In 1955, one woman holds the key to America's future: a ruthless and beautiful ex-Nazi assassin, posing as a housekeeper inside President Eisenhower's isolated Gettysburg estate, awaiting her chance to murder the chief executive and change the course of history.
One man stands in her way: a disgraced Secret Service agent, driven from active duty by battle fatigue. Waiting and watching: the most powerful figures of the era, including Senator Joe McCarthy, FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, Vice President Richard Nixon, and the sinister pair of German-American brothers sponsoring the attack.
As the minutes tick down, the highly-trained professional killer and the discredited WWII veteran face off in a deadly game. At stake: the life and legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the world's most powerful man.
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Edition description:||First World Publication|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)|
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The Art of the Devil
By John Altman
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 2014 John Altman
All rights reserved.
THE TREASURY BUILDING, WASHINGTON DC: NOVEMBER 11
Approaching the checkpoint, Francis Isherwood scanned for a familiar face.
The lobby bustled with men wearing charcoal suits and navy ties – but he recognized nobody. Nor, after his long absence from Treasury, did the guards recognize him. He was not spared a thorough and humiliating search. As rude hands patted down his inseams, hips, and ribcage, noses wrinkled disapprovingly at the smell of whiskey. Straightening with shabby pride, Isherwood made no apology.
Waved through, he was left to readjust his clothes and his dignity by himself. The office he was seeking was farther back on the first floor, behind a brass plaque reading EMIL SPOONER, CHIEF OF THE SECRET SERVICE. Reaching for the knob, Isherwood caught a flash of his own hazy reflection in the brass plaque. The unexpected glimpse made him flinch. How the mighty have fallen.
He entered a grand reception area elegantly appointed with cream-colored wallpaper and antique furniture. Porticoed windows faced west, affording a picture-postcard view of the White House. Seated behind a desk, the Chief's personal secretary – a hulking man with broad shoulders, flat-top haircut, and affable blue eyes – said, without looking up, 'Be right with you.'
'Take your time, Max.'
Raising his eyes, Max Whitman grinned. Although he had occupied this post for as long as Isherwood could remember, Whitman never seemed to age. 'Ish. Lookin' good.'
Isherwood tipped his hat smartly. 'The Chief's expecting me ...?'
'Sure. Go on in.'
The Chief's office was drab and faded, and more modest than the reception area, reflecting Emil Spooner's lack of concern for appearances. Muted oil portraits of his predecessors lined the walls. The sole personal touch was an autographed photograph mounted behind the desk, depicting Joe DiMaggio with one arm slung companionably around the Chief's shoulders.
Cadaverously thin, five-feet six-inches tall, gray of hair and pallor, Chief Emil Spooner appeared significantly older than his personal secretary, although in fact the men had grown up together, graduating from the same high school class. Half-rising from his chair, he gestured Isherwood into a seat. Settling down again, he spent a moment regarding his visitor. A complex mixture of expressions played across his face: curiosity, concern, pity ... and something else, which Isherwood couldn't quite put his finger on.
'Thanks for coming,' Spooner said at last. 'How's Evy?'
'Hanging in there.' No need to get into the gory details.
'Please send her my love.'
'Sure thing. How's Claire?'
'Little bit at loose ends, with the kids out of the house. But making do.'
'Give her my best.'
'She'll appreciate that.'
A pause ensued, during which Isherwood absorbed the office more thoroughly. Everything seemed the same, down to the stale odor of cigarette smoke ground into the carpet and worn curtains. At length he returned his attention to Spooner. He was starting to think that the man had gotten lost wool-gathering when the Chief suddenly said, 'Our conversation today doesn't leave this office, Ish. All right?'
Cautiously, Isherwood nodded.
'Couple hours ago, a call came in. I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought – you know how many cranks we get – but this was a more reputable source than usual, a professional newsman. But still, I wouldn't have given it a second thought ... if I hadn't already been thinking.'
Another pause, longer than the first. The silence drew out conspicuously. From his desk the Chief produced a pack of Winstons, which he set down unopened.
'Thinking,' Isherwood prodded at last.
The elder man furrowed his brow. 'Six weeks ago, as you may recall, the President suffered a heart attack.'
Isherwood grunted. Eisenhower had experienced chest pains while playing golf in Colorado. Admitted by his personal physician to Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver, the President had languished in bed for a month and a half as the nation held its collective breath. At last he had been pronounced well enough to be moved, and just that morning had flown back east, to complete his recuperation at his Gettysburg farm after a brief stopover in Washington.
'Does it strike you as strange?' From another drawer the Chief took out a crystal ashtray, which he set on the desk beside the pack of cigarettes. 'Dwight D. Eisenhower – the poster boy for military fitness – hit in his prime by a heart attack, without a single warning sign?'
Isherwood only shrugged.
A shadow of disapprobation crossed the Chief's face. 'Well,' he said after a moment, 'it struck me as strange. So I had a private conversation with Howard Snyder. He threw me a lot of medical jargon—' He glanced down at a notepad on the blotter. 'The President suffered a "coronary thrombosis, diagnosis confirmed by electrocardiograph showing QS deformity with marked RS-T segment elevation", et cetera, and so on. But the upshot's simple enough: the heart attack came out of nowhere. Sometimes, of course, that's how heart disease works. But get this: Ike has slightly elevated blood pressure, monitored daily. In fact, Doc Snyder took readings the very day of the heart attack. What do think he found?'
'A healthy man,' Isherwood ventured.
'Bingo. The President's pulse was sixty beats per minute, his blood pressure one-forty over eighty. And yet just a few hours later, on the eighth hole at the Cherry Hills Country Club, bam, a massive coronary.' Spooner lit a cigarette and deposited the match carefully in the ashtray. 'When I pressed for details, everything followed the same lines. There were no warning signs, no evidence of heart disease, and no family history. Ike watches his diet, quit smoking years ago, and takes regular exercise ... and yet, out of left field ...' He raised one eyebrow suggestively.
'Where did he eat that day?'
'Ah! Great minds think alike, old buddy. The President's breakfast that day was taken at Mamie's childhood home, on Lafayette Street in Denver. His lunch was taken at the golf club: a hamburger with Bermuda onions. In my opinion – and I might sound paranoid, but that's an occupational hazard – it's as likely that he ingested something toxic with that hamburger, which may have looked like a heart attack, as this "coronary thrombosis" out of nowhere. No lack of poisons, you know, that mimic the symptoms. And many denature quickly enough to leave no trace.'
Isherwood nodded again.
'So I did a little more digging. Pulled a file, and found out that an underchef in that golf club was considered a potential security risk ... a known sodomite, open to blackmail. Days when Eisenhower visited the club, this fellow wasn't allowed to work. But he worked the day before Eisenhower's heart attack. And the day after, he disappeared into thin air. Puff, no more poof.' Spooner ground out his cigarette, barely smoked. 'I've got an all-points out, but so far, nothing. So I was already thinking something smelled rotten, you can see, when we got this call couple hours ago. This NBC cameraman – Charlie Morgan is the name – was riding in the motorcade today behind Ike. And he thought he saw a glint on a rise above the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Now, here's the interesting thing about that: the President was supposed to be riding in an open car during the parade. Which would have meant easy pickings for a sniper. But thanks to doctor's orders, he was switched at the last second to a bubble-topped Chrysler.'
'I see where you're heading.'
'Sure. Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that the "heart attack" was actually an attempt on the President's life. If that failed, what would his enemies do next? I'll tell you what I would do: place a gunman on that very ridge. Take out the President during his homecoming parade. Between National Airport and Arlington Memorial Bridge, a sniper has a clear shot from short range, concealing cover from the trees, and escape routes in every direction. But Ike, against expectations, was riding in a closed car – second chance down the drain.'
'Hell, Ish, I'll go you one better. If there was a sniper up in those hills, then he knew the exact time and route of the motorcade, and probably patrol schedules too – so we're talking about someone with connections on the inside. Someone who could have, say, blackmailed our sodomite at the golf club into forgetting to lock a back door the day before Eisenhower showed up.'
All at once, then, Isherwood understood why the Chief had called on him, of all people. Whatever else Francis Isherwood might be these days, he certainly wasn't on the inside.
'Go talk with the NBC cameraman,' the Chief urged. 'Check out the rise above the Parkway. Strictly on the QT, old buddy. Let me know what you find, and I'll take it from there – and I'll owe you one.'
Slowly, Isherwood nodded again.
One hundred miles south-west of Washington, set far back from the road, protected by thickets of trees still holding on to the last of their leaves, the mansion seemed a relic of a bygone era – pre-war, and not either of the World Wars – with a granite colonnade framing an asymmetrical porch.
Passing through a tall gate, the Buick pulled up before the porch in the failing afternoon light. Unlimbering his six-foot four-inch frame from the car, Richard Hart handed his keys to a valet and then closed the distance to the mansion on foot. As he climbed the stairs, dark-suited bodyguards lining the porch avoided his gaze, staring solemnly straight ahead.
Crossing the porch, Hart found himself remembering from nowhere a long-ago fairground from his native Saint Clairsville, Ohio. The summer air had smelled of corn dogs, cotton candy, and popcorn. An old gypsy fortune-teller had examined Hart's palm, tsk ed beneath her breath, and predicted a short life. Hart hadn't thought about that for twenty years. But now he felt a whisper of foreboding, a clenching in his chest. The circumstances surrounding both failed attempts on the President had been beyond his control – but if the senator held him accountable, this might be the day that the prophecy finally came true. The fear was perverse – the senator would never discard him so carelessly – but undeniable, fluttering inside his sternum like a hummingbird.
Inside a vast foyer, he was met by a Negro butler wearing a crimson vest with buttons polished to a high shine. The butler led him down a hallway featuring tall arched windows, orchids in crystal vases, and alabaster busts on Grecian pediments: all clean, fluid lines, with every banister, door handle, and archway flowing sinuously into the next. At the end of the hall, French doors blocked by lush curtains opened into a study. The desk was an ocean-sized hunk of walnut, the fireplace brass-screened with instruments encased in platinum. Logs burning behind the screen hosted a small center of red-hot coal. The window, fashioned of stained glass, portrayed cubist kings, horses, and armored knights.
Upon Hart's entrance, Senator John Bolin stood from behind the desk. His silken white suit shimmered with the motion, rolling like water. Remote blue eyes flickered behind rimless spectacles. Thin lips fixed in a welcoming smile. The practiced smile and trustworthy spectacles belonged to a career politician. But the authoritative bearing and unmistakable air of power, thought Hart, belonged to a man more fundamentally born to lead: a general, a warlord, an emperor.
Bolin indicated a leather-upholstered chair before the fireplace. For a few moments, after Hart sat, the senator considered, stone-faced. Then he softened in a calculated way, designed to put company at ease – the same manner that had won him multiple terms of office and much fawning press.
'The President,' he said, 'has never before used a closed car. Our man on the inside should have given us warning. This was not your fault.'
The knot in Hart's chest loosened. The senator did not blame him; today would not be the day the fortune-teller's prediction came true, after all. 'What does it mean – the closed car?'
'Perhaps nothing.' Bolin adjusted his spectacles on the bridge of his aquiline nose. He put hands on hips, flaring out his white jacket, catching the faint firelight on a silver lining. His tendency to strike poses might make a cynic dismiss the man. But Hart knew better.
'The day was cold,' continued the senator after a moment. 'And his doctors believe he's recently suffered a heart attack. It may have been an ordinary precaution for his health.' He shrugged, took out a pack of Viceroys. For a moment before lighting a cigarette, he gazed broodingly into the middle distance. 'Or perhaps the effort in Denver has shown our hand. Have you ever read Emerson, Mister Hart?'
Richard Hart's formal education had ended with high school. His real education had taken place in Salerno, and Lazio, and Anzio, and there had been no Emerson there. 'Sir?'
'"When you strike at a king, you must kill him."' Bolin lit his cigarette and then flicked the match negligently through the brass screen of the fireplace. 'But we have now struck twice without scoring a fatal blow. A wise man must realize that we are treading dangerous ground, indeed.'
'My associates will be within their rights, Mister Hart, to insist we try another approach.'
The senator turned to look out the window. In the expansive backyard an ashen moon was rising like a wraith above a forest of maple, elder, birch and walnut. 'Yet I think,' he said, 'that despite the setbacks, we still have reason for hope. Bon courage, Mister Hart. Get some rest. When I need you, I'll call.'
Francis Isherwood stood on the shoulder of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, following the line of a man's arm.
He found himself looking at a thatch of pines perched on a hillside perhaps one hundred yards distant. A cool breeze moved the pine needles serenely. On his right, the Potomac stirred in time with the trees. On the road between park and river, vehicles whizzed past at reckless speeds.
'That rise yonder.' The NBC camera operator named Charlie Morgan was of average height and above-average weight, with thinning sandy hair, watchful green eyes, and a nascent double-chin. 'That's where I saw the glint. A sniper's scope,' he said with conviction. 'No doubt in my mind. I'm just glad you guys took me seriously enough to send someone out here.'
Isherwood didn't have the heart to tell the man that he had no real authority. Instead he said, 'No offense, friend. But what makes you think you can recognize a sniper's scope at one hundred yards?'
Charlie Morgan bristled. 'Eighty-two days in Okinawa,' he said. 'That's what, friend, thank you very much.'
Following a rough path up into the park, Isherwood encountered a few colorful autumn leaves and a handful of late-migrating birds; but for the most part, he saw only skeletal branches, deepening shadows, and bristling evergreens.
To reach the area indicated by Charlie Morgan, he had to go off-trail. Almost immediately, brambles scratched his hands, and a singlet of perspiration sprung up beneath his trench coat and threadbare blue suit. Emerging onto another crude path, he paused to wipe sour sweat from beneath his hat brim and fortify himself with a jolt from his flask.
Achieving the rise at last, he turned to look back at the vista spreading beneath him. The French called itcoup d'oeil: the ability to take in a battlefield with a glance. After absorbing the lay of the land beneath the rising moon, he paced off a few wide circles, scowling down at a bed of fallen pine needles and a low parapet of rocks. For several minutes he used a foot to shove aside dense tangles of brush, uncovering at length a roughly human-sized depression, which had kept its shape thanks to a gentle rise serving as a windbreak.
Lighting a cigarette with shaky hands, he kept looking around, seeking something innocent – a discarded bottle, a bracelet dropped by a couple of necking teenagers, a lost lipstick tube – to explain the glint reported by the newsman. The darkening night complicated his search. Using the flame of his Zippo, however, he pressed on until satisfied: there was nothing here except pine needles and dead leaves.
Knitting his brow, he brought the nub of the cigarette to his lips with trembling fingers.
Back in the Chief's office, sitting beneath the soft glow of an electric chandelier, he explained his findings. Overall, he concluded, the site would indeed have been ideal for a sniper whose target was traveling in a motorcade below, and in his opinion Charlie Morgan constituted a reliable witness. While the evidence was far from irrefutable, his mind had hardly been set at ease.
Excerpted from The Art of the Devil by John Altman. Copyright © 2014 John Altman. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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