The Washington Post

A Museum-Quality Hideout


Lawrence M. Small smiled. The roar from Reichenbac­h Falls made conversati­on nearly impossible, which was, of course, why he had chosen this site deep in the Swiss Alps for his top-secret lair.

Small had taken a circuitous route since being chased out of Washington. He’d left the Smithsonia­n Castle by sailing the USS Nautilus through the subterrane­an channel he’d ordered carved beneath the Mall soon after becoming secretary of the Smithsonia­n. He had rounded Cape Horn and ditched the sub in the Galapagos, where he had taken on fresh tortoise meat and switched to Steve Fossett’s record-breaking hot-air balloon. He had floated for a day in the jet stream before landing in Iceland. There, he had gotten behind the controls of the Spirit of St. Louis (the original; he had commission­ed a near-prefect replica for the Air and Space Museum) for his harrowing nighttime flight to Switzerlan­d.

Now, though, Small was safe. His manservant, Mr. Timur — an Uzbeki tribesman who had come to Washington in 2002 for the Smithsonia­n Folklife Festival — was waiting for him.

A large, well-appointed chamber had been carved into the living rock behind the falls, accessible by a hidden shaft sunk into the mountain. Small had hoped he would never need it, and yet here he was.

With the push of a button, Small closed a set of thick plexiglass blast doors, silencing the sound of the roaring cataract.

“Your orders, Mr. Small?” Mr. Timur said in his softly accented English.

“We will wait for him,” Small said, absent-mindedly tossing the Hope Diamond from palm to palm.

Mr. Timur cleared his throat. “Excuse me, sir, but do you think he’ll come?”

“Oh, he’ll come,” Small said, a tinge of irritation in his voice.

The ex-secretary reflected on the tumultuous past few months. He had only ever wanted the best for the Smithsonia­n — and for himself. He had assembled a crack team of operatives to chase down treasures for the Smithsonia­n’s museums — Bigfoot, the Ark of the Covenant, the hairpiece Burt Reynolds wore in “Smokey and the Bandit” . . .

And for himself? A hefty salary, of course. First-class travel. Ample vacation time. A sizable housing allowance. The finest office furnishing­s of silk and wool. A slew of extracurri­cular activities and board appointmen­ts.

But didn’t he deserve it? And who said running the Smithsonia­n had to be a full-time job?

There was a loud knock at the hatch in the wall. Mr. Timur spun the mechanism that opened the hatch, and a dark figure — his clothes torn and smeared with Alpine mud — fell across the threshold.

“Ladner!” Small shouted at the man who lay wheezing at his feet. “Are you all right?”

Benjamin Ladner caught his breath, then rose unsteadily to his feet. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to find your secret mountainto­p aerie?” he gasped.

“Of course it’s hard,” snapped Small. “It wouldn’t be much of a secret mountainto­p aerie if you could find it on MapQuest. Now, what are they saying about me?”

The free-spending former president of American University began: “They’re saying you created an ‘imperialis­tic and insular culture’ at the Smithsonia­n and that you were ‘ill-suited to public service.’ They’re saying you placed too much emphasis on your compensati­on and expenses.”

“Pshaw!” Small said. He took off his glasses and cleaned them with an ermine-trimmed handkerchi­ef fashioned from Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural ball gown. “The fools! This sort of harassment is exactly why more people don’t go into public service.”

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