The following is the first chapter of "The Lincoln Conspiracy" (Ballantine Books, $26), a new historical thriller by Timothy L. O'Brien, Executive Editor of The Huffington Post. It is a tale of riddles, intrigue and murder set in post-Civil War Washington, as a detective and his wife get control of two diaries filled with unsettling clues about the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
Rain kept the dust down.
Nothing else in Washington did, especially in early summer, when the heat started coming on and dirt in the streets began the slow broil that led into August. Fiona would hate that rain was already lashing the leather on his new boots. She was practical in these matters. But even Fiona would admit that rain kept the dust down. Temple would rather be with Fiona now, instead of gimping toward a train to fetch Augustus and Pint.
The small rain down can rain.
Christ that my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again.
As he crossed D Street on New Jersey Avenue, he could see the dome of the new Capitol building looming beyond and above the seventy-foot Italianate clock tower that marked the B&O Railroad station. If the rain got worse, New Jersey would get rutted and rats the size of dogs would slop in the puddles and pick through the garbage floating there. Several carriages and a string of horses—far more horses than usual—were tied to posts in front of the station. Union troops, boys mostly, were milling about in their blues. Weary little boys with swords and rifles and blank stares; today they seemed slightly frenzied. Then again, everyone was close to conniption fits with Lincoln dead only a month.
Shot. Dead. Just like that, the tired man, the calm one, the seer.
Dead. Dead tired. Gone.
At the corner of C Street, the rain picked up and lashed Temple’s face as hard as it whipped his boots. A lashing, the Dublin priests and nuns had told him, was salutary. “Saaaluutarry, Temple. Good for you.” Then, smack. Fear the Lord, learn your grammar, and obey the rules of the orphanage. If you didn’t obey, smack. Pain, they thought, was an education in its own right. They knew hardly a thing about it, really. He had pain every day in his bad leg, small flashes he tried to ignore. When the pain got bad, occasionally very bad, he just leaned more heavily on his cane. Fiona could look in his face and know the singe was about to arrive in his leg. But then, Fiona looked in his face and saw everything.
Temple ducked beneath the B&O’s eaves to get out of the rain. He entered the depot and glanced at the ticket and freight offices, set opposite each other inside the station. A small group of women were huddled and chatting outside the ladies’ waiting room, while three men, their arms wrapped across one another’s shoulders, pressed toward the gentlemen’s saloon.
Temple looked beyond the entry hall to the car house, where the train to Baltimore waited. The railroad tracks cut diagonally through the car house, sheltered by a dozen granite pillars that supported an iron roof with a three-hundred-foot-long glass window set inside it. Rainwater smeared the glass. Even the sky can’t stop mourning the president, Temple thought.
The B&O tracks continued through the station, winding along C Street and First Street before crossing the mall in front of the Capitol, picking up Maryland Avenue and making their way to the Long Bridge. Virginia was beyond the Long Bridge. Baltimore and New York were the opposite way.
Temple scanned the platform near the Baltimore train. There—there now. There’s something unusual. Stump Tigani, the most deliberate capper in the District, was actually off his heels and in a rush.
Stump’s always a surprise, Temple thought. Amid the Union blues, the black long coats, and the crenellated, bell-blossomed hoopskirts of passengers waiting to board the train to Baltimore, Stump—small, muscular, and flinty—was darting along.
Like every newly minted Washington police detective (“You mean ‘defective,’ ” Fiona would laugh. “You have a limp and a cane, my love. You’re a police defective”), Temple was well aware of Stump’s calling card: courier for Northern spies and the Union army during the war, may have taken money from Secesh when it suited him; connected and resourceful; inscrutable; dangerous, very dangerous.
Finding Stump at the B&O wasn’t unusual. Stump had carried packages back and forth from this station many times before, sometimes twice in a single day, and all of his parcels had pedigrees: dispatches from powerful men, wealthy women, and furtive lovers. Transactions and messages; the daily push and pull. Stump hurrying, however, was quite odd. Stump was never invisible—no one in Washington was during the war—but he was paid well to be quiet, reliable, and discreet. He escorted clients’ secrets from one place to another with all of the devotion and circumspection of a father help- ing his toddler navigate the ruts across Pennsylvania Avenue. Everyone and everything got safely to the other side, but Stump never rushed.
Stump’s right hand was stuffed inside his overcoat. Looked like Old Boney. A gun? Or maybe Stump’s gut hurt. Bad food at the Willard? Stump could manage paying for his own fixin’s at the Willard now that he was working the carriage trade, that was for certain.
Stump was weaving and pressing forward, heading toward the Baltimore train; clinging to something, afraid of something. Stump liked to leave town at night, not in the morning. Why was he here now?
Well, none of this was Temple’s concern anyhow, was it? He had come to meet Augustus and Pint, secure their cargo, and get on his way. He needed the money, Augustus needed the money, and he would get his cargo even if his right leg continued to send flashes up his side.
Washington brimmed with the wounded and crippled, but Temple was probably the only twenty-five-year-old in the city who hadn’t earned his stumble in the war. And his cane—a thick, dark span of polished hickory—punctuated his limitation. Old before your time, Fiona would tease. He smiled to himself and sat down on a bench to stretch his leg while he waited.
Temple was pulling his timepiece from his waistcoat pocket when a shift in the patterns of the bristling swarm of it all made his head snap up and his eyes sharpen. A quiet, violent struggle was unfolding at the entrance to Stump’s train.
Two men were on either side of Stump, their hands on his shoul- ders. Another was in front of him. They were murmuring something to Stump, and from dozens of feet away their lips looked as thin and dark as pencil drawings. One of the men tried peeling off Stump’s coat and then spun him around, so Stump faced Temple. Stump’s eyes were cast downward. The courier was concentrating. Temple saw a flash of metal as Stump slid a stiletto from inside his sleeve. Then things stopped. Stump stopped. The men around Stump seemed to stop. For a moment, all of them looked like props on a stage set. Stump lurched forward and fell to the platform, dark blood spurting from a long slice on the side of his neck. The skin on Stump’s neck parted a bit more as he slumped, his eyes growing moony lickety-split and his fingers spidering up to his neck as if he were hoping he could just press the life back into his throat before it all poured out. As he flopped down to the ground, a greasy puddle of blood spread wide and silently as fog around Stump’s head and neck. His teeth pressed outward against his lips and his mouth tightened into a simian oval, fixed somewhere between surprise and the last, sharp twitchings of pain.
Temple pushed off the bench to his feet. Several other men rushed the group around Stump as people began screaming. A young soldier came running, his brogans smacking the ground and the edges of his blue coat flapping. As Temple scuttled toward Stump’s body, he collided with the soldier, who careened off him like a toy.
Temple continued hip-hopping—damn my limp—toward Stump.
The group of men around Stump were fighting with one another now. They were all dandy, crisp white shirts and tailored black coats. Gentlemen didn’t do this, didn’t mix it up in gangs. Still, eight men and they were fighting like boys from his orphanage. Some of them had brass knuckles; one had a knife. One had a gun. As they scrapped, they moved a few feet away from Stump’s body, leaving the courier unattended. When Temple reached the body, he rolled it over and Stump’s coat flopped open, exposing the borders of a thick belt wrapped around his torso and swelling up from beneath his shirt. Temple popped the buttons and loosened the strap that was squeezing a brown paper package against Stump’s sternum. This was what made Stump so anxious, this little package. And now Stump’s life was oozing from a surgical tear across his throat, mucky with blood and already attracting flies. As Temple yanked the package from be- neath the belt, a shadow slipped along the pavement next to Stump’s body.
One of the gents was standing over him and he had a long metal rod, of all things. “Leave it alone,” he said to Temple. “Take your hands off the package.”
Temple pulled out his detective’s badge, flat and heavy with an image of the Capitol building stamped upon it, but the gent ignored it, raised his rod, and sliced it down toward Temple’s neck.
Ah, well. Temple was grateful for his cane at times.
He swept his cane from the ground and blocked the rod; a few quick turns of his wrist and he spun the rod out of the gent’s hands. Still crouched, he whipped his cane across the gent’s knees and, as the man crumbled, Temple gave him a solid whack across the side of his head. He looked up at the group of men, who had parted and put down their knives and knuckles to consider him. The gent with the gun turned toward him and raised his pistol. He looked delighted, his eyes dancing beneath a high, sloping forehead. That one enjoys it, Temple thought. He enjoys killing.
“Corporal,” Temple shouted over his shoulder to the soldier. “I’m a Metropolitan Police detective. Charge that man.”
Good boy: He did as he was told. He raised his rifle, bayonet shining at the end of it, and shouted at the gent with the gun, telling him to disarm. The gent smiled, pointed his gun, and fired. One shot. The boy’s eyes widened in surprise and then he dropped like a sack, the black brim of his little blue cap crumpling behind his head. Temple drew a knife off his ankle and readied it, but now the men—as startled as everyone else in the station by the sound of a gunshot—scrambled, separated, and ran. Temple was alone with Stump, who, like the boy nearby, was limp and lifeless. And it would seem that everyone here today wanted the package more than they wanted poor Stump.
Temple loosened the package from the brown leather belt securing it to Stump’s torso and wondered: Take it in or open it now? Fiona says my sin is impatience. Temple tore open the package. There was a black leather diary and a smaller red leather journal that was also a date book for the previous year. The larger of the two was written in the small, careful script of a woman; the other, on long, narrow pages filled with exclamation points and long lines of discourse, was written by a man. Temple scanned the pages: “Mr. Lincoln” and “railroads” and “New York” appeared several times in the woman’s writings; “Lincoln” and “traitor” and “Lord War” in the man’s script. The man’s pages also contained another word, forcing Temple up on his cane: “assassination.”
His leg hurt. He jammed the pages into the tops of his boots—one set for each boot, everything in order—then hurried toward the B&O’s entrance to find a horse. Fiona said that theft was a sin, too, but on a morning already heavy with sin it didn’t rank with murder.
Temple had to press past throngs of people twirling toward the front of the station and away from the gunshots. He could hear a baby crying to his right, a man shouting for his wife to his left. A porter had come to a full stop and was sitting on two trunks he had been dragging toward the trains. He perched on the edge, surveying the calamity around him, and then pulled his hat down over his eyes, content to wait out the pandemonium. Temple hobbled around the porter and exited the station.
Temple was large and lanky and needed large horses. Weren’t many of those, ’cept for the mounts that the Army of the Potomac had. Rain was still coming down, but lighter now. First bit of luck today: a beautiful chestnut stallion, unflinching in the rain and tied to a post. Easy to spot. All of the horses that had been here earlier, and the crowd of soldiers, too, were gone. Remember that. Just this one, in the rain, waiting for him.
Temple untied the horse and it didn’t buck. He stuck his left foot in the stirrup, jammed his cane between his right hand and the pommel, and hoisted himself up, stretching his gimp leg behind himself as he swung it over the saddle. Beside the pommel, burned into the leather, were two large initials: L.B.
“You should have stayed inside until the rain stopped,” warned a voice to Temple’s right. “We wouldn’t want what you took off Stump to soak up the bad weather, would we?”
The gent who’d shot the young soldier was standing there, pointing a LeMat at Temple. Military revolver, but not a Colt. LeMats were dicey. Buckshot from the bottom barrel. The gent raised his gun toward Temple’s head, eyes gleaming (He likes it, Temple thought again, he likes killing), and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell, but no shot. The horse reared.
“Powder’s moist,” Temple said. “The rain. You have to mind the rain, friend. Damp pistolas mightn’t fire.”
“Bastard, get off my horse and let me have the damn package.” The gent thrust his hand into the saddle and yanked a riding crop from it, then whipped Temple’s right thigh. The crop tore through his pants, blood came streaming through the tear, and a flash of pain seared his thigh.
The gent brought the crop down again, but Temple jammed his cane into the middle of the man’s forehead, and he stumbled back, dazed. Like billiards, Temple thought. Temple slapped the horse’s neck with his left hand and the stallion skittered sideways. He slapped it again, very hard, and the horse bucked wildly into the gent, throwing him to the ground. Temple gathered the reins and galloped off, up New Jersey.
The rain began to let up, and the sun broke through in a yellow, boiling burst.