The Fifth Assassin
By Brad Meltzer
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2013 Brad Meltzer
All rights reserved.
The Knight knew his history. And his destiny. In fact, no one studied those more carefully than the Knight.
Rolling a butterscotch candy around his tongue, he pulled the trigger at exactly 10:11 p.m.
The gun—an antique pistol—let out a puff of blue-gray smoke, sending a spray of meat and blood across the wooden pews of St. John's Church, the historic building that sat directly across the street from the White House.
"Y-You shot me ..." the rector cried, clutching the back of his shoulder—his collarbone felt shattered—as he reeled sideways and stumbled down the main aisle.
The blood wouldn't stop. But the Knight's gun hadn't delivered a killshot. At the last minute, the rector, who'd been in charge of St. John's for nearly a decade, had moved.
The Knight just stood there, waiting for him to fall. The stark white plaster mask he wore ensured that his victim couldn't get a good look at his face. But the rector still had his strength.
Sliding his gun back in his pocket, the Knight moved calmly, almost serenely down the aisle, toward the ornate altar.
"Help! Someone ... please! Someone help me!" the rector, a sixty-year-old man with rosy cheeks, gasped as he ran, looking back at the frozen white mask, like a death mask, that followed him.
There was a reason the Knight had picked a church, especially this church, dubbed "the Church of the Presidents" because every President since James Madison had worshiped here.
It was the same with the homemade tattoo on the web of skin between his own thumb and pointer-finger. The Knight had finished the tattoo last night, using white ink since it was invisible to the naked eye. It took five needles, which he bundled together and dipped in ink, and four hours in total, puncturing his skin over and over, wiping away the blood.
The only break he took was right after he had finished the first part—the initials. Then, from his pocket, he had pulled out a yellowed deck of playing cards, thumbing past the hearts, clubs, and diamonds, stopping on ... Spades.
In the dictionary, spades were defined as shovels. But when the four suits of cards were introduced centuries ago, each one had its own cryptic meaning. The spade wasn't a tool to dig with. It was the point of a lance.
The weapon of a knight.
"I need help! Please ... anyone!" the rector screamed, scrambling frantically and making a sharp right through the double doors and down the long hallway that led out of the sanctuary.
The Knight's pace was perfectly steady as he followed the curved hallway back toward the church offices. His breath puffed evenly against the white plaster mask.
Up ahead, from around the corner, he heard a faint beep-beep-boop of a cell phone. The rector was trying to call 911.
But like his hero, who had done this so long ago, the Knight left nothing to chance. The plastic gray device in his pocket was the size of a cell phone, and could kill any cell signal in a fifty-yard radius. Cell jammers were illegal in the United States. But they cost less than $200 on a UK website.
Around the corner, where the main church offices began, there was a dull thud of a shoulder hitting wood: the rector realizing that the doorknob had been removed from the front door. Then the loud thunderclap of an office door slamming shut. The rector was hiding now, in one of the offices.
In the distance, the faint sound of police sirens was getting louder. No way was the rector able to call 911, but even if he was, the maze had nothing but dead ends left.
Looking right, then left, the Knight checked the antique parlor rooms that the church now used for AA meetings and for the "Date Night" services they held for local singles. This side of the building, known as the Parish House, was nearly as old as the church itself, but not nearly as well kept up. Throughout the main floor, every one of the tall cherry office doors was open. Except one.
With a sharp twist of the oval brass doorknob, the Knight shoved the large door open. The sirens were definitely getting louder. In the far left corner, by the bookcase, the rector was crying, still trying to pry open the room's only window, which the Knight had nailed shut hours earlier.
Moving closer, the Knight glided past a glass case, never glancing at its beautiful collection of fifty antique crosses mounted on red velvet.
"You can't do this! God will never forgive you!" the rector pleaded.
The Knight stepped toward him, taking hold of the rector's shattered shoulder. Under the mask, he rolled a butterscotch candy around his tongue. From his belt, he pulled out a knife.
One side of his blade had the words "Land of the Free/Home of the Brave," etched in acid, while the other side was etched with "Liberty/Independence." Just like the one his hero had over a century ago.
Taking a final breath that gave him a sense of weightlessness, he clenched his butterscotch candy in the vise of his back teeth.
"W-Why're you doing this?" the rector pleaded as the sirens grew deafening.
"Isn't it obvious?" The Knight raised his knife and plunged it straight into the rector's throat. The butterscotch candy cracked in half. "I'm getting ready for the President of the United States."
There are stories no one knows. Hidden stories.
I love those stories. And since I work in the National Archives, I find those stories for a living. But at 7:30 in the morning, as the elevator doors slide open and I scan the quiet fourth-floor hallway, I'm starting to realize that some of those stories are even more hidden than I thought.
"Nothing?" Tot asks, waiting for me outside our office. The way he's rolling his finger into his overgrown beard, he knows the answer.
"Less than nothing," I confirm, holding a file folder in my gloved open palms and double-checking to make sure we're alone.
Aristotle "Tot" Westman is my mentor here at the Archives, and the one who taught me that the best archivists are the ones who never stop searching. At seventy-two years old, he's had plenty of practice.
He's also the one who invited me into the Culper Ring.
The Ring was started by George Washington.
I know. I had the same reaction. But yes, that George Washington.
Two hundred years ago, back during the Revolutionary War, Washington built his own private spy ring. Not only did it help him win the war, but it helped protect the Presidency. The Ring still exists today, and now I'm a part of it.
"Beecher, you knew he wasn't gonna make it easy."
"I'm not asking for easy; I'm looking for possible. It's like there's nothing to find."
"There's always something to find. I promise."
"Yeah, you've been making that promise for two months now," I say, referring to how long it's been since Tot and I started coming in at 7 a.m.—before any of the other archivists show up—privately digging through every presidential file we can find.
"What'd you expect? That you can look under P and find everything you need for Evil President?" Tot challenges.
"Actually, Evil President would be filed under E."
"Not if it's his first name. Though it does depend on the record group," Tot clarifies, hoping the bad joke will lighten the mood. It doesn't. "The point is, Beecher, we know the hard part: We know what Wallace and Palmiotti did; we know how they did it; and when they were done with their baseball bat and razor-sharp car keys, we even know they put a young man into a permanent coma and left him to die. Now all we have to do is prove it. I'm thinking we should start picking up the pace."
As Tot says the words, he runs his fingertips down the metal strands of his bolo tie, which he doesn't realize is as socially extinct as the Scottsdale boutique where he bought it back in 1994. The thing is, I know Tot. And I know that tone.
"Why'd you just say we need to pick up the pace?" I ask.
At first, Tot stays quiet, rechecking the hallway.
"Tot, if you know something ..."
"One of our guys," he begins, using that phrase he saves for when he's talking about other members of the Culper Ring. "One of them spoke to someone in the Secret Service, asking what they knew about you. And y'know what the guy in the Service said? Nothing. Not a sound. You know what that means, Beecher?"
"It means they're worried about me."
"No. It means the President already knows how this ends. All he's doing now is working on his cover story."
Letting the words sink in, Tot again rechecks the hallway. I tell myself the proof is still in the Archives ... somewhere ... in some file. It's no small haystack.
The National Archives is the storehouse for the most important items in the U.S. government, from the original Declaration of Independence to Jackie Kennedy's bloody pink dress ... from Reagan's original "Evil Empire" speech to the tracking maps we used to catch and kill bin Laden. Over ten billion pages strong, we house and catalog every vital file, record, and report that's produced by the government.
As I always say, that means we're a building full of secrets—especially for sitting Presidents, since we store everything from their grade school report cards, to their yearbooks, to, the theory goes, old forgotten medical records that might prove what President Wallace really did that night twenty-six years ago.
"Have you thought about ordering his marathon files?" Tot asks.
"Already did. That's what came this morning."
For two months now, we've sifted through every puzzle piece of President Wallace's medical history, from back in college when he was in ROTC, to the physical exam he took when his daughter was born and he bought his first insurance policy, to the X-rays that were taken back when he was just a governor and he ran the Marine Marathon despite having a hairline fracture in his foot. That fracture brought Wallace national attention as a politician who never quits. We were hoping it'd bring us something even better. Yet like every medical document related to the President, everything comes back empty, empty, empty.
"He can't hide it all, Beecher."
"Tell that to FDR's medical records," I reply. Tot doesn't argue. Back in 1945, forty-eight hours after Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, his medical records were stolen and destroyed. No one's found them since.
"So if Wallace's marathon X-rays were a bust, what's that?" Tot asks, pointing to the file folder that I'm still holding in my open palm.
"Just something I pulled from our Civil War records. A letter from Abraham Lincoln's son talking about his years in the White House." Tot knows that when I'm nervous, I like to read old history. But he also knows that nothing makes me more nervous than the most complex history of all: family history.
"Your mom called while you were down there, didn't she?" Tot asks.
I nod. After my mom's heart surgery, I asked her to call me every morning to let me know she was okay. My father died when I was three. Mom is all I've got left. But as always, it wasn't my mom who called. It was my sister Sharon, who lives with and takes care of her. Every two weeks, I send part of my check home, but it's Sharon who does the real work.
"Mom okay?" Tot asks.
"Same as always."
"Then it's time to focus on the problem you can actually deal with," Tot says, motioning toward the main door to our office and reminding me that whatever President Wallace is planning, that's where the real damage will be done. But as we step inside and I spot two men in suits standing outside my cubicle, I'm starting to think that the President's even further along than we thought.
"Beecher White?" the taller of the two asks, though the way his dark eyes lock on me, he has the answer. He's got a narrow face; his partner has a wide one that he tries to offset with a neatly trimmed goatee. Neither looks happy. Or friendly.
"That's me; I'm Beecher. And you are ...?" I ask, though neither of them answers. As Tot limps and ducks into his own cubicle, I see that both my visitors are wearing gold lapel pins with a familiar five-pointed star. Secret Service.
I glance over at Tot, who smells the same rat I do.
"You mind answering a few questions?" the agent with the narrow face asks as he flashes his badge, which says Edward Harris. Before I can answer, he adds, "You always at work this early, Mr. White?"
I have no idea where the bear trap is, but I already feel its springs tightening. Last time I saw President Wallace, I told him I'd do everything in my power to find the evidence to prove what he and his dead friend Palmiotti did. In return, the most powerful man in the world leaned forward on his big mahogany desk in the West Wing and told me, as if it were an absolute fact, that he would personally erase me from existence. So when two Secret Service agents are asking me questions before eight in the morning, I know that whatever they want, I'm in for some pain.
"I like getting in at seven," I tell the agent, though from the look on his face it isn't news to him. I make a quick mental note of every staffer and guard downstairs who saw me hunting through presidential records and might've tipped them off. "I didn't realize coming to work early was a problem."
"No problem," Agent Harris says evenly. "And what time do you usually get home? Specifically, what time did you get home last night?"
"Just past eight," I say. "If you don't believe me, ask Tot. He drove me home and dropped me off." Still standing by the door with the priceless Robert Todd Lincoln letter in my hands, I motion to Tot's cubicle.
"I appreciate that. Tot dropped you off. That means he doesn't know where you were between eight last night and about six this morning, correct?" the agent with the goatee asks, though it no longer sounds like a question.
It's the first time I notice that neither of these guys has the hand mics or ear buds that you see on the Secret Service agents around the President. These two don't do protection. They're investigators. Still, the Service's mission is to protect the President. In the Culper Ring, we protect the Presidency. It's not a small distinction.
"Were you with anyone else last night, Beecher?" Agent Harris jumps in.
From his cubicle, Tot shoots me a look. The bear trap is about to snap shut.
"Do you always wear gloves at work?" Agent Harris adds, motioning to the white cotton gloves.
"Only when I'm handling old documents," I say as I open the file folder and show them the mottled brown Robert Todd Lincoln letter that's still in my open palms. "If you don't mind ..."
They step away from my cubicle, but not by much.
As I squeeze inside and carefully place the Lincoln letter on my desk, I notice the odd slant of my keyboard and how one of my piles of paper is slightly askew. They've already gone through my stuff.
"And do you take those gloves home with you?" Agent Harris asks.
"I'm sorry," I say, "but are you accusing me of something?"
They exchange glances.
"Beecher, do you know someone named Ozzie Andrews?" Agent Harris finally asks.
"Just tell me if you know him. Ozzie Andrews."
"With a name as silly as Ozzie, I'd remember if I knew him."
"So you never met him? Never heard the name?"
"What're you really asking?"
"They found a body," Agent Harris says. "A pastor in a church downtown was found murdered last night around 10 p.m. Throat slit."
"It is. Fortunately for us, just as the D.C. Police got there, they nabbed a suspect. Named Ozzie. He was strolling out the back of the church right after the murder. And when they went through Ozzie's pockets, this killer had your name and phone number in his wallet."
"What? That's ridiculous."
"So you don't know anything about this murder?"
"Of course not!"
There's a long pause.
"Beecher, how would you describe your opinion of President Orson Wallace?" Agent Harris interrupts.
"We're not asking your political views. It's just, with St. John's Church being so close to the White House ... you understand. We need to ask."
I turn to Tot, who doesn't just smell the rat anymore; now we see it. Two months ago, as the President buried his best friend, he swore he'd also bury me. I thought it'd come in the middle of the night with a ski mask. But I forgot who I'm dealing with. Tot said the President already had the bull's-eye on my forehead, then suddenly two Secret Service guys show up? This is Wallace's real revenge: Tie me to a murder, send in the Service, and keep your manicured hands clean as they snap my mugshot.
"Where is this Ozzie guy now?" I ask. "I'd like to know who he is."
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize suspects get to make their own demands."
"So now I'm a suspect? Fine, then let me face my accuser. Is he still in jail?"
For the first time, both agents go silent. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Fifth Assassin by Brad Meltzer. Copyright © 2013 Brad Meltzer. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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