knew not what that action should be. 


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