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"An entertaining, tongue-in-cheek, if at times gruesome, fantasy murder mystery with plenty of action!" MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW
"A fast paced, and engaging story. Particularly enjoyable!" ETERNAL NIGHT SF MAGAZINE
"Excellent!" ANALOG SF MAGAZINE
"...and a wall of troops surrounded the campfire, guarding the civilians and children through the chilly darkness until the dawn. So shall it ever be. Soldiers standing bold against the creatures of the night."
Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor 140 AD
Standing at a window in the mansion, John Sanders gazed in torpid horror at the deadly battle raging across the Potomac River. Somewhere over the horizon, entire divisions of Union and Confederate cannons were firing non-stop, the violent discharges of the heavy artillery filling the night sky with crimson flashes. The massive guns must have been deafening to the ground crews, but the distance softened the titanic blasts. John could only hear a muffled thumping, strong and steady.
Almost like the beating of a human heart, John observed sadly. The analogy was disturbing. A civil war. There was an oxymoron if I've ever head one.
Looking down at the sleeping city, John couldn't see a soul on the cobblestone streets. Washington seemed as deserted as a whorehouse on Christmas. This eagerly awaited War Between the States was already eight months old, and the initial hope for an early victory was long gone. The civilians were becoming accustomed to thundering cannons in the night, and the military was digging in for a prolonged conflict. As a prelude againstpossible invasion, the Union Navy had anchored a dozen warships in a defensive line across the Chesapeake Bay to protect the entrance to the Potomac River. Hidden in the thick forest along the river, the Army had hundreds of disguised gunnery emplacements--more than enough troops, rifles and Napoleon cannons to stop any conceivable Confederate attack on the Executive Mansion. Built by the famous architect James Hoban, the great white house on the bank of the Potomac River was the official residence of the President of the United States, the headquarters of the northern War Department, and a prime target for the Confederate Army. To take and hold the Executive Mansion would mean capturing President Lincoln alive, which would assure Jefferson Davis an almost instant victory.
However, the War Department was prepared for such a scenario. Encamped around the Executive Mansion were a thousand armed soldiers: the elite 110th 'Cassius Clay' Battalion, backed by more brass Napoleon field cannons than could ever be counted in a single day without the use of roller skates. A dozen sharpshooters walked the flat roof of the Executive Mansion, and a score of heavily armed soldiers patrolled the sprawling grounds of the estate. To the general public, the Executive Mansion was a military hardsite: a fortified redoubt. What the Confederacy thought about the matter was anybody's guess.
Shaking his head at these dark thoughts, John let the curtain drop back into place, and turned away from the window. The war was not his concern tonight. Dinner was. With a properly neutral expression, the head butler for the Executive Mansion lifted the silver serving tray loaded with foodstuffs, and started along the dimly lighted corridor of the West Wing. The War Department was still in session, and although nobody had rung for food, it was part of his job to know when such things were needed, before being asked. A good butler always anticipated the needs of his employer. Like putting a kerosene lantern into the outhouse to warm the seat just after serving a large meal. Or obtaining a wheelbarrow during a night of heavy drinking to help move the more inebriated guests to their bedrooms.
Or dump them out onto the street, John noted sagely. It all depended upon how badly they had worn out their welcome during the festivities. Getting drunk and vomiting was considered manly, messy, but acceptable. But pinch the bottom of a maid, and the President would personally heave the transgressor out the nearest window. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln didn't touch alcohol. However, they didn't mind drinking--only drunks. If a guest found himself airborne, then he must have committed a serious breach of etiquette. It was always a shocking discovery--especially just before crashing into the rhododendron bushes.
As John walked through the huge mansion, only the creak of the floorboards disturbed the thick silence. In spite of the late hour, John was neatly dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and matching bow tie, along with a gay tartan vest he had purchased at a Boston pawn shop. Orphaned at a young age, John had no idea if his ancestry was Scottish, but he liked the bright mix of colors. Besides, the vest was a small rebellion against the iron rules of decorum that governed the social elite in DC like invisible chains.
Unlike the real shackles that others wore in the South, John thought sourly, glancing back at the curtained window. Wish to Heaven there was something I could do to help them, but I'm just a butler. If I were to join the Army, they would only assign me to be the aide to some fat general. If I'm going to be a servant no matter what, then I might as well stay in DC and work for the President. Besides, what possible difference could a single man make in the outcome of any war?
Moving past the railing at the top of the stairs, John saw a dark shape lunge out of the shadows.
"Halt, and be recognized!" the private ordered brusquely, and then he smiled and lowered the shotgun. "Hi, John."
The butler paused. "Private Augustan," John replied politely, giving a little nod. Then he looked at the ceiling and started whistling.
Quickly shouldering the .69 smoothbore Remington, the private gently lifted the linen napkin covering a plate on the tray, and snaked out a sandwich from the stack underneath. Lowering the napkin, the soldier hid the food behind his back and delicately coughed.
"Good evening, Private," John said, facing forward again. Giving a wink, he continued into the West Wing. Oh, it was against orders for the staff to feed any of the soldiers around the mansion. But in John's opinion, a man could not properly guard the President and his family if the poor fellow was weak from hunger. Some rules were meant to be adhered to at all cost, and some could tactfully be, well, bent, every now and then. It was all a matter of moderation, which every man had to decide for himself.
Turning sideways to squeeze between two large packing crates blocking the hallway, John fervently hoped that the private was not caught with breadcrumbs on his uniform by Sergeant Montgomery. The wrath of the sergeant was legendary. With just a stern glare, the big Irishman had once made a mule burst into tears. Scary stuff.
Raising the tray high, John maneuvered past a colossal packing crate with labels from France. This collection of boxes was just the most recent purchases for Mrs. Lincoln's planned renovations of the Executive Mansion. President Buchanan had been a fine man, but a total slob, and the mansion had been an absolute pigsty when the Lincolns moved in. Incredibly, the new First Lady had gotten Congress to loosen its purse strings and grant her thirty thousand dollars to repair, rebuild, and redecorate the Presidential abode. To anybody with even the slightest dollop of political savvy, that was a miracle equal to the parting of the Red Sea, and Mrs. Lincoln had wisely moved fast on the repairs before Congress had gotten sober and rescinded their outrageously generous offer.
Every day another crate arrived with more furniture, curtains, or fixtures: a chandelier from Paris, dinnerware from New York, rugs from Madrid, or crystal from Moscow--wherever that was located. But even more importantly, an invading army of carpenters had done a splendid job repairing the creaky old mansion. The windows could now be opened without resorting to the use of a crowbar, the banister on the main stairs no longer threatened to collapse, and everybody was delighted that the furnace was working again, sans the usual 'black fog' of escaping coal soot.
Sidestepping a sideboard from Sweden, John grimly reminded himself that there was still the problem of the basement rats that needed attending to. There were several rooms below that the maids steadfastly refused to enter without pitchfork and burning torch. On his first day, John had declared war on the indigenous rodent population, but the rats seemed to thrive on the arsenic-laced cheese he put in the traps. Only hot lead stopped the little monsters, and while John was slowly becoming rather a good shot, the home of the President of the United States was as divided as the nation itself, with humans ruling the upper floors, but the Potomac River rats remaining the uncontested masters of the dank basement.
Softly, the distant cannonfire continued to thump in the background, the beat quickening.
Spotting a tilted picture on the wall, John scowled and placed the serving tray on top of a packing crate from Luxembourg. Whatever the box might contain, the butler was positive that it could not possibly be as useful as a bloodthirsty farm cat. Unfortunately, Mrs. Lincoln did not want any animals in the mansion out of a fear that they might scratch the new furniture. Pennywise, pound foolish, he silently chided.
"There you go, sir," John said politely, leveling the frame. "All better."
In the flickering light of the ceiling lanterns, the unfinished portrait of George Washington seemed to wink in reply. The butler chuckled as he took up the tray once more. Amazing how a man could imagine such things late at night.
Traversing one last barricade of crates and barrels, John slowly approached The Shop, the private office of the President. Angry voices could be heard through the closed door. Oh dear, what is wrong now?
"Poisoned bullets?" a deep voice growled as footsteps pounded along the floor. "What does that madman Lee think he's doing?"
A gruff voice replied, "Bah! What could we expect from rebel scum?"
"By God, that's inhuman!" President Lincoln sputtered furiously. "Are our spies sure about this?"
"Well, our soldiers certainly aren't dying just because they looked at some hairy-arsed rebel!" somebody replied with a sneer in his voice. "Sir, our troops are being found dead in the battlefields from minor wounds that shouldn't have slowed down a Spanish dandy! Scratches, sir--mere trifles! If the Apothecary-General wants money to hire chemists to try to find an antidote for this poison, plague, whatever the Hades it is, then by thunder, I say give it to him! Give the man anything he requests! Including the mucking Liberty Bell melted down into surgical probes if he so desires!"
"And I agree," Vice President Hannibal Hamlin added in his booming oratorical voice. "I say the War Department should assign the good doctor the sum of a thousand dollars for emergency medical research. All those in favor?"
The room chorused in the affirmative.
"So passed," President Lincoln stated wearily. "Now, what's next on the agenda?"
"The planned attack on Leesburg, sir."
"Oh, very well. Any suggestions?"
Feeling the time was ripe for an intrusion, John politely knocked.
"Come in!" Vice President Hamlin demanded.
Expertly balancing the tray in one hand, John worked the latch and entered.
"Well?" President Lincoln wearily snapped, giving his standard greeting. Both of his hands were full of papers, and the tall man was bent over a Hoban drum table covered with maps.
Across the room, several generals drew diagrams on a blackboard with squeaky sticks of chalk, and a couple of yawning Union soldiers stood exhausted in the corners, their Springfield rifles seeming more to hold them up than the other way around. Bent over a desk, two of the President's secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, were busy scribbling away in journals. The scratching of their pens sounded like chicks trying to be hatched.
"I brought coffee and sandwiches, sir," John said, deftly closing the door with an expert bump of a hip.
"Thank the Lord," Vice President Hamlin sighed, rubbing his eyes with closed fists. "I was getting ready to eat the furniture."
Laying aside the papers, the President frowned. "Coffee is not what this nation needs," Lincoln growled dourly. "Nor I, for that matter."
"Speak for yourself, sir," General Henry Halleck snorted, rubbing his unshaved jaw to the sound of sandpaper. The military officer had been freshly shaved when he arrived at the Executive Mansion this morning, but that was so long ago that it seemed like another lifetime.
"That better not be Virginia ham," Lieutenant General Winfield Scott muttered in accusation, placing aside a piece of chalk, and dusting off his callused hands.
"Never, sir!" John brazenly lied, placing the tray on an empty table. "That would be unthinkable!" Ah, politics. The fine art of splitting hairs with a sledgehammer.
As the War Department descended upon the food like Alabama farm workers, there suddenly came a ghastly noise from outside that froze the men into immobility. Every man Jack of the company instantly identified the sound--half gurgle and half whimper--as a death cry. Somebody had just been violently killed in the garden.
"Lock the door!" General Scott ordered, pulling his LeMat pistol, and thumbing back the massive hammer. "And sound the alarm!"
As the guards rushed to obey, a window exploded, throwing glass into the office. A huge mangy dog landed on the India rug near the crackling fireplace.
Dropping a pile of napkins, John recoiled from the incredible sight. The beast was colossal: larger than a grown man, with fangs like daggers. But how in Hades could anything that large have jumped to the second floor?
Snarling in a manner that almost sounded like a chuckle, the slavering beast looked over the array of gaping people, and launched itself at the President. Slammed out of his chair, Lincoln went tumbling to the floor, and the monstrous animal closed its jaws on the President's throat with a loud snap.
Posted February 21, 2011
No text was provided for this review.