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A Handful of Dust
Take one of the most famous missing persons of the 20th Century, a renowned New York State Governor, a 21st Century crazed Navy Captain, and place them in 1930 depression-riddled New York City, then toss in a 21st Century hotshot FBI undercover agent and you have the ingredients of a fast paced thriller that will keep you awake turning pages.
On a steamy August 6th night in 1930, Judge Joseph Force Crater, a New York State Supreme Court Justice entered a tan cab outside the Billy Haas Restaurant on West 45th Street in Manhattan and disappeared into oblivion. For over 25 years the Crater disappearance captured the imagination of America. What happened to him? Was he murdered? Kidnapped? Or did something else happen, something more sinister?
A Handful of Dust is the story of FBI agent Matt Wells, former football All-American at Syracuse University, and hotshot undercover agent battling his own emotional pain and guilt. Wells is selected by the NSA to journey back in time and find fugitive Navy Captain, Walter Kinlaw. Kinlaw has one objective: assassinate New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who appointed Crater to his judgeship and the judge himself.
What does the Navy Captain want with both men? Take an incredible journey through the streets of depression-stricken New York City. A Handful of Dust is a story of deception, adultery, and broken lives. it explores the mysteries of time and gives a new twist to Goethe's, "Elective Affinities."
October 14, The Present / 8:34 A.M.
Somewhere in the Adirondack Mountains
Life is volatile. Like a psycho in the middle of a parade with a gun, firing randomly at the marchers. The words stuck in his mind, words he'd heard from an instructor at Quantico years before. Matt Wells stared out the Marine helicopter's rear window at a cluster of white buildings in a tree-barren valley below. He tried to remember the instructor's name, but couldn't.
"Valtec is to the right, sir," said the pilot, lowering the CD player. Bruckner's Fourth Symphony faded from the cabin. They'd hardly spoken throughout the flight, but now the pilot seemed ready to talk.
"What goes on here?" Matt spoke into the microphone. He heard the squawk of his voice on the speaker in the pilot's cabin.
"Don't know, sir. This is my first trip."
"Did they brief you on your passenger?"
The pilot glanced back at Matt, through the open door, peering over his aviator sunglasses. "Only that you were an FBI agent. But why I'm playing taxi driver . . . they never said anything about that. How about you, sir? What'd they tell you?"
"Nothing." Matt smiled only to be polite.
The pilot nodded. "Sorry, sir. I should know better than to ask."
When FBI Assistant Director, Peter Greco told Matt earlier, “The NSA hand-picked your file and has a helicopter ready to fly you to Valtec. There is a major problem here," Matt knew the NSA's involvement meant something big was taking place at Valtec. He stared out the window again. The desolate terrain below seemed a fitting pattern of his life the past few months―empty. Why the hell had Greco offered him the assignment? A peace offering? He was having difficulty understanding the bureau's motives. Almost a year had passed since his last field assignment, and now they wanted him?
Matt couldn't remember a time he'd been so unsure of himself. His bureau buddies would have a good laugh if they could look inside his head. Hotshot All-American, former high-profile agent, doubting his own abilities.
Suddenly a spectacular view of the Adirondack Mountains, a vivid orange-amber against a crystalline October sky, filled the window, but he felt a vague sense of panic stir within him rather than his normal admiration for nature's beauty.
The noise and rhythmic vibration of the blades now started agitating him, and he shifted uneasily in his seat. Then the helicopter banked, revealing the other side of the sloping valley. Steffie loved valleys and snow-covered mountains. But, Steffie was dead. He turned from the window and closed his eyes, forcing her from his mind, but a darker and more painful image pushed its way into his thoughts. He quickly opened his eyes and it disappeared. Damn, why couldn't he stop remembering? He rubbed his forehead, and then turned his gaze back to the window.
Valtec was below again as the pilot circled. Matt counted at least ten buildings, some rectangular, others round, and an impressively massive T-shaped one in the center.
"I did hear some rumors from a buddy that Valtec houses an experimental fusion propulsion system," the pilot said.
Matt nodded and continued to stare below into the valley, thoughts again firing through his mind. The past eight months, stuck behind a desk in the New York field office, pushing pencils, and answering phones had been the worst in his FBI career. His rehab assignment for punching out a fellow agent.
What did the shrink tell him? "Post traumatic guilt syndrome has left you doubting your own ability." He rubbed his hands together. Retirement from the Justice Department suddenly appealed to him; with ten years invested, he was still young enough to start over. He shifted in the seat, his bad knee stiff from sitting too long. It tightened up often now and he made a mental note to have the orthopedic surgeon look at it when he returned to the city.
The Boeing CH-46 Stallion began its descent. Matt stretched his neck, catching a glimpse of a uniformed man scrambling across the roof of the center building. By the time Matt could see where he went, the Stallion banked and only the horizon glared through the window. Moments later the helicopter gently touched the landing pad. "Welcome to Valtec, sir," the pilot said.
Richard J. Tofel
“Robert Pajer’s ‘A Handful of Dust’ is a great read—a gripping and historically accurate tour of New York in 1930 and the events surrounding the disappearance of Judge Joseph Crater. Anyone interested in the period should find it fascinating, as I did.”—Richard J. Tofel, author, Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater, and the New York He Left Behind
The single most amazing thing about Robert Pajer’s fast-paced, hugely enjoyable novel A Handful of Dust is the no-nonsense, whirlwind way he gets down to the business of his plot. That plot is, as we used to say, a hum-dinger: a rogue U.S. naval officer has used experimental technology to leap backwards in time, intent on stalking and killing Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt before he becomes president—and straight-shooting (we hope) FBI agent Matt Wells has been ordered to go back in time himself to kill the would-be assassin and preserve the timeline we all know and love.
Most authors, facing such a corker of a premise, would bolt the thing out of the starting gate by spending too much time on the how of time travel (Michael Crichton’s Timeline makes this mistake for about 200 interminable pages). Pajer dispenses with this in basically one paragraph and a bit of dialogue—the explanation’s just as convincing as it needs to be in order to get us to the main meat of his plot: FDR, the past, the plot.
That plot is wonderfully, almost dementedly, explosive. Heroic Matt is hardly in the 1930s long enough to take off his hat before he’s framed for murder and on his way to Sing Sing, and the whole time an assassin is creeping closer and closer to FDR (and naturally, a problem develops with the time-travel machinery “back” in the present).
Pajer’s action sequences—and there are quite a few of them—can be a bit muddled, but his own enjoyment of his great story is obvious—and infectious.
-- Steve Donoghue—Historical Novel Society
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