Prologue to Riders
November 9, 1918
Pasewalk Military Hospital
Province of Pomerania, Germany
THE NURSE MOVED slowly down the drab, poorly lit hall of the hospital, her senses accosted by the sights, sounds and smells of wounded men. She kept her head lowered, eyes focused on the floor, in an attempt to avoid visual contact with any superior who might give her an assignment other than the one which she desired. No, more than desired. The one to which she was irrevocably committed.
It was time to take the ambulatory patients outside for a little morning sunshine and fresh air. Although it was a typically brisk November day, the men would not mind the cold. They seemed to respond well to these brief opportunities to feel sunlight on their faces and to fill their lungs with air that did not carry the stench of blood, urine and rotting flesh.
There was an established pattern for the movement of the men. The four nurses assigned to that ward started at the back of the large, windowless room, sequentially evacuating the cots on the right-hand side, then those on the left. Her objective was a soldier in the last group of four—the third cot inside the door on the left, number thirty-eight. On the previous morning, she had misjudged her timing only slightly, arriving back in the ward to find another nurse approaching bed number thirty-eight just seconds before she got there. She had almost asked the nurse to move to the next soldier, but Herr Doctor Forster had chosen that moment to stand at the foot of the bed as he updated the patient’s medical chart. Not wanting to risk creating a suspicious or possibly contentious scene, she had reluctantly postponed her plan. But it needed to be today. There were rumors of an armistice, and things could change quickly after that.
She’d been very careful this morning. She knew that two of the nurses were still outside and the third, a heavyset, middle-aged Grossmutter—grandmother—was waddling slowly down the hall ahead of her. The old woman was a compassionate, hard-working caregiver, but was infuriatingly slow in everything she did. It was difficult to follow behind and not overtake her without appearing to be purposely sluggish and lazy—she, herself, being a youthful, energetic thirty years old—so she concentrated on moving as slowly as she could without drawing unwanted attention to herself. This could very well be her last chance.
She glanced behind her to make sure neither of the other two nurses were close, and then knelt on one knee as if retying a shoelace. She didn’t look up at the sauntering old woman ahead of her, instead mentally calculating her prodding progress down the hall. When she felt she had allowed a sufficient gap between them, she stood, smoothed the front of her smock, and continued toward her soldier.
She reached the entrance to the ward a mere two steps behind the old woman and quickly proceeded to bed thirty-eight. She exhaled a sigh of relief as she found herself looking down at the gaunt, pale young man. “Guten Morgen, Gefrieter.” Good morning, Corporal.
His steely blue eyes darted in her direction, but did not appear to be focused on her. He had been blinded in a British mustard gas attack in Belgium the previous month. But she was convinced the blindness was temporary. In fact, Dr. Forster—Professor Edmund Forster, chief of the Berlin University Nerve Clinic and a consulting psychiatrist at Pasewalk Military Hospital—had rigorously examined the soldier and had been unable to determine an actual medical reason for the blindness. He’d gone so far as to conclude that the young man was “a psychopath with hysterical symptoms.” The good doctor might live to regret that diagnosis.
She gently touched the soldier’s arm. “Would you like some fresh air?”
He moved his head in a subtle, almost imperceptible nod, as if acknowledging her would compromise his brooding despondency. Like many of the soldiers here, his face was thin and his complexion pasty. With dark brown hair and a thick, drooping moustache, both in need of trimming, he looked more like an artist than a soldier. A dreamer. Not a romantic dreamer, but a pragmatic and determined one who would obliterate any obstacles, human or otherwise, that stood in the way of realizing his dreams. Dr. Forster might be right—the young man might very well be a psychopath—but was that necessarily a bad thing? Sometimes the world needed someone who was crazy enough to do the things that no sane person would attempt. History had been shaped by such psychopaths…and the future would be too.
She helped him to a standing position and, draping his hand across her arm, proceeded to guide him out to the hallway. She imagined that if he could see her, he’d be a bit livelier. She was a very attractive woman—tall, slender but nicely proportioned, with wavy auburn-red hair that reflected sunlight as if it were infused with microscopic diamonds. Her sparkling green eyes and fair complexion—smooth, creamy skin punctuated by a few light freckles on her nose and cheeks—gave her the look of a gentle, loving soul. But that would be wrong. The body was that of a thirty-year-old Aryan beauty named Marlene. But the soul was that of a one hundred and fifty-year-old Egyptian man named Anwar. And there was nothing gentle or loving about him.
It had been pure happenstance that Anwar had come to occupy this particular host three weeks earlier. For the previous forty-eight years he had ridden the body of a diamond merchant with shops in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf. It had been a very rewarding ride, providing both wealth and status. He had even learned quite a bit about gemology, and had developed a great appreciation for diamonds. The thing he liked most about them was that so much value could be concentrated in so little mass. As a result, he carried a small leather pouch on his person at all times. In the event he was ever unable to access his sizable bank account, the diamonds in the pouch would sustain him for a couple of years—longer if he cut back on his opulent lifestyle.
The pouch had, as always, been in his coat pocket as he dined at a small restaurant in Pasewalk on the evening of October 16th. He had visited a local jewelry store that he planned to buy—steal actually, because the owner was on the verge of bankruptcy and had been forced to accept half the price he had been asking—and Anwar, in the guise of wealthy jeweler Jürgen von Bartow, was celebrating his latest acquisition with a bottle of Riesling and a teeming plate of sauerbraten. The heart attack came on suddenly, and Anwar’s century and a half of parasitic self-preservation would have ended right then and there had it not been for the intervention of a beautiful, auburn-haired nurse. Her medical skills were not sufficient to save the jeweler’s life, but she reached him in enough time for Anwar to jump from von Bartow’s body to hers before succumbing to oxygen deprivation resulting from a fibrillating heart. That was the only downside to being a rider—if a host dies before the rider can make a jump to another living body, the rider dies too. Even immortality has its limitations.
But that was not the case with Anwar on that fateful evening. Twenty minutes later, the lifeless body of Jürgen von Bartow was covered with a black cloth and carried from the dining room on a stretcher, and the young, beautiful and very much alive body of Frau Marlene Reichert, tightly gripping the pouch of diamonds, walked away amid admiring looks and accolades from the restaurant staff and clientele.
The woman’s purse contained her identification papers, including her address and place of employment, as well as a key which Anwar had correctly surmised would open the door to her small but well-kept apartment. He was at first concerned that he knew absolutely nothing about nursing, but was relieved to discover on his first day of work that Marlene was rather low on the hospital’s organizational chart and was therefore relegated to menial tasks that required little medical training. It would be a temporary ride anyway. Anwar had never occupied a female body before, and found the curse of menstruation to be particularly distasteful. But even more pressing was the fact that the rumored armistice would mean that the woman’s husband, having spent the past two years on the eastern front, would likely be coming home soon. The passionate reuniting of a young married couple after two years of separation—with Anwar in the role of the sex-starved woman—was a scene he would avoid at any cost.
So he had immediately initiated the search for a more suitable host. And had found him—the frail, emaciated young man now being escorted out the doors of the hospital and into the bright sunshine of a glorious November morning. The soldier immediately squinted and shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare, another indication that his eyes were still functional and the blindness was temporary.
Most of the seating in the garden area was taken, so Marlene and her patient continued along the gravel path to a small clearing on the other side of the hedges. There were a couple of benches alongside a narrow brook, so they slowly made their way to the closest one. No one else had come down this far. They were hidden from the others by the hedge, and the sound of the water bubbling over the rocks would muffle their conversation. It was perfect.
Still, Anwar felt there was little time to waste. Another nurse, or perhaps one of the patients, could decide to take a little walk and their solitude would end. Two or three minutes were all Anwar needed. And then anyone who came down there would simply find a confused, blind soldier and the lifeless shell of a beautiful young nurse. There would, of course, be an investigation, but a body with absolutely no markings or any evidence of a struggle would eventually be written off to death by natural causes. Unusual for a person this young, but not unheard of. Her co-workers would recall that she’d been acting strangely for the past three weeks—withdrawn, uncommunicative, melancholy. The stress of wartime takes its toll in often unpredictable ways.
Sitting side by side on the narrow wooden bench, the nurse rested her hand on the soldier’s arm. “What is your name, Corporal?”
He turned his head slowly, his red-rimmed eyes staring blankly, but purposely, in an attempt to see the person beside him. It was a moment before he spoke in a soft but confident voice. “My name is Adolf.”
Anwar knew he had made an excellent choice. This was going to be one hell of a ride.
Lake Mohawk, New Jersey
MIRIAM GAZED ACROSS the choppy surface of the lake, savoring the warmth of the late afternoon sun. Early May was generally a glorious time in northwestern New Jersey, with warm days and cool, oftentimes chilly, evenings. A prelude to summer and a welcome escape from the icy clutches of a long, drab winter. The quaint, Alpine architecture that dominated the community of Lake Mohawk, an affluent enclave within the township of Sparta, was beautiful when covered with a fresh coating of snow. But this winter had not provided much snow, just month after month of cold, gray dreariness. She was glad this had been their last winter here. Forty-six had been enough.
She turned to her husband seated beside her on the cushioned glider at the edge of their dock. “Days just don’t get much more perfect than this, do they, kochanka?”
He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “No, this one has been special.”
She reached for the bottle of chardonnay on the end table. “Ready for a refill?”
“Sure,” he said, lifting his glass to her. “Might as well finish the bottle out here. I’m in no big hurry to go inside.”
She studied his face as she poured the wine. He looked tired, haggard even. She’d always known that this body that had loved her, protected her, pleased her…oh God, how he could please her…wouldn’t last forever. Human bodies weren’t built to. But she’d hoped they would have more time. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. Last week, after several days of tests, Peter had gotten the diagnosis she’d feared most—pancreatic cancer. Stage 3c. Which meant that without aggressive treatment—and possibly even with it—his life expectancy was measured in weeks. Twelve at least, maybe more, but they couldn’t afford to gamble on any more than that. Treatment wasn’t an option they would pursue. It was time for them to move.
“How about a salad for dinner?” she asked, lifting his hand to her lips. “Caesar, maybe. I have some shrimp in the freezer that I could sauté and throw in if you like.”
He turned to look at her. “How about blackened?”
“Blackened? You know how that smokes up the kitchen.”
“Okay, okay. Sautéed will be fine.” He looked out at the lake and smiled. “There’s certainly no reason to cater to the whims of a dying man. No special treatment expected here.”
She punched his shoulder. “You bastard. I should’ve known you’d play the dying card to get what you want.”
He chuckled. “Just wanted to try it out to see if it works. Will it get me what I want after dinner too?”
She smiled and inched a little closer to him. The sun was down behind the trees now and the air was getting chillier by the minute. “We’ll see. But you can’t keep me up too late. I have another meeting at Rutgers in the morning. I’ve been looking through the applications and I think I may have found our girl. I interview her at nine-thirty.”
“Is she pretty?”
“Judging from her picture, quite pretty.”
“So you think I’ll like her?”
She snuggled in closer and rested her head on his shoulder. “You’d better like her. In fact, you’d better love her.”
MIRIAM ARRANGED her two pages of interview questions on the table in front of her. She was in a small conference room in the Finance Department of the Rutgers Business School in New Brunswick. She had identified four potential contenders on the Newark campus—three MBA candidates and one MS in Global Affairs—but the young lady she was meeting this morning seemed to be the most perfect fit. There were a lot of attributes that Miriam desired in a candidate, but three were absolutely essential—good health, good looks, and no close family connections. Finding all three in one person was always a challenge, but the curriculum vitae of this woman seemed, at least on paper, to put her clearly in the lead.
At precisely nine-thirty there was a soft knock on the door. Miriam looked up as an attractive, but not particularly memorable, face peered around the edge of the door. “Are you ready for me?” she asked, her voice quiet and somewhat tentative.
“Yes, of course,” Miriam said, rising from her chair. “You’re right on time.”
The young woman stepped inside and eased the door shut behind her. She seemed to hesitate a moment before placing a folder on the table and extending her hand, as if intimidated by the immaculately dressed, seventy-ish woman with expensive-looking reading glasses hanging from a platinum chain around her neck. “I’m Julia Crutchfield,” she said.
“Miriam Ebersole. It’s a pleasure meeting you, Julia.”
The two women shook hands and sat across from each other. Miriam assessed her candidate as Julia began to pull out the contents of her folder and organize them into three stacks in front of her. So far, Miriam was pleased with what she saw. Julia was fairly tall for a woman—about five foot nine—with long sandy hair. Her complexion was light and unblemished, without a trace of make-up. Her blue eyes, partially hidden by the tortoise shell frames of her glasses, were clear and bright, shining with intellectual curiosity. She had the taut, slender figure of a runner. Miriam knew from the CV in front of her that Julia had attended Rutgers on a track scholarship while earning her undergraduate degree in accounting. Overall, a bit mousy—perhaps even nerdy—but brimming with potential. Cut and style that hair, maybe lighten it a shade or two, replace the glasses with contact lens, add make-up and a stylish wardrobe, and this young lady would be striking, if not actually beautiful.
“So,” said Miriam, appearing to study the CV again, although she had it practically memorized, “you are completing your MBA in the fall.”
“Technically it’s an MFNA—Masters of Financial Analysis—but yes. All I have to do is write my thesis and get it approved, and I’ll be ready for Wall Street.” She smiled, and then blushed, adding, “Well, that’s my goal, at least. A job on Wall Street.”
Miriam smiled and arched the brow over her right eye. “Get started making a lot of money so you can pay off those student loans, right?”
Julia looked down at the table, re-aligning the corners of the three stacks of documents in front of her, although they were already positioned perfectly. “Actually, I don’t have any student loans. My parents and my brother were killed in a plane crash several years ago—remember that commuter plane that crashed in upstate New York during a snowstorm?—and they left me enough money to finance my education.” She looked back up and smiled sadly. “But that money is almost gone, so I have to start thinking about earning a living now.”
Miriam was already aware of that sad story, but acted as if she were hearing it for the first time. “I’m so sorry, Julia. I can’t imagine how difficult that was for you.” She took a deep breath and smiled. “But I’m sure your parents would be extremely pleased to see how you’ve used the money. A lot of young people would have blown it on less admirable pursuits.”
“I suppose,” Julia whispered.
“So,” Miriam said, her voice more cheerful now. “What are your plans for your thesis?”
Julia seemed to brighten as soon as the talk returned to academics. “I’ve applied for a summer internship with BD—Becton Dickinson—the medical products company headquartered in Franklin Lakes. If I get it, I’d like to do an analysis of foreign currency valuations on stock prices, both in recessionary and growth markets. I believe a statistical tool can be developed to predict long-term financial returns for international businesses. The tool would have to be customized for each company, of course, but the parameters would be universal.”
“And would that be a paying internship?”
“No, unfortunately not. But if I can find a cheap apartment and maybe a weekend job, I think I can stretch out my remaining funds enough to make it through the summer.”
Miriam leaned forward and folded her hands on the table. “Julia, the reason I’m here is to offer you an alternative summer internship. It would pay a small stipend per month for a maximum of four months, but would include room and board. And, from what you just told me, I think the subject matter would be right up your alley.”
Noting the look of interest on the young woman’s face, she continued. “My husband is independently wealthy, and has dabbled in day trading for almost twenty years now. I say dabbled, but in reality he has tripled the value of his investment portfolio during that time.”
Julia looked at her intently, her eyes shining behind her glasses. “How did he do that?”
Miriam laughed. “Good question. That’s where you would come in. Peter, that’s my husband, knows what he does, but doesn’t know how to define it as a process. What he wants is to find someone who can study his results and develop a statistical tool—a predictor, if you will—that global investors can use to generate returns higher than the Dow, the S&P index, and other traditional indicators.” She paused and studied her candidate’s face. “Sound interesting?”
“It sounds fascinating,” Julia replied, her voice enthusiastic.
“Excellent,” Miriam said. “I was hoping you’d feel that way. Like I said earlier, the more I’ve learned about you, the more I’ve become convinced that you’d be perfect for this job.” She paused a moment, staring directly into Julia’s eyes. “But, to be frank, Julia, there are factors other than academic that my husband and I are concerned with.”
Suddenly, Julia looked worried. “Like what?”
“Well, as I mentioned, we would offer room and board. But having someone live with you for four months is a big adjustment. We’re both in our seventies and, for lack of a better term, a little old-fashioned. On top of that, my husband is having some health issues. Having young men coming out each weekend would be a little disruptive.”
Julia brightened. “Mrs. Ebersole, I can assure you that wouldn’t be an issue. I don’t have a boyfriend, or any really close friends here at school for that matter. So, it would just be me.”
Miriam smiled warmly. “Then I think you would be perfect for this opportunity, Julia. Absolutely perfect.”