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Making history could ruin your life, even if you stayed in the shadows. Jon Rickner knew this all too well. His current circumstances could certainly be worse, but he couldn't help reflecting on what could have been. What should have been.
"You planning on getting any work done today?"
Jon turned from his task to see the corpulent brown face of his supervisor, Loretha Hayes. Earlier in his short employment here at the National Archives, Jon had made the mistake of replying about how very busy he had, in fact, been. The torrent of verbal abuse that followed, coupled with the admonitions from his coworkers not to argue with Mrs. Hayes, had taught him very quickly to shut up when she decided today was your day. It was Jon's day more often than not.
A thousand snarky remarks came to mind, brilliantly sardonic retorts that would make his coworkers bowl over with laughter and finally wipe that smug look off Hayes's face. But he needed this job. The past few months had taught him just how bad.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, pretending to redouble his efforts as he sifted through a file cabinet. "I'll work faster."
"That would be lovely, Mr. Rickner. You may be here against my wishes, but this is not a charity case. Bear that in mind if you value your future here."
Jon watched as she shuffled off down the stacks to micromanage some other fully capable underling. Her calling him Mr. Rickner niggled at him, as she knew it would. He had worked hard for his doctorate in history, graduating first in his class from Oxford following a Summa Cum Laude undergrad degree from Harvard. But instead of top-tier universities throwing tenure-track positions at him in an academic bidding war, as might have happened with a similarly credentialed candidate, he found himself universally rejected out of hand.
He should have been on the other side of the counter, out front like the professor he was retrieving materials for, requesting documents to further his own research. Instead, he was relegated to a relatively menial role, finding, retrieving, and archiving historical documents for his true peers. Technically, he wasn't even all that qualified for this position. Most of his coworkers had graduate degrees in library sciences. The historians employed by the National Archives were the resident researchers, digging through the stacks in search of new insights, forgotten documents, puzzle pieces thought lost to time that would further the understanding of America's past. That was the job he was qualified for, perhaps more than any candidate they had considered in years. But his unique credentials were also what had blackballed him from the career he so desired.
Two years ago, he had been involved with the takedown of an elite government killing squad, one tasked with keeping hidden a secret dating from the Great Depression. When Jon had uncovered the proof of the organization's existence and revealed the decades-old secret to the world, much of the country revered him as a hero.
Others called him traitor.
The federal government largely fell in the latter category. Certainly they disagreed with the way the so-called Division had been killing its own citizens to protect a long-forgotten secret, but his public airing of their dirty laundry hadn't gone over well, even if they had already killed his brother and were about to kill him. The powers-that-be had let it be known — through unofficial channels, of course — that Jon Rickner was a pariah, and any institution that hired him might find themselves under closer scrutiny from all manner of federal inspectors. Before Jon had even finished his doctorate, he was unemployable.
But just as he was about to give up stateside and see if he could land a teaching job at a university overseas, the National Archives called. Supposedly, someone in the administration had decided to throw Jon a bone and pulled some strings to get him a position with the National Archives. According to the call, he was going to be a researcher, helping to flesh out the historical record in more universally beneficial ways. Though it wasn't exactly what he was looking for, Jon jumped at the idea. Not only could the job itself be tremendously edifying for his insatiably curious brain, but it could also be a launching pad to an actual teaching position once the furor over his role in exposing the Division gave way to some newer contributions to the historical record.
When he arrived for his first day of work, he was notified that his job would actually be as a retrieval archivist. A glorified librarian assistant. The one or two publications that were still following his tragic fall from accidental stardom found the twist humorous. Jon disagreed. He still hadn't found out exactly who had leaked the news to the press, but he had a pretty good idea.
Loretha Hayes had taken a particular dislike to him. She was certainly efficient at maintaining the stacks and the researcher service desks up front, but her people skills left something to be desired. A careerist with two master's degrees and no political savvy, she had been in her current supervisory role for twenty years. Her refusal to play the great butt-kissing game so prevalent in DC had stalled her career. Instead, she made the most of her little corner of the Archives, putting her own indelible mark on it. And, by most accounts, she wasn't even that bad a manager. She just really hated that the very bureaucracy she had refused to kowtow to at the expense of her own career had foisted an inexperienced and underqualified new employee upon her. Jon's hiring was a constant reminder that her professional domain was not hers after all. And she hated him for it.
In the two weeks he had been here, Jon had become convinced that his demotion from the promised researcher job had been no accident. Perhaps whoever had pulled the strings originally had been overridden, only able to offer this position as a consolation prize. Perhaps it was another mean-spirited joke by the bigwigs on Capitol Hill or in the current administration, suckering him in before pulling the rug out from under him yet again. Either of those might be true, but, more likely than not, the powers-that-be just wanted to keep an eye on him. He had already proven dangerous to the status quo as a twenty-four-year-old grad student. Running free with a newly minted doctorate and a grudge to bear against the government that had blackballed him, Jon Rickner could be a dangerous character indeed.
Or so Jon liked to think.
He finally found the document he was looking for. A 1779 letter written by Benedict Arnold to Major John André, one of the first known communiqués between the infamous traitor and his British handler. As with most of Arnold's letters — and indeed with many important messages sent by leaders on both sides during the American Revolution — the missive was written in code.
Jon missed that world. He and his brother had grown up adventuring around the world with their archeologist parents and continuing into adulthood, but that all changed two years ago when Michael had been murdered. Since finally bringing his brother's killers to justice by exposing the Division, Jon had retreated into his studies, focusing on finishing his doctorate and eschewing most social and recreational activities. There hadn't been time for exploring exotic locations or diving into the harrowing world of historical secrets and hidden codes. Or perhaps he had simply chosen not to make time for it.
T omorrow. He would finish out his shift today, and tomorrow morning he would place some calls to universities and institutions overseas. Even America's closest allies wouldn't stand by their defense of the Division and the horrible deception it had been formed to protect. He would be able to find the career he was looking for elsewhere. He just wished it could have been in the country he called home.
Fresh with renewed hope for the life that should have been, Jon carried the Arnold letter to the clean room where researchers were required to study the most valuable and fragile documents. An original letter penned by the most infamous traitor in the nation's history before the country even existed certainly qualified on both counts. The researcher, a thin, bespectacled professor with short hair graying at the temples and a goatee, was already waiting inside. He offered Jon a curt thanks before turning to the document.
Jon gave a wry grin to no one in particular. So close. So far away.
Leaving the professor to study in private, Jon eased the door shut and headed back up front. His colleagues, Angela and Jessica, were helping other researchers. The lobby was otherwise empty, save for a young woman dressed in what Jon had come to call "research casual." Stylish but comfortable black flats, yellow button-up blouse, black slacks. More attractive than many of the researchers that came in here as well, but then, most of them were significantly older than his twenty-six years. Male, too.
She was biting a nail, staring at the floor as she subtly swayed to an unheard beat. He hoped she wasn't a crazy person. Most people who got this far had to display some sort of credentials, if not an outright appointment. Still, it wasn't as though the university system didn't have its share of oddball faculty members and graduate students.
"Can I help you?" Jon asked from his side of the desk.
The young woman looked up. Her eyes flashed with recognition as her mouth abandoned its fingernail chewing and grew into a smile. She approached the desk.
"Dr. Jonathan Rickner?" she asked, though her expression said she already knew the answer.
Jon tried not to grin at being called by his title. No one around here did. Following the boss lady's example, he supposed. Still, his name badge just said "Jon R." She knew him. But did he know her? He tried to place her face, but couldn't. She looked far too young to be a university dean, but maybe she was some sort of recruiter. Hope springs eternal. Maybe he wouldn't have to go overseas to get back in his element after all.
"That's me," Jon said with a friendly smile he hoped wasn't too effusive. "How can I help you today?"
She slipped a piece of paper across the desk.
"I really need to take a look at these particular items."
Jon flipped over the paper and read the few words she had written. Not quite what he had expected.
"Can I see your university or institution ID?" he asked.
She pulled a card out of her clutch and handed it to him. University of Iowa. Chloe Harper. Student. So much for her being a recruiter to help change his stars. She was probably just another fan who had followed his exploits from two years ago and hadn't realized that he just wasn't that interesting anymore. Back to Plan A for tomorrow morning's job search then. Jon typed the info into his computer and returned the card.
"I'll be right back, Ms. Harper."CHAPTER 2
Anthony Kellerman answered his phone on the first ring, activating his Bluetooth earpiece so he could continue chopping vegetables. The caller ID was blocked, but only a few people had this number. All of them had caller ID blocked.
"You'll never guess who's in town." Kellerman immediately recognized the voice. Stanton Gaines.
"Bugs Bunny," Kellerman replied.
"Don't be stupid."
"Don't waste my time with guessing games. I'm busy."
"You're about to get busier. It's Chloe Harper."
"And that name should mean something to me?"
"Jack Harper's kid."
Kellerman cursed. That name did mean something to him.
"What's she doing? Sightseeing or shopping, I hope."
"Would I be calling you if she were? No, the daughter of our dearly departed Jack just showed up at the National Archives."
Kellerman fought the urge to curse again. Once was enough in a single phone call, particularly with his girlfriend's kids in the other room, but the longer this conversation went on, the more virulent the strain of expletives he wanted to let loose grew.
"There's more," Gaines said. "She's apparently got a co-conspirator now. Jonathan Rickner."
"From the Rockefeller thing a few years back?"
"The same. Apparently he got a job at the Archives recently."
"A perfect cover."
"That's what we were thinking."
"Is there anything for them to find there?"
"That's the million-dollar question. We had thought everything was purged before Jack got his hands on what he did."
"So there might still be a thread out there."
"No one's found one yet."
"That could be because no one has looked in the right place yet."
"And you think these two might be onto something?"
"I doubt she's there playing tourist."
Kellerman lowered his voice as he heard his girlfriend's key in the door. "Extreme prejudice?"
"Whatever it takes. Just end this."
He flipped the knife in the air and stabbed it into the scarred cutting board with a flourish. "That's what I do."CHAPTER 3
The public face of the National Archives was one of pristine displays artfully showcasing the nation's most famous documents. The rotunda, made cinematically famous in the blockbuster film National Treasure, showcased the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and a handful of other key documents in the framing and development of the fledgling nation, all wrapped in a dramatic presentation of awe, respect, and importance befitting such historic artifacts. But down here in the stacks, Jon had quickly learned not only how incredibly vast the Archives' collection was, but also how disorganized the repository had become.
Millions of documents, letters, executive orders, newspaper articles, photographs, audio recordings, newsreels, and myriad other types of media were held by the National Archives Administration, and, with countless more being added each day, it was impossible to keep up. With many of the less obviously important artifacts, the best the archivists could do for the time being was categorize them into boxes and shelve them for the mythical someday when they'd finally have time to fully catalog and organize the massive backlog.
Jon's first fifteen minutes of searching told him that Ms. Harper's request was not among those properly cataloged. That figured. More digging. And yet, it was in these moments, tedious though they could be, that Jon found himself distracted by the hope that in this labyrinth of poorly cataloged artifacts could be something incredible, a long-forgotten document of true historic impact. Something that could redeem him in the eyes of the academic community. A golden ticket out of his professional purgatory.
Thus far, the most impressive document he had stumbled across was an official menu for Thanksgiving dinner at the White House in 1897. Apparently Mrs. McKinley was a big fan of minced lamb and pumpkin pie. Even so, he held out hope. He had managed to get into plenty of trouble discovering lost or forgotten things with his brother, but the spark had been gone since solving Michael's murder. Maybe it truly had died with him.
In the distance, Jon heard Loretha Hayes berating one of his colleagues. At least he wasn't the only one receiving her ire. Misery loving company and all that. Still, he had been gone for a while now, and if he didn't find what Ms. Harper was looking for soon, Mrs. Hayes would be tearing him a new one for wasting taxpayer money and her man-hours.
The request was interesting, if unusual. A slim, pocket-sized volume of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps and a silver Kodak film canister with a regal-looking coat of arms engraved in the screw-top lid. Both of the items had apparently been donated by the estate of the late Senator Ted Kennedy several years earlier, though Jon could find no mention of the donation. Either it didn't exist, or the Archives' infamous backlog was rearing its head once again.
Either way, Jon would give himself a few more minutes, then head back up front. He had been on thin ice with Mrs. Hayes since the moment he got hired. He couldn't afford to be wasting hours on a wild-goose chase.
He had been digging through boxes marked "Sen. Edward 'Ted' Kennedy" to no avail. There were eleven boxes in total, shelved in two tall stacks in between stacks marked with his brothers' names. Despite his importance in the national memory, John F. Kennedy only had two boxes with his name on them. Presidents, particularly ones whose life — and death — cast as large a shadow as JFK's had, typically got moved to the top of the cataloging pile. Without doubt, the pair of boxes had also been sifted through thoroughly, resulting in nothing of particular historic import. But, with all the controversy surrounding the president's life and death, the Archives had been reluctant to get rid of anything related to the man. God forbid the conspiracy nuts get wind that the federal government destroyed documents related to the JFK assassination. Of course, as Jon had found, the Archives rarely got rid of anything that might be historically important to someone, somehow, at some time in the future. Hence, the millions upon millions of documents in its collection that was making Jon's newfound career an exemplar in wasting time.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Founding Treason"
Copyright © 2019 Jeremy Burns.
Excerpted by permission of Studio Digital CT, LLC.
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