Jul 30 2014 12:00pm
The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy: An Online-Exclusive Excerpt
This is an online-exclusive bonus, an early glimpse into the clandestine characters in Jacopo della Quercia's The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy, a historical-fiction, steampunk, sci-fi, comedy-noir mashup that features a globetrotting President Taft and Robert Todd Lincoln (available August 5, 2014).
This historical thriller is an equal-parts cocktail of action, adventure, science-fiction and comedy. The book follows a globe-trotting President Taft and Robert Todd Lincoln in a race to solve a mystery stretching back to the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination. Based on true events, readers will find themselves swept into a vast conspiracy spanning four continents and three oceans during the turn of the century. Fascinating technologies will be harnessed, dark secrets revealed, true villains exposed, and some of the most famous figures in history will take the stage.
Technically, it was illegal even for a man like John Wilkie to have a counterfeit $5 bill framed on the wall of his office.
Sure, it was 1910 and Wilkie was chief of the United States Secret Service, but even that did not permit him to keep trophies from successful hunts. Although he had an arsenal of explanations for the greenback, the most common being “none of your business,” the truth was Wilkie considered the bogus banknote a warning to all comers that this particular public servant could not be fooled. The Secret Service was the watchdog that guarded the nation’s presidency and currency with equal ardor, so if anyone thought they could sneak something past its chief at his workplace, they’d probably never leave the room. The enormous cabinet behind Wilkie’s desk could confirm this. It displayed a mosaic of every convicted counterfeiter in the country stacked into columns ten photographs high: the rogue’s gallery of the U.S. Secret Service. Thousands of men, thousands of frauds could be counted among these criminals, and Wilkie bested each one of them–including the occasional woman.
How does one man do this? Wilkie lived what former president Theodore Roosevelt dubbed “the strenuous life.” He was an even earlier riser than a rooster, and his breakfast consisted of hard-boiled eggs taken while doing one-handed pushups. His morning stroll was a two-mile trudge through pedestrians, pack-animals, and politicians from his tiny apartment in the Sorrento to the imperial Treasury Building. The Secret Service occupied the top floor of this granite fortress, and Wilkie always took the stairs for he had no patience for elevators. Once in his office, the chief’s first order was to search the room for bombs, and his second was to make sure the nation did not destroy itself before lunchtime. Such was the daily regimen for this volatile character presently waging war from his desk, poring over papers and pounding coffee while a five-cent cigar smoldered in his right hand.
Still standing at attention, Secret Service Agent Jimmy Sloan shifted his eyes from the spurious $5 note back onto his boss. Despite his knocking, the chief still appeared oblivious to the agent’s presence. But then again, looks can be deceiving. Agent Sloan cleared his throat, at which point Wilkie finally looked up from his deskwork.
“What the hell do you want? A cough drop?”
“Chief Wilkie, there’s a young lady here.”
The chief’s mustache wiggled. “A woman?”
“A Miss Knox, sir. She said she has an appointment with you.”
A clock chimed.
“Oh, yes!” The Secret Service chief shot out of his seat with such energy that he accidentally knocked over the framed lithograph of Theodore Roosevelt on his desk. “Please send her in.”
Wilkie threw on his wrinkled jacket and adjusted his spectacles just in time to look presentable for the high heels walking into the edge of his lenses. “Good afternoon, young lady,” he welcomed as he rounded his desk. “I am John Wilkie, United States Treasury. Chief of Secret Service Division.”
The young lady bowed her head. “Hello, sir. I am Miss Knox.”
Wilkie smirked incredulously. “Of course you are. Agent Sloan, please show Miss Knox onto the sofa.”
“Of course. Right this way, ma’am.”
Wilkie stood as erect as a flagpole while Sloan rolled up a large map draped over theoffice’s couch. Although Miss Knox was looking everywhere but at Wilkie as she surveyed the room, the chief’s unblinking eyes remained fixed upon her. He had to suppress his laughter; Miss Knox was even smaller than he imagined. Well put-together, he thought, but tiny. Wilkie imagined she was no taller than 5’ without heels. While never prejudice to height, this little detail made Wilkie wonder if their interview would be cut even shorter than he intended. However, as Miss Knox turned her head to take in the grand view of Washington from the windows, something gave Wilkie hope. The woman’s navy blue suit, though fitted from the waist-down, appeared to hang a bit looser around the shoulders than Wilkie guessed was in vogue. The chief sucked his cigar as his mind went to work. Loose-fitting jackets were ideal for concealing weapons.
“You can stop there, Sloan,” Wilkie interrupted.
The agent stopped in place. “Is something amiss, sir?”
“Yes, something is. Miss Knox, will you please show Agent Sloan the door?”
Without the slightest indecision, Miss Knox turned to the tall agent and bent her gloved hand backwards, pointing out the door the two had just walked through. Agent Sloan was speechless and, for the moment, felt utterly powerless. He looked to Wilkie in shock, but the chief was motionless save for the smoke rising from his cigar. Sloan knew what this meant. The agent stood at attention, bowed his head, and walked straight out of the office.
“Lock us in,” the chief ordered. Wilkie and Miss Knox locked eyes with each other as the two heard the door bolt shut.
The man snickered.
The woman did not flinch.
“Please, sit,” the chief offered warmly. As he meandered back to his seat on the other side of his desk, he watched Miss Knox remove her gloves and place them beside her handbag on the brown leather sofa. She then removed two long, shining steel pins from her blue and grey hat to reveal a magnificent mane of thick auburn hair underneath. Wilkie was not a bit distracted by how Miss Knox’s lush hair looked against her fair skin. On the contrary, he was disappointed when she stuck the thick hatpins in her hair since it deprived her of easy access to what could have been fine weapons. The chief rocked back and forth in his swivel chair as Miss Knox flattened her skirt and made herself comfortable on the couch. After folding her hands on her lap, she at last looked up at Wilkie.
“Thank you,” she smiled.
For the first time into the encounter, Wilkie sensed some sincerity in her blue-grey eyes. “Oh, don’t thank me, young lady.” The chief puffed. “Thank yourself! You won’t believe how many applications we get. If I hired them all, there probably wouldn’t be any crooks left on the street!”
Miss Knox nodded without smiling, which irritated the chief. He specifically tailored this remark at the bureau’s expense so he could chastise Miss Knox for laughing at it. He failed.
Nevertheless, the chief chastised her anyway: “That’s not a good thing, young lady.”
Once more, Miss Knox wisely remained silent.
Wilkie narrowed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, chewing on his cigar with his tobacco-stained teeth.
“So, what brings you here, miss?”
“I am here to be interviewed about my application,” she spoke softly but clearly.
“What makes you think your application warrants an interview?”
“You wrote me and told me you wanted to meet.”
“Yes, but that’s not the same thing as an interview, is it?”
A corner in Miss Knox’s mouth curled slightly. “I imagine that’s for you to decide, Mr. Wilkie.”
The chief smiled. “Clever girl. Tell me, where do you go to school?”
“I just finished my second year at Bryn Mawr College.”
“The same school as Miss Helen!” Wilkie laughed. Miss Knox did not appear affected by this comment, but she was not smiling either. “Tell me, do you know the president’s daughter?”
“Why are you asking me that?”
The woman paused for only a second. “She is no longer a student at the school, Mr. Wilkie.”
Miss Knox avoided stepping into Chief Wilkie’s bear trap. However, it snagged enough of her skirt for Wilkie to hang on to the subject. “That’s correct. Miss Taft has been in D.C. for nearly a year now. Everyone seems to love her! She’s been doing a great job as White House hostess.” Wilkie paused. “Do you know why she’s in Washington?”
Miss Knox raised her eyebrows and gently shook her head. She looked completely innocent. Too innocent. Wilkie saw through the façade and prepared his attack.
“Do you?” she asked the chief just as he opened his mouth. It caught him off-guard, forcing him into a position where he could not pretend he did not near the question.
The slighted Secret Service chief lowered his voice. “Young lady, we deal with a lot of secrets in this office. I hope—”
“I am sorry,” she interrupted, unintentionally exposing herself to some potentially heavy fire.
“I hope,” Wilkie pressed, testing the opening, “that you respect our reasons for not sharing everything we know about the White House with people we just met off the street.”
“I am sorry, Mr. Wilkie,” the young woman repeated.
Wilkie grinned. He was convinced that he had this cat cornered. It was time for her to excuse herself and make a move for the door, only to find it locked! Instead, Miss Knox sighed and, with her heavily-lidded eyes downcast: “I just haven’t seen Helen in so long. I meant no offense.”
A clock chimed.
The chief was flummoxed. He widened his eyes and sat up in his chair, at which point he realized he had completely spent his cigar. “Damnation!” The chief flicked the stub out the window and quickly lit himself a new Marksman. Miss Knox was proving herself a more formidable adversary than he expected. Each time he thought he had her figured out, she turned out to be a completely different person.
Could this be it?Wilkie asked himself. Could this be the woman he’s been looking for?
The more rational half of the chief’s double-mind doubted it.
Wilkie angrily threw open a desk drawer and snatched Miss Knox’s application from it. He then paced the room in a rage, reading the letter aloud as if to broadcast his every misgiving with the young lady: “To Whom It May Concern, United States Treasury, Secret Service Division, etcetera . . . Born in eighteen-nine—” Wilkie looked up from the page. “Miss Knox, you’re more than ten years younger than our youngest field agent!”
Sitting on the couch was a completely different woman than Wilkie was staring at less than a minute ago. This one more closely resembled that Janus-faced sphinx who showed Agent Sloan out the door in defeat.
Wilkie looked back at the paper. His face was erupting with frustration. “Fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese . . . Great, all the Romance languages. Now we can finally solve the mystery of who’s been sending me counterfeit love-letters. Education: Four years at . . .” The chief squinted his eyes. “The Edith Margaret Garrud School in London? By Jingo, that’s smashing! At last, we can field an agent who’s been to finishing school!”
“It’s a Jujutsu academy,” the woman calmly corrected.
Wilkie stopped in his tracks. “Jujutsu?” he asked in disbelief. “You know . . . Jujutsu?”
“Madame Garrud is an excellent instructor. She offers special classes to suffragettes. She even made a moving picture show on the subject.”
The chief was thunderstruck. “You think you know martial arts!”
Still seated, Miss Knox looked straight at John Wilkie and nodded.
The chief shook his head, laughing. “All right . . . enough with the theatrics, Miss Shakespeare. I know the real reason you’re here.” Wilkie crumpled the application letter and stuffed it in his pocket. “I won’t lie to you: You’re not the first woman to apply for work with us. However, you’re the first one with a paper trail that leads straight to the White House. Your uncle is the secretary of state, which might have helped your slim chances of getting a job here had you mentioned it in your letter. Something tells me you didn’t want me to know that. I also spoke to a few people at Bryn Mawr this week. They didn’t say you finished your second year. They told me you quit, just like Helen Taft did. For whatever reason, you dropped everything you were doing so you could apply for a job that, let’s face it, you couldn’t possibly qualify for . . . unless your plan was for me to forsake my oath to this country because of something as trivial as how pretty your hair looks when you wear it like that!”
Miss Knox was silent. She did not appear threatened or angry, but her eyes somewhat narrowed with focus.
That was it. Wilkie knew that he had her, and he prepared to make his arrest.
“I know you’ve been sent here to spy on me for Nellie Taft. And I know she chose you because of your brains as well as your looks, which you should take as a compliment. I’m sorry it has to end this way, since the truth is I think you’d be a valuable addition here. Kate Warne performed wonders for Allan Pinkerton during the war, and right now, this nation needs all the help it can get.”
Wilkie took a step toward the window and turned his back on the woman. He then pulled a saffron handkerchief from his jacket, along with his Colt Police Positive Special revolver. As he wrapped his gun in the handkerchief just like Leon Czolgosz before he assassinated President McKinley, Miss Knox’s eyes turned to the counterfeit $5 bill behind glass.
“With that said, I don’t see how the hell a woman your size can keep a 400-pound president safe. Maybe you just look taller to Nellie Taft from whatever angle she sees you.”
With these words, Chief Wilkie spun around with his pistol out and up . . . but then again, not exactly. He had barely moved by the time Miss Knox jammed one of her steel hatpins through his jacket, pinning his right hand against the wooden cabinet by his desk. Before Wilkie could even look down at his debility, a sharp sensation forced his head high. Miss Knox was holding her second hatpin directly under the Secret Service chief’s chin.
“If Nellie Taft sent me . . .” the unblinking woman avowed, “she would have sent me to kill you.”
The Secret Service chief was deathly still, but the cigar in his mouth was trembling. “I could have you fried for this, young lady.”
The woman narrowed her eyes. “My name is Miss Knox.”
Wilkie could not believe it. After all these years, he finally found everything he was looking for in one person: a woman! The perfect agent. “Can you raise your right hand?” he asked.
“It is raised.”
“Oh, of course.” The chief cleared his throat. “Miss Knox, do you solemnly swear that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that you will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that you take this obligation freely . . .” Wilkie gulped, “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which you are about to enter? So help you God?”
“So help me God,” Miss Knox nodded.
The chief smiled. “Welcome to the United States Secret Service.” He tried to offer a handshake, but his right hand was still pinned as helplessly as a butterfly. Instead, he gave Miss Knox a gentle pat on the arm with his left. To his surprise, she did not have any weapons hidden there.
“I need to find you a pistol,” quipped Wilkie.
“I have an Apache revolver in my handbag,” said Miss Knox as she sheathed her stiletto hatpin in her hair.
The chief’s eyes brightened. “Good choice! Did you bring your paperwork?”
“On your desk,” she replied.
The chief looked over her head to see the documents he requested under his picture of Theodore Roosevelt. Miss Knox apparently righted it while his back was turned.
“Thank you kindly,” he smiled. “The starting rate is $3 a day, but I’m going to start you at $5. Be here first thing in the morning tomorrow. Tell no one where you work. And please, don’t tell anyone about this prickly situation you just had me in either!”
Miss Knox smiled. “Thank you, Chief Wilkie.”
With more strength than he’d care to admit, Wilkie extracted the steel rod Miss Knox stabbed through his sleeve. He then pocketed his pistol and rapped on his door with the hatpin, which he gingerly handed back to its owner. Agent Sloan opened the door, Miss Knox bowed her head, and out she went. Although it was not her intention, she turned the heads of every Secret Service agent she walked past in the bureau.
“Inside, Sloan.” The chief hustled back to his desk while Agent Sloan closed the door. Directly under the framed picture signed “To John E. Wilkie with the high regard of Theodore Roosevelt Feb 26th 1909” was Miss Knox’s birth certificate, passport, medical records, and her whole life in print. “It looks like we have our first woman working for us,” surmised the chief as he took Miss Knox’s crumpled application out of his pocket. “I just hope she isn’t afraid of heights.” Wilkie walked to the blackened fireplace to his right and ignited all the woman’s papers with his cigar.
“How do you think the higher-ups will react to this, Chief?”
Wilkie locked eyes on his subordinate as his hand filled with flame. “She’s an agent. Period. But if anyone comes asking, tell them we’ve never even heard of Miss Knox.”
The chief tossed the remains of Miss Knox’s life into the fireplace, and then focused on the counterfeit $5 note hanging above it. After adjusting his hair in its reflective surface, Wilkie spun around and stuck his head out the window. From there, he lit a cigar and patiently studied the sidewalks.
Outside the Treasury Building, Miss Knox adjusted her gloves and hailed a taxi, which she directed to turn left from Pennsylvania Avenue onto Seventeenth Street. Once she was obscured from the watchful eyes of Wilkie’s office, Miss Knox slipped her driver a non-counterfeit $5 bill from her purse. She then exited the cab and walked directly toward a 1909 Pierce-Arrow limousine parked alongside her. It was the president’s car, and it had been specially fitted for privacy. A tall driver opened its cabin door for Miss Knox, and inside she found her old classmate Helen Taft. She was dressed in her afternoon best and seated across from her mother, Nellie Taft: the First Lady of the United States and wife to President William Howard Taft. She was smoking a cigarette in the shadows.
“Madame President,” Miss Knox greeted. “Helen,” she smiled.
“How did it go?” asked the younger of the two Tafts.
“I got the job,” she reported. The two Bryn Mawr sisters grinned brightly.
“Did you see anything suspicious?” asked Nellie Taft slowly.
Miss Knox’s smile disappeared and she sat upright. “Mr. Wilkie does not have a portrait of the president in his office.”
Helen Taft’s eyes widened.
“What does he have?” asked her mother.
The newly-minted Secret Service agent lowered her voice. “A signed picture of Theodore Roosevelt.”
Helen’s jaw dropped. All eyes immediately turned to her mother.
Nellie Taft took a deep drag from her cigarette, and then nodded. “That settles it,” she decided. “I hate the Roosevelts.”
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Jacopo della Quercia is an educator and history writer who has authored more than 100 articles for the comedy website Cracked.com. His work has been featured in the New York Times bestseller You Might Be a Zombie and Other Bad News, BBC America, CNN Money, The Huffington Post, “The Takeaway” public radio program, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, Playboy’s The Smoking Jacket, CBS’s Man Cave Daily, Georgetown University professor John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, among others.