The Knights of the Golden Circle was the largest and most dangerous clandestine organization in American history. It amassed billions in stolen gold and silver, all buried in hidden caches across the United States. Since 1865 treasure hunters have searched, but little of that immense wealth has ever been found.
Now, one hundred and sixty years later, two factions of what remains of the Knights of the Golden Circle want that lost treasureone to spend it for their own ends, the other to preserve it.
Thrust into this battle is former Justice Department agent Cotton Malone, whose connection to the knights is far deeper than he ever imagined. At the center is the Smithsonian Institutionlinked to the knights, its treasure, and Malone himself through an ancestor, a Confederate spy named Angus “Cotton” Adams, whose story holds the key to everything. Complicating matters are the political ambitions of a reckless Speaker of the House and the bitter widow of a United States Senator, who together are planning radical changes to the country. And while Malone and Cassiopeia Vitt face the past, ex-president Danny Daniels and Stephanie Nelle confront a new and unexpected challenge, a threat that may cost one of them their life.
From the backrooms of the Smithsonian to the deepest woods in rural Arkansas, and finally up into the rugged mountains of northern New Mexico, The Lost Order by Steve Berry is a perilous adventure into our country’s dark past, and a potentially even darker future.
About the Author
STEVE BERRY is the New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author of a dozen Cotton Malone novels and several standalones. He has 21 million books in print, translated into 40 languages. With his wife, Elizabeth, he is the founder of History Matters, which is dedicated to historical preservation. He serves on the Smithsonian Libraries Advisory Board and was a founding member of International Thriller Writers, formerly serving as its co-president.
Read an Excerpt
The Lost Order
By Steve Berry
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Magellan Billet, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Tuesday, May 25
Cotton Malone focused on the treasure.
The hunt had started three hours ago when he'd left a nearby mountaintop lodge and been dropped off twenty miles away, on the northern outskirts of the Ouachita National Forest, amid 1.8 million acres of old-growth oak, beech, cedar, and elm. The wilderness was a magnet for nature enthusiasts, but 150 years ago it had been the haunt of outlaws, the hilly terrain and dense forests offering excellent hiding places for both loot and people.
He was assisting the National Museum of American History on an assignment that he'd been glad to accept. Usually his old boss Stephanie Nelle either roped him in or outright hired him, but this time the call had come from the Smithsonian chancellor himself, the chief justice of the United States, who explained the problem and provided enough information to pique his interest. The offered $25,000 fee had also been more than generous. Truth be known he would have done it for free, as he had a soft spot for the Smithsonian.
And who didn't like searching for buried treasure.
The woods that engulfed him stretched from the rugged plateaus of the Ozarks in the north end of the state to the rolling peaks of the Ouachitas in the south. In between lay valleys, overlooks, ridges, caves, and countless rivers and streams. All in all it was a paradise, one he'd never visited before, which was another reason he'd accepted the assignment.
He'd come equipped with 21st-century technology, both a magnetometer and a GPS tracker, along with starting coordinates. Using the GPS locator he was threading his way through the trees, approaching a point that, hopefully, a satellite thousands of miles overhead would signal as X-marked-the-spot.
The whole thing was intriguing.
A reference librarian named Martin Thomas, who worked inside the American history museum, had been studying a cache of old maps, notes, and diaries stored in the Smithsonian's vast archive. The documents were restricted, detailing a Smithsonian investigation conducted in 1909 that had involved a prior expedition to western Arkansas. Nothing had come of that journey, except that its lead researcher had been killed when a couple of hunters mistook him for a deer. It could have been an accident, but Cotton was not naive enough to think that a locally elected sheriff never looked after his constituents — and rural Arkansas at the turn of the 20th century seemed the precise definition of local.
Easy for things to be swept under the rug.
The GPS locator continued to flash off numbers.
He adjusted his direction and kept walking, searching through the trees. He'd spent the past three days in DC, shuffling through the same field notes, books, papers, maps, and files that had captured Martin Thomas' attention. His access, though, had come with the chancellor's blessing. He'd read at length as to what might be expected here on the ground in Arkansas. More recent notes, provided by Thomas himself, described a specific marker — what had been labeled long ago the map tree — along with its precise coordinates. A cooperative concierge at the lodge had told him even more, including the general vicinity of where to find the stately beech.
The locator beeped.
X marked the spot.
And there it was.
The tree stood at least fifty feet tall. Upon it were carved 65 inscriptions. He knew that because Thomas had been here a month ago and counted them. But there'd been an incident. A headless effigy, pockmarked with bullet holes, was suspended over the trail. Strung up from a tree like a lynching, dangling over a pile of spent shotgun shells. Inverted crosses had been painted on the trees all around. A line of string had led from the effigy down to the shells. The message clear.
Which had worked.
Thomas had fled.
This time, though, a professional accustomed to trouble had come.
He approached the tree and noticed the carvings. He ran his fingers slowly over a bird, a bell, and what appeared to be a horse with no legs. He'd been told by a botanist at the natural history museum that a beech tree's thin, smooth bark grew slow, preventing cracking. So a mark made on a beech would still be there decades later. Many of the carvings were filled with moss, others warped from decades of growth. But most were legible. He'd brought along a soft nylon brush in his backpack, which he used to gently clear away the lichens, revealing additional letters and symbols. He wanted to study them further, along with their possible interpretations, but they weren't important at the moment. Instead, taking this as the point of beginning, he searched for another tree.
And saw it.
Ten yards away.
It was a tall red oak, its limbs trimmed long ago into an unnatural pattern, now grown tall like goalposts. He sighted a path past that tree and pointed the GPS. He needed to stay on a straight line, using where he stood as one point and the goalposts as another, keeping the longitudinal GPS number constant, and walking northward, shifting only latitude. He marveled at how, decades ago, this all would have been done by dead reckoning.
He stepped ahead, the underbrush sparse, the trees thick. Sunlight sieved through the leafy spring canopy, dappling the ground. Heat and humidity slid across his sticky skin, heavy as a towel, reminding him of boyhood days in middle Georgia.
A bit shy of twenty yards from the map tree he found a clump of rocks, heavily encrusted with more lichens. He'd been told to keep a lookout for just such a feature. He bent down and examined them, using the brush to clean away a green patina. On one, near the ground line, he found the number 7 chipped into the rock.
Faint. But there.
He lifted the softball-sized stone and turned it over. A quick swipe with the brush and he spotted two letters.
He'd learned that many markers had been intentionally placed within these woods. There, but not there, so obvious that no one would ever pay them any attention. This clump of rocks seemed the perfect example. Meaningless, unless you were actually paying attention. Something his grandfather once told him came to mind.
"Why hide loot and not have a way to find it?"
The assumption now became that SE meant "southeast." The 7? Who knew? Probably just misdirection. Anyone who saw it would never think to turn the rock over. But for someone in the know, who'd come to retrieve whatever had been hidden, the 7 acted as a billboard to draw their attention. He also knew that for the clandestine group who'd supposedly hidden these caches, 7 was a symbolic number. One that said, "The drawbridge is down, the way ahead clear." All part of their secret, cryptic language.
He switched on the magnetometer. He'd been holding off using it to preserve battery power. He turned southeast, which would take him back toward the map tree, and readied himself. The 1909 field notes had talked of more hidden markers.
An ingenious security system.
Proof positive of human inventiveness.
He hovered the magnetometer just above the ground. The other hand held the GPS locator and he kept on a straight line to the southeast, sweeping the metal detector back and forth. Sixty feet later the instrument buzzed. He laid everything down and found a collapsible shovel in his backpack. Carefully, on his knees, he worked the ground above the find, the soft loamy soil coming away in moist clumps. Six inches down he located a heavily oxidized iron plow point. He knew not to disturb it. Instead, he must learn from it.
He cleared away the dirt and noted the direction the plow pointed.
He marveled that the object was even here. Information within the 1909 field notes had revealed how horseshoes, mule shoes, picks, ax-heads, and, sure enough, plow points had been buried about four to six inches deep. Enough to remain hidden, but not enough to be undetected by a compass needle. Pass a compass over buried iron and the needle will react, much as a paper clip when near a magnet will start to act like a magnet. Martin Thomas had tested the theory while here a month ago with a new plow point and had recorded that it worked. Not nearly as good as a magnetometer, but definitely its great-great-grandfather. Only time had not been factored into the equation. Oxidation degraded magnetic abilities, so it was doubtful a compass would be of any use today. Thank goodness for modern technology.
Expectancy clutched his chest.
This was exciting.
His grandfather would have loved it.
But it was also serious, as a man had died here long ago and Martin Thomas had been terrorized just recently.
So he stayed alert, re-gripped his instruments, and started walking southwest. Sixty more feet and he found another buried marker, this time an ax-head, still pointed southwest. He was careful with both his steps and his digging. This was rattlesnake country, and a few might be out enjoying the toasty afternoon. Which was another reason why his holstered Beretta rested within easy reach inside the backpack.
The vector he'd taken had led straight back to the map tree, forming a large triangle. Now he knew where to concentrate his efforts. No longer was the entire Arkansas countryside in play, only the space between the lines he'd just laid out.
He walked toward its center.
The reflective matte-black lenses of his sunglasses muted the harshness of the bright sun. The branches were full of noise from birds, squirrels, and insects. This part of Arkansas seemed a gorgeous gem tucked away in nearly the center of the country. It was remote a century and a half ago, and not much had changed, the biggest difference being that the National Park Service now made sure everything stayed pristine. He wasn't exactly sure if he was inside the park boundaries but, if not, he was awful close.
Historically, no substantial quantities of gold had ever been mined in Arkansas, but legends persisted of its existence. And not the kind that came from a clear stream or out of a vein. Instead, it had all been placed. The original hypothesis revolved around 16th-century Spaniards, who'd hidden hundreds of gold caches across the Midwest and West. But outlaws, too, had used these woods as their hideout. Then there was one other group. From the 19th century.
The Knights of the Golden Circle.
Who'd flourished here.
Ahead, nearly in the center of the triangle, he spotted a large maple with a long, vertical line ingrown in its bark.
He swept the magnetometer over the ground around the tree and it screamed a find. Back to his knees, he dug carefully. Six inches and nothing. He kept going. About a foot down, he felt something hard. An object placed deep enough that no compass would ever find it.
And he knew what that meant.
The prize, gained only after deciphering the other clues and knowing exactly where to dig.
Yes, definitely, this was the property of the Knights of the Golden Circle.
He cleared the soil away and realized that he'd located a glass jar with a metal lid that had long rusted through. He freed the jar, about the size of a half-gallon milk container. Once it was out in the light he saw that it contained a stash of gold coins, packed tight, time doing nearly nothing to dull them. He tried to estimate how many were inside. He'd been told to photograph anything before physically examining it, so he laid the jar on the ground, located his phone, and activated the camera.
He was about to snap a few images when he heard something.
He reached into his pack, found his Beretta, and pivoted. In a blur of sight and reason, all he caught was a dark figure and the familiar outline of a rifle.
Coming his way.
Then, there was nothing.CHAPTER 2
Danny Daniels hated funerals, avoiding them whenever possible. As president of the United States he'd attended precious few, delegating that solemn task to others. Now, as an ex-president, he had no one to send. No matter, though. This funeral was an exception to his usual rule.
He'd known the deceased ever since his own days as a Maryville city councilman, when Alex Sherwood served in the Tennessee state legislature. Ultimately, they'd risen together, he to the governor's mansion, Congress, and finally the White House — Sherwood to Speaker of the Tennessee legislature then on to the U.S. Senate. Two country boys, each finding his own path to success.
During two terms in the White House he'd always counted on Alex. He knew that his old friend would have liked to have been president. But it had not happened. Quick to praise, reluctant to find fault. That was Alex. Just too damn nice. To be president you had to own many moods, not only making decisions but also convincing everyone else that you knew what the hell you were doing. Sometimes that took an ass-chewing, which was not a skill his old pal had ever mastered. Instead, Alex used courtesy, kindness, and reason. Which many times just did not work.
A slow drizzle drained from the gray, spring sky. Umbrellas protected the mourners. He'd left his at home, donning only a raincoat to keep his suit dry. His time as president had ended four months ago and he'd returned home to Blount County, Tennessee.
To start a new life.
"Please join us," the minister said, urging the crowd forward to the grave site.
The church had been filled with over five hundred, that service open to the public. But here, in the old cemetery among the trees, with the Appalachian foothills off to the east, less than a hundred had been invited, all relatives or close friends. No press. The U.S. Senate was represented by the majority leader and eight of his colleagues. The House, too, had sent a contingent, headed by the Speaker himself. But he'd never cared for the current Speaker, a self-confident, pompous ass from South Carolina named Lucius Vance. They were of different parties, different states, different thinking. Vance, though, was a master at satisfying his colleagues, finagling support, and juggling the thousand chores needed to keep his seat. He was a man of the House, accustomed to biennial approval, acutely aware of how fast the public's love changed to hate. Nine years ago that experience, and over twenty years in office, finally accumulated enough political capital to elevate Vance to the Speaker's chair, making him the 62nd person to hold the job.
Once Danny had kept a close watch on the opposition, knowing their every move. And when was that? Oh, four months ago. But not anymore. What did it matter? Ex-presidents rarely amounted to much. Their one job was to fade away. Vance, though, was still going strong — pragmatic and precise — holding tight to the reins of power. For eight years Vance had been a thorn in the Daniels administration's side, trying every way possible to derail anything the White House proposed.
And succeeding more often than not.
But that was no longer Danny's problem.
That task now fell to President Warner Scott Fox, who had the advantage of being in the same party as Vance.
But that might not mean a thing.
Congress routinely ate its own.
The mourners scrummed together around a large tent erected near the grave. Alex's widow, Diane, sat beneath it with hands folded in her lap. The Sherwood marriage had lasted a long time. Unlike his own, which was now over. He and Pauline had already signed the divorce papers. They'd agreed that July 1 would be the day to file and end their relationship. By then people would have forgotten about the previous president of the United States and his First Lady.
Interesting how things had changed.
Not all that long ago he was the most important man in the world. Thousands worked around the clock to please him. He commanded the most powerful military on the planet. His decisions affected hundreds of millions. Now he was again an ordinary citizen. Of course, not that long ago Alex Sherwood had been alive. So he shouldn't complain. Pauline seemed happy with her new life and love. And he was happy with Stephanie Nelle. Some people might call the whole thing strange. He called it the way of the world. He'd done his duty and served his country. So had Pauline. Now it was time they served themselves.
He walked across the wet grass, pebbles crunching beneath his soles, hands inside his coat pockets. He stopped just inside the tent, where he could hear the minister over the patter of rain on canvas overhead. The governor was there, another friend, along with a state legislative delegation. Diane had not left out any of the key players, seemingly mindful of protocol.
Excerpted from The Lost Order by Steve Berry. Copyright © 2017 Magellan Billet, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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