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The Fear Index

Cover of The Fear Index

The Fear Index

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    Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. --Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

    Dr. Alexander Hoffmann sat by the fire in his study in Geneva, a half-smoked cigar lying cold in the ashtray beside him, an anglepoise lamp pulled low over his shoulder, turning the pages of a first edition of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin. The Victorian grandfather clock in the hall was striking midnight but Hoffmann did not hear it. Nor did he notice that the fire was almost out. All his formidable powers of attention were directed onto his book.

    He knew it had been published in London in 1872 by John Murray & Co. in an edition of seven thousand copies, printed in two runs. He knew also that the second run had introduced a ­misprint--"htat"--on page 208. As the volume in his hands contained no such error, he presumed it must have come from the first run, thus greatly increasing its value. He turned it round and inspected the spine. The binding was in the original green cloth with gilt lettering, the spine-ends only slightly frayed. It was what was known in the book trade as "a fine copy," worth perhaps $15,000. He had found it waiting for him when he returned home from his office that evening, as soon as the New York markets had closed, a little after ten o'clock. Yet the strange thing was, even though he collected scientific first editions and had browsed the book online and had in fact been meaning to buy it, he had not actually ordered it.

    His immediate thought had been that it must have come from his wife, but she had denied it. He had refused to believe her at first, following her around the kitchen as she set the table, holding out the book for her inspection.

    "You're really telling me you didn't buy it for me?"

    "Yes, Alex. Sorry. It wasn't me. What can I say? Perhaps you have a secret admirer."

    "You are totally sure about this? It's not our anniversary or anything? I haven't forgotten to give you something?"

    "For God's sake, I didn't buy it, okay?"

    It had come with no message apart from a Dutch bookseller's slip: "Rosengaarden & Nijenhuise, Antiquarian Scientific & Medical Books. Established 1911. Prinsengracht 227, 1016 HN Amsterdam, The Netherlands." Hoffmann had pressed the pedal on the waste bin and retrieved the bubble wrap and thick brown paper. The parcel was correctly addressed, with a printed label: "Dr. Alex- ander Hoffmann, Villa Clairmont, 79 Chemin de Ruth, 1223 Col­ogny, Geneva, Switzerland." It had been dispatched by courier from Amsterdam the previous day.

    After they had eaten their supper--a fish pie and green salad prepared by the housekeeper before she went home--Gabrielle had stayed in the kitchen to make a few anxious last-minute phone calls about her exhibition the next day, while Hoffmann had retreated to his study clutching the mysterious book. An hour later, when she put her head round the door to tell him she was going up to bed, he was still reading.

    She said, "Try not to be too late, darling. I'll wait up for you."

    He did not reply. She paused in the doorway and considered him for a moment. He still looked young for forty-two, and had always been more handsome than he realised--a quality she found attractive in a man as well as rare. It was not that he was modest, she had come to realise. On the contrary: he was supremely indifferent to anything that did not engage him intellectually, a trait that had...

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The Fear Index
The Fear Index
Robert Harris
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Robert Harris
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