Chapter 2

George Ripley


For instance, I knew that the best way to gain access to the roof of the Countway Library at Harvard is to zip-line across from one of the offices in the School of Public Health building, fly over the courtyard of tables and raised garden beds far below, and then drop deftly onto the roof. At that point, I could creep cat-like over to the sky-light and cut my way through the glass with a high-powered portable laser.

From there it would be a simple matter of swinging across the vast, gaping atrium to the museum cabinets. Compromise the safety-glass containing the skull without triggering the thermal alarm, using an alternating application of pressurized freezing gas and a blow torch — or with a hammer, if the process proved too tedious — and then swing back across the atrium, pulling my way up via a mechanical pulley to the roof once more, from where I would make an escape via portable glider.

I would then drift gently down to Huntington Avenue, and near the intersection of Tremont Street I would undoubtedly be met by a black Mercedes driven by a beautiful Ukrainian accomplice named Svetlana, with eyes as cold as ice, and a past murkier than the Dnieper.

The only problem with this plan was that I didn’t know a beautiful Ukrainian named Svetlana. Or a Ukrainian of any other name for that matter.

And besides, I’m no idiot. As soon as I presented such a woman with the skull, I knew she’d only draw a Fort-12 semi-automatic pistol on me, shoot me once through the stomach, and push my bewildered, bleeding self out the door of the Mercedes and accelerate away with my trophy, but only after assuring me that her betrayal wasn’t personal.

So, then I would have to hunt Svetlana across Europe for years until I finally tracked her down in a certain subterranean bar in Kraków, patronized by Russian gangsters and felons of every sort, where I’d confront her – or really just ask that one, crucial question: ‘Why, Svetlana? Why?’

And that seemed like a hell of a lot of time and effort, so I decided not to bother with the roof and find a better way into the building instead. I was still mulling over the problem, and wondering how science was getting along with the whole ‘jetpack’ sub-category of technological innovation and development when the landline in my office rang.

I flipped it to my ear and said into the receiver:

“Shea can’t come to the phone right now because he is busy planning a complicated heist and does not wish to be disturbed. Send him an email instead. Thank you.”

I hung up at once. There is a knack to hanging up on people and the first rule is to never get drawn into a debate about it.

“That sounds like jolly fun,” said the voice of a very elderly gentleman, close to my ear. “Can I help?”

A wave of dread passed over me as I wondered if I was having some sort of religious experience. A religious experience would be the last thing I needed right now, given the circumstances.

In the grip of fear, I nerved myself to look over my shoulder. A very old man was peering tentatively into my office. It was George Ripley, Curator of the Harvard Medical Museum.

“Hello George!” I exclaimed with a thrill of relief. My office had only one armchair, though, as usual, it was concealed beneath a Gordian knot of about five hundred spare Ethernet cables. I scooped up the mess and flung it over to the emptier corner of my office.

“Come in, come in and sit down, please. It’s good to see you, mate.”

The old man smiled, gingerly skirted the old cathode-ray tube monitors laying on the floor and settled into my armchair, looking like a kind, old wizard.

It was nice to see George above ground for a change. He usually haunted the basement level of the library, which I rarely found the time to visit. Why is his office in the basement when the museum is on the 5th floor? Well, for that matter, why is the mailroom on the 5th floor instead of at ground level, near the entrance?

Well, while we’re asking reasonable questions, why is there an office on the 5th floor occupied by a nice lady who has being playing solitaire at her desk for seven hours a day, for going-on eleven years?

If reality seems ill-configured in the Countway, the fault may not lie with your narrator. It’s certainly not my fault that old George wears the same cardigan every day – a sad affair with only a few oddly-matched buttons. He also wears bedroom slippers and carries an antique pipe and the fragrance of tobacco. George is an affable old bloke who might have been six hundred years old for all I knew, but he looked a well-preserved hundred and twenty.

“So, you’re planning a heist, are you?” he exclaimed with warm enthusiasm. “It’s been decades since I’ve been involved in a good heist. They’re exciting things, you know. A few stalwart men, bravely and cleverly working their way past the guards and making off with a fortune. There’s nothing better than a heist to raise the spirits!”

“Well, I am working on a heist, George,” said I, “but it’s in the early days of planning right now. I’d love to tell you all about it, but first I’d have to be sure you can keep a secret.”

“Are you still thinking of stealing the skull of Phineas Gage?”

I stared at him for a long moment.

“How did you know that?”

“You told me about it last week, I suddenly remember. Actually, I think you’ve told everybody who works here by now.”

“You make it sound like I’m being unprofessional,” I said, feeling ruffled. “For the record – whenever I tell someone I’m stealing the skull of Phineas Gage I have always carefully asked them to keep it a big secret.”

“Well, that sounds prudent, at least,” he offered.

I nodded in agreement.

George has a good-natured smile, and I knew I’d miss him one day, after I’d stolen the skull and absconded to Sweden or Colombia – I was still nailing down the details on that. But I’ll admit that his flippant tone about my discretion had stung a little.

“But you know, George, before we leave the topic, I’d like to point out that I haven’t gone around telling *everybody *about the heist. I mean, I haven’t told Wendell.”

“Why is that?” wondered the old man.

“You know, I’m not really sure. I guess I just don’t trust him. If you ask me, he seems a bit indiscreet. I think it’s the tie.”

George assured me that the secret of my heist would be safe with him, and I felt instantly grateful.

“You can’t know how good that makes me feel,” I told him sincerely. “After all, you are the curator of the museum which holds the skull in question. I’d feel awful if you were to take the whole heist in the wrong spirit.”

“Goodness me, no,” replied the old chap. Then he patted himself down, as if looking for his pipe, remembered he was no longer allowed to smoke in the building and became sad. Being the curator of the museum from which I would be stealing the skull would make the old fellow an ideal inside man, of course, but no matter how “jolly fun” it all sounded to him personally, I had misgivings.

“I’m fine telling you that I’m planning to steal the skull, of course, but you shouldn’t really know exactly when. Or how, for that matter. It would spoil the surprise, I reckon.”

Old George saw my point – his eyes twinkled, and he touched the side of his nose.

“Ah, so it could happen at any moment, you’re saying?”

“Precisely. But you better not ask too many questions, in case I accidentally give you too many hints. You should just tell your people in the museum to be on their guards. Emphasize a vague threat. You’ve picked up some fresh intel. Background chatter. A friend at Interpol reached out. Or ‘word has reached you from sources you trust on the black market.’”

“Reminds me of when that nice Vincenzo Peruggia chap stole the Mona Lisa back in 1911!” remembered George. “Walked right out of the Louvre with it under his jacket! Had it for two years before they caught him with it. I stepped-in and had a word with certain parties, made the case that security was just so lackadaisical – I’d been saying it for years, you know – assured the magistrate that poor Mister Peruggia had done us a favor, really. There was some pressure for a tough sentence, but I had promised the boy’s mother he’d only serve a little bit of time in prison. He was out in a year. Terribly nice chap. His mother used to send me tomatoes to my hotel when I visited Rome. That must have been, what, 1913. My, time flies.”

“It does,” I agreed, feeling slightly at a loss.

It was probably a good moment to remind George that the events he was recalling happened almost a century ago, but I was caught up in the story. And besides, I really didn’t have the heart. I think all of the staff at the library had decided that George was going vague in his senior years and conflating his own memories with matters he’d once read about. For example, on more than one occasion he spoke of being on first-name basis with the nineteenth century poet John Keats.

Normally when George reminisced there would be someone around to exchange glances with, but here I was alone, nodding as if all was right with the world. No matter how unlikely his memories, no one would ever be so unkind as to correct such a nice man.

Besides, apart from his odd habit of describing large swathes of the past millennium in the first-person, there was no getting around the fact that nothing seemed to be wrong with his memory.

“The best antiquities thieves,” the old man said, “should always exercise their imaginations, if you want my opinion. Dream up something complicated and unexpected. You know something, young fellow, I think this is going to be a great deal of fun!”

I smiled at him but felt uneasy. I had an obligation to make the forthcoming heist fantastically diverting for him. The problem was that I didn’t have a clue how to pull it off. Just now I had dismissed the idea of zip-lines and was already wondering about excavation equipment. I knew nothing about excavation equipment, but tunneling all the way up from below the basement to the museum on the fifth floor seemed like a massive pain in the neck.

Then again, maybe I was just over-thinking the entire thing.

“I wish I could ask poor Phineas,” I thought out loud distractedly.

“Too late for that, I’m afraid,” George Ripley said sadly. “Poor chap is dead, you know. But I’ll tell you something – we’ve got his skull in the museum. Why don’t you stop by and take a look at it sometime?”

I exhaled slowly and promised him that I would, at my earliest opportunity.

“It all happened before my time, of course,” he said.

I look at him askance.

“Oh yes, I didn’t join Harvard until much later. You see, in September of 1848 I was in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which was under Austrian rule, of course.

Here we go, I thought.

“It was a time of chaos for the Austrian rulers, and uprisings in all major cities of their Kingdom. I was there carrying messages between Napoleon III in France and Carl Albert, who was the King of Sardinia. The Piedmontese wanted France to join the fight against the Austrians, and the prevailing view in England at the time…. I should probably mention here I was an English spy, which explains why I wasn’t in the North of America. At the time, all the interesting things seemed to be happening in Europe, you see, so ….”

“But Phineas…” I prompted.

“Wasn’t there, I’m afraid. It was just me.”

“Was he still in Vermont?”

“Oh yes, he was in Vermont, near the town of Cavendish that September. He was a blasting foreman working on the construction of the railroad. A demolitions expert, one might call him today.

“You see, when you need to clear some large rocks out of your way, you call in a crew of experts – you don’t try it yourself, too risky. Fiddly stuff, explosives. Especially in those days. But that was the business Phineas was in, and its interesting work. Or so I’m told.

“Let’s imagine you’re building a railroad and you need to remove a particularly large rock. What you do is you bore a deep hole into the rock, pour in the blasting powder, insert a fuse, and fill the hole with sand. Then you tamp it down with a tamping iron – which is just a metal rod, really – and after that, retreat to a safe distance and light the fuse.

“Fairly routine work for Phineas at that time. He was 25 years young. Clever, capable chap, and knew what he was doing according to all accounts. Until one day – well, it’s an easy mistake to make, apparently – but poor Phineas forgot to add the sand. Still, who really knows? He was driving a meter-long tamping iron into the hole when a spark must have ignited the blasting powder.”

“Kaboom,” said I.

“Indeed. Phineas’s face and hands received quite a scorching.”

We all know that the English are famous for understatement but in this case, I think George’s reluctance to describe Phineas’s injury in close detail was little more than good manners. We both knew that the tamping iron had shot up like a rocket, entered Phineas Gage’s head under his left cheek and exited through the top of his skull. Later it was found twenty-five meters away, covered with blood and bits of brain.

“Should have killed him,” noted the old man, detachedly, “but it didn’t, you see, which is where the story gets strange.”

George was right. Normally people in Phineas’s situation prefer to lie down and stop breathing. Instead he got back onto his feet, looked about and said ‘ouch’. Or words to that effect.

I’m sure at least someone who was there said something like, ‘Dude! You have a hole in your head!’ – because there’s one in every crowd, isn’t there? – to which Phineas probably said, ‘Really, Kevin? You don’t say. Will someone please find that tamping iron and hit Kevin with it? Thanks.’

“Half an hour later,” George continued, “Phineas was sitting on a chair outside his hotel in the town of Cavendish when the doctor came riding up in a horse-drawn carriage.

‘Doctor, here is business enough for you,’ he said to him nonchalantly.”

“And you’re absolutely sure he wasn’t Australian?” I asked. George nodded.

Unnerved – and probably regretting his decision to pursue a medical career – the doctor arranged some shards of broken skull over his patient’s exposed, pulsating brain and then stitched him up as best he knew how. When you consider that Phineas had survived both an iron bar through his skull and an encounter with a nineteenth century doctor – all in a single day – then it seems a real pity that he wasn’t able to get himself outside afterwards to buy a lottery ticket.

Over the next two months he made a difficult but steady recovery. Miraculously, and in spite of the doctor fussing with him, he lived. In fact, he went on living for another twelve years.

This all strains credulity, of course. If some novelist made up a story like this she would be told to rewrite it in an instant. “It’s all too unlikely,” people would complain. “It lacks realism. Change the story so Phineas is only concussed by the blast. Perhaps he – no, make it a she – is suffering from some sort of amnesia. She only thinks she’s got a hole in her head. Perhaps she has a PhD in forensic psychology and an ongoing romantic relationship with a serial killer. And the two of them are beleaguered by time-traveling zombies …”

The point is that Phineas’s survival was so bafflingly unlikely that when the medical world learned of his death years later it descended on his skull with ill-disguised glee.

“Obviously, Harvard Medical School had to have the skull in their collection,” concluded George, with a dash of wistfulness. “His story is now recalled in roughly 60% of all introductory psychology textbooks. It’s the most famous skull in the entire world. So, I do hope you’ll be careful with it after you steal it, young fellow.”

“I’ll probably be careful,” I promised.

It was then that the old man finally recalled the reason for his visit. “You know what – it’s the silliest thing but my computer doesn’t seem to want to activate again. It’s been very moody of late.”

I clucked my tongue and promised I’d write a letter to George’s manager advising her that George’s machine had completely exploded and there was nothing to be done about it until tomorrow. In fact, George might as well take the rest of the day off.

The old man looked at me solemnly and told me I was the best thing that had ever happened to the library. I replied that I knew that, and that, in my opinion, he was the finest person I’d met since coming to work here. We gripped hands, swore allegiance to one another and then, after making me promise not to use explosives while stealing the skull, the old man vanished.

I didn’t need to go downstairs to know what was ailing George’s computer, of course. I’d been working in this library for months at this point, so I already knew that the nice lady who cleaned his office had once again knocked the electrical cable out of the wall while vacuuming under his desk.

There was no explaining this to George, however; to his mind all electronic machines were the products of an unfamiliar sorcery. In any case, I was happy to have an excuse to stop by his office. Really, I just wanted to hear more about his adventures during the Napoleonic Wars.


chapter 3 continues …