Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fall 1988
An unlikely Harvard prospect, smart and athletic, strapped for cash, determined to succeed. Calls his motherwho raised him on her own in Chicagoevery week.
A white-shoe legacy at Harvard, he's just the most recent in a string of moneyed, privileged Winthrop men in Cambridge. He's got the easeand the deep knowledgethat come from belonging.
These two find enough common ground to become friends, cementing their bond when Spenser is "punched" to join the Delphic Club, one of the most exclusive of Harvard's famous all-male final clubs. Founded in the nineteenth century, the Delphic has had titans of industry, Hollywood legends, heads of state, and power brokers among its members.
Dalton Winthrop knows firsthand that the Delphic doesn't offer memberships to just anyone. His great-uncle is one of their oldest living members, and Dalton grew up on stories of the club's rituals. But why is his uncle so cryptic about the Ancient Nine, a shadowy group of alums whose identities are unknown and whose power is absolute? They protect the Delphic's darkest and oldest secretsincluding what happened to a student who sneaked into the club's stately brick mansion in 1927 and was never seen again.
Dalton steers Spenser into deeper and deeper recesses of the club, and beyond, to try to make sense of what they think they may be seeing. But with each scrap of information they get from an octogenarian Crimson graduate, a crumbling newspaper in the library's archives, or one of Harvard's most famous and heavily guarded historical books, a fresh complication trips them up. The more the friends investigate, the more questions they unearth, tangling the story of the club, the disappearance, and the Ancient Nine, until they realize their own lives are in danger.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.48(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.41(d)|
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Harvard College Cambridge, Massachusetts October 2, 1988
IT SHOULDN'T HAVE been enough to wake me, but I had just drifted off on the couch in the common room that separated my bedroom from my roommate's. It was a short scratchy sound: a pebble or sand being dragged across the linoleum floor. I looked toward Percy's bedroom. His door was closed and his light of. I sat up on the sofa, swiveling my head in the darkness to see what could've made the noise. Mice were not exactly uncommon sightings in these old Harvard houses, some of which had been built more than a century ago, so I was preparing myself for vermin out on a late-night scavenge. But when I turned on the lamp and looked down at the floor, what sat there took me completely by surprise.
Someone had slipped a small cream-colored envelope underneath the front door. There was no postage or return address, just my name and room number elaborately inscribed.
Spenser Collins Lowell House L-11
I turned the envelope over, hoping to find some indication of who might have sent it, but what I discovered was even more puzzling.
Embossed on the flap were three torches — so dark blue, they were almost black — arranged in a perfect V shape.
I heard footsteps just outside the door, slow at first, but then they began to pick up speed. I pulled the door open, but the hallway was empty. Our room was on the first floor, so I grabbed my keys and ran a short distance down the hall, jumped a small flight of steps, then rammed my shoulder into the entryway door, forcing it open into the cool night. I immediately heard voices echoing across the courtyard, a cluster of three girls stumbling in high heels, dragging themselves in from a long night of drinking.
I scanned the shadows, but nothing else moved. I looked to my right and thought about running across the path that led to the west courtyard and out into the tiny streets of Cambridge. But my bare feet were practically frozen to the concrete, and the wind assaulted me like shards of ice cutting through my T-shirt. I retreated to the warmth of my room.
Percy's bedroom door was still closed, which was not surprising. He wouldn't wake up if an armored tank tore through the wall and opened fire.
I sat on the edge of the couch and examined the envelope again. Why would someone deliver it by hand in the middle of the night, then sneak away? None of it made any sense. I opened the envelope slowly, feeling almost guilty ripping what appeared to be expensive paper. The stationery was brittle, like rice paper, and the same three torches were prominently displayed in the letterhead.
The President and members of the Delphic Club cordially invite you to a cocktail party on Friday, October 14, 7 o'clock Lily Field Mansion at 108 Brattle St. Cambridge. Please call 876-0400 with regrets only.
I immediately picked up the phone and dialed Dalton Winthrop's number. Fifth-generation Harvard and heir to the vast Winthrop and Lewington fortunes, he was one of the most finely pedigreed of all Harvard legacies, descending from a family that had been claiming Harvard since the 1600s, when the damn school got its charter from the Bay Colony. Dalton was a hopeless insomniac, so I knew he'd still be awake.
"What the hell are you doing up this time of the night?" Dalton said. "Some of us around here need our beauty sleep." He sounded fully awake.
"What can you tell me about something called the Delphic Club?" I asked The phone rustled as he sat up.
"Did you just say 'the Delphic'?" he said.
"Yeah, do you know anything about it?"
There was a slight pause before he said, "Why the hell are you asking about the Delphic at this ungodly hour?"
"They invited me to a cocktail party next Friday night. Someone just slipped the invitation under my door, then ran."
"Are you fucking kidding me? The Delphic invited you to a cocktail party?"
"Unless there's another Spenser Collins I don't know about."
"No ofense, Spenser, but don't get your hopes up," he said. "This is probably some kind of prank someone's pulling on you. The Delphic isn't just a club, like any fraternity. It's the most secretive of Harvard's nine most exclusive clubs. They're called final clubs. The Delphic goes all the way back to the 1800s and has some of the world's most prominent men as members. An invitation to their cocktail party is like an invitation to kiss the papal ring."
"So, what you're really trying to say is that they would never give an invitation to a poor black kid from the South Side of Chicago."
"Spenser, you know I don't agree with that kinda shit, but that's how these secret societies operate. They haven't changed much over the last century and a half. Rich white men passing of the baton to the next generation, keeping their secrets shielded from the rest of the world. Yale has Skull and Bones, but here at Harvard we have the final clubs. It's no exaggeration when I tell you that some of the country's biggest secrets are buried in their old mansions."
"If I don't fit their image, then why did someone just slip this invite under my door?" I said.
"Because it's not real," Dalton said.
"What do you mean?"
"Guys joke like this all the time. This is the beginning of what's called punch season, which means the clubs are secretly nominating sophomores to enter a series of election rounds. Whoever survives the cuts over the two months gets elected into the club. You've heard of the hazing they do in fraternities. Well, this is a little like that, but it's a lot more formal with much bigger stakes."
"What makes you so sure my invitation is fake when you haven't even seen it?"
"Are you alone?"
"Percy's here, but he's out cold."
"Pull out the invite and tell me if you see torches anywhere."
I was sitting in the chair underneath the window, still eyeing the courtyard, hoping I might see who might've dropped of the envelope. The ambient light cracked the darkness of our common room. I held up the envelope.
"There are three torches on the back of the envelope," I said.
"What about the stationery?"
"Is the center torch lower or higher than the others?"
Dalton sighed loudly. "Now take the stationery, turn it over, and hold it up to a light," he said. "Tell me if you see anything when you look at the torches."
I followed Dalton's instructions, carefully removing the shade from one of Percy's expensive porcelain lamps that his grandmother had proudly given him from her winter house in Palm Beach. I held the invitation next to the naked bulb. "There's a thin circle with the initials JPM inside," I said. "But you can only see it under the light. When you move it away, the letters disappear."
"Jesus fuckin' Christ, Spense, it's the real deal!" Dalton yelled as if he were coming through the phone. "The Delphic really has punched you this season. I can't believe this is happening. Tell me the date of the party again."
It was rare to hear this level of excitement in Dalton's voice. Few things got him going, and they typically had to do with either women, food, or his father, whom he hated more than the Yankees.
"Next Friday at seven o'clock," I said. "It's at a place called Lily Field Mansion."
"Lily Field, of course," Dalton said. "It's the biggest one up there on mansion row, and it's owned by the Jacobs family, one of the richest in the country. Stanford Jacobs used to be the graduate president of the Delphic, so it makes sense that he's hosting the opening cocktail party."
Secret society, mansions, ultra-wealthy families, an invitation delivered under the cloak of darkness. It was all part of a foreign world that made little sense to me, the son of a single mother who answered phones at a small energy company.
"So, what the hell does all this mean?" I asked.
"That you're coming over here tomorrow for dinner, so we can figure out some sort of strategy," Dalton said. "This is all a long shot, but if things go well for you on Friday night, you might make it to the next round. I'm getting way ahead of myself — but one round at a time, and you might be the way we crack the Ancient Nine."
"The Ancient Nine?" I asked. "Is that another name for the clubs?"
"No, two different things," Dalton said. "The Ancient Nine are an ultra-secret society of nine members of the Delphic. A secret society within a secret society that not even the other Delphic members know much about. Most around here have never even heard of the Ancient Nine, but for those who have, some swear it exists, others think it's nothing more than another Harvard legend."
"What do you think?"
Dalton paused deliberately. "I'd bet everything I own that they exist. But no one can get them to break their code of silence. According to rumors, they are hiding not only one of Harvard's most valued treasures but also century-old secrets that involve some of the world's richest families."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Ancient Nine"
Copyright © 2018 Ian K. Smith.
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