The President's Shadow by Brad Meltzer is the third book in the Culper Ring Series about a 200-year-old secret society tasked with protecting the Presidency (available June 16, 2015).
Read the prologue and first five chapters below! And then comment for a chance to win a copy of all three books in Brad Meltzer's Culper Ring series!
To most, it looks like Beecher White has an ordinary job. A young staffer with the National Archives in Washington, D.C., he's responsible for safekeeping the government's most important documents . . . and, sometimes, its most closely held secrets.
But there are a powerful few who know his other role. Beecher is a member of the Culper Ring, a 200-year-old secret society founded by George Washington and charged with protecting the Presidency.
Now the current occupant of the White House needs the Culper Ring's help. The alarming discovery of a buried arm has the President's team in a rightful panic. Who buried the arm? How did they get past White House security? And most important: What's the message hidden in the arm's closed fist? Indeed, the puzzle inside has a clear intended recipient, and it isn't the President. It's Beecher, himself.
Beecher's investigation will take him back to one of our country's greatest secrets and point him toward the long, carefully hidden truth about the most shocking history of all: family history.
Every President has secrets. So does every First Lady.
Today, Shona Wallace was deep into her favorite secret as she knelt in the damp dirt, hiding behind the crabapple trees
in the White House Rose Garden. On this cold March morning, she didn’t have to look for the cameras. She knew where they were. For now at least, no one was watching.
During the day, just a few steps outside the Oval Office, the garden was used for presidential press conferences and greeting visiting dignitaries. But now—at 5:30 a.m.—the outdoor garden was dark. Desolate. As if the First Lady were the last person left on the planet.
And really, wasn’t that the point?
Plunging her fingers into the dirt, Shona took a deep breath, letting the smell of fresh mulch transport her back to those days right after college when she and the President lived in that little yellow rental house in Michigan with the bad toilets and the narrow garden that flooded with every rain. Two weeks after moving in, she got the news that her mother had died. The garden saved her then. She cared for it, and it blossomed: Her matchless burgundy dahlias, which she used to wear in her hair. Three kinds of tomatoes. When they were running for governor, she dug up two hundred tulip bulbs from her mother’s garden and planted them in her own.
Even when your mother’s gone, and your husband’s working so hard he only comes home to sleep, you can count on your garden. You plant it; it sprouts; life blooms. That’s not some cheap metaphor for life; it’s a basis for sanity. Everyone needs something they can count on, a world they can own all themselves.
“Dammit!” the First Lady muttered, down on her knees and tugging with her bare hands on a buried tree root. The root was heading toward her precious bed of English bluebells, set to bloom this spring and perfect for cutting.
Even before Orson’s Presidency started, Shona had known she’d need a garden. During the campaign, she’d felt the burn that came with the spotlight of public life. And she’d had it all planned. On her very first night in the White House, she had sought out a little patch of land among the flowerbeds of the Rose Garden. It would be her ground. Her sanity.
Telling only the Secret Service, she’d slipped outside at five in the morning, knelt down in the dark, and planted the seeds of coral bells and morning glories. Many of the seeds came from her grandparents’ flowerbed by way of her mother’s. Shona had even grown early spring flowers in college, in an inconspicuous patch of ground she commandeered behind the dorm. She’d planted more flowers, even some vegetables, when she and Orson lived in that old rental house, and even later when they were in the governor’s mansion. Would she stop now, when she needed it most?
She never told reporters she was a gardener or tried to use it for political gain. Somehow that would ruin the purpose. No matter where life took her, or what her critics said (they had ripped her apart for gaining weight during the first year of her husband’s Presidency: “the freshman-fifteen First Lady”), here was the one patch on the entire planet where Shona Wallace, wife of the President, could run things just the way she wanted to.
“Gotcha . . . !” the First Lady whispered, gripping the buried tree root and pulling hard. God, the cold March dirt felt good. And it smelled so fresh, full of promise. Winter had put so much on hold; she loved getting back to work in the earth. With a sharp tug, the root began to yield, though not by much.
Leaning on her left elbow and probing blindly into the dirt, the
First Lady felt—
Something solid. Not a rock. The root felt weird?almost soft. Spongy. She turned and pulled a penlight from her tool kit, shining it into the hole and squinting down to see what was in there. Under the dirt, it looked light gray, but as she pulled it closer, it was greenish-blue, with a tint of pink. Like skin.
A hiccup erupted from her throat. The spongy root had— Those weren’t branches. It had fingers. Four fingers. Squeezed in a fist . . . An arm . . . Oh God! Someone was buried in—
Stifling a scream, the First Lady dropped the penlight, which fell into the hole. She jumped back, scrambling, crabwalking away from the pit. The press and early staff would be here any minute. Her body was shaking. Just don’t scream.
“Orson . . .” she whispered, stumbling toward the West Colonnade of the pristine white mansion. She was gagging and sobbing uncontrollably.
In the Rose Garden, the penlight still rested in the open hole, shining its little spotlight on a dirt-encrusted hand.
Each morning, the nurses watched him.
At 5:45 a.m., they’d see him step through the hospital’s sliding doors. By 5:50 a.m., he’d be up among the mechanical beeps and hisses of the ICU. And by 5:55 a.m., the young man with the boyish looks and sandy hair would approach the nurses’ station, dropping off that day’s breakfast: doughnuts, bagels, sometimes a dozen muffins.
The nurses never made requests for food, but over time the young man had learned that Nurse Tammy liked a pumpernickel bagel with a thin slice of tomato, and that Nurse Steven preferred asiago cheese. Over these past three weeks of hospital visits, they’d gotten to know him too. Beecher White.
“How’s he doing?” Beecher would ask as he presented his breakfast offering to the hospital gods.
“Same,” the nurses would say on most days, offering kindly smiles and pointing him to Room 355.
The dim room was sealed by sliding glass doors, frosted at the bottom and transparent at the top. For an instant, Beecher paused. The nurses saw it all the time, family and friends picking out which brave face they’d wear that day.
Through the glass was a seventy-two-year-old man with an uneven beard lying unconscious in bed, an accordion breathing tube in his windpipe, a feeding tube snaking through his nose and down into his belly.
“Okay, who’s ready for some easy-listening country music from the seventies, eighties, and today?” Beecher announced, sliding the door open and stepping into the room.
Aristotle “Tot” Westman lay there, eyes closed. His skin was so gray he looked like a corpse. His palms faced upward, as if he were pleading for death.
“Rise and shine, old man! It’s me! It’s Beecher! Can you hear me!?” he added.
Tot didn’t move. His mouth sagged open like an ashtray.
“TOT, BLINK IF YOU HEAR ME!” Beecher said, circling to the far side of the hospital bed and eyeing the pale purple scar that curved down the side of Tot’s head like a parenthesis. When Tot was first wounded and fragments of the bullet plowed through the frontal region of his brain, the doctors said it was a miracle he was alive. Whether he was lucky to be alive was another question.
Three weeks ago, during surgery, they shaved off half of Tot’s long silver hair, leaving him looking like a baseball with yarn sprouting from it. To even it out, Beecher had asked the nurses to do a full buzz cut. Now the hair was slowly growing back. A sign of life. “You’re still mad about the hair, aren’t you?” Beecher said, pulling an old black iPod from his pocket and switching it with the silver iPod in the sound dock on the nearby rolling cart.
“Wait till you hear this one,” he went on, clicking the iPod into place.
Tot’s only response was the heavy in-and-out hiss from his ventilator. In truth, Tot should’ve been in a rehab facility instead of the hospital, but according to the nurses, someone from the White House had made a special request.
“I brought the Gambler himself,” Beecher added, hitting play on the iPod as a crowd started to cheer and guitars began to strum. “Kenny Rogers, live from Manchester, Tennessee, then another from the Hollywood Bowl, and a 1984 private corporate concert that cost me a good part of this month’s rent,” Beecher said, taking his usual seat next to Tot’s bed. One of the doctors had said that familiar music could be helpful to patients with brain injuries.
“Tot, I need you to squeeze my hand,” Beecher added, pressing his hand into Tot’s open palm.
Tot didn’t squeeze back. His ventilator coughed out another heavy in-and-out hiss.
“C’mon, Tot, you know what today is. It’s a big one for me. Just give me a little something . . . anything,” Beecher pleaded as Kenny Rogers began belting out the first verse of “Islands in the Stream.”
“By the way, Verona from Human Resources? She said if you wake up and come back to work, she’ll wear that tight black sweater she wore to the Christmas party. In fact, she’s here right now. In the sweater. You don’t want to miss this.”
“Okay, Tot, you’re leaving me no choice,” Beecher said. From his pocket, he pulled out a ballpoint pen, then turned Tot’s hand palm-down and pressed the tip of the pen into Tot’s nail bed.
At the sharp pain, Tot pulled his hand back.
In neurological terms, it was called withdrawal. According to the neurologist, as long as Tot responded to painful stimuli—like a sharp pinch or a poke with a pen—his brain was still working.
“It’s good news,” the doctor had promised. “It means your friend’s still in there somewhere.”
“C’mon, you chatty bastard—don’t ruin my big day. I’m not celebrating alone,” Beecher said, again pressing the pen into his mentor’s nail bed. As the skin below the nail turned white, Tot again pulled away, but this time . . . A nurse saw it from the hallway. Tot’s head moved sideways, as if he was about to say something.
Beecher shot up in his chair. “Tot . . . ? Tot, are you—?”
Tot’s head sagged down, a string of drool falling from his bottom lip into his beard as Kenny Rogers—accompanied by Dolly Parton—continued to sing.
Slumping back in his seat, Beecher let go of Tot’s cold hand. A swell of tears took his eyes.
“It’ll happen. Give him time,” a female voice said softly.
Beecher glanced toward the sliding glass door. It was the nurse with the crooked teeth, the one who liked pumpernickel.
“It’s a brain injury. It doesn’t heal overnight,” she added.
“I know. I just wish he could—” Beecher stopped himself and swallowed hard.
“He’s fortunate to have you,” the nurse said.
“I’m fortunate to have him,” Beecher replied, standing up from his seat and wiping his eyes. He turned to the body in the bed. “Tot, you get some rest. I know you’re tired,” he added, leaning in and giving his mentor a gentle kiss on the forehead. “By the way,” he whispered into Tot’s ear, “if you’re good, I’ll bring you a photo of Verona in the black sweater.”
“If it helps, happy birthday,” the nurse called out as Beecher headed for the door.
“How’d you know?”
The nurse shrugged. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. Heard you say it was a big day.”
Nodding a thank-you and heading out to the hallway, Beecher glanced over at what bagels were still uneaten at the nurses’ station.
Each morning, the nurses watched Beecher. Each morning, Beecher watched Tot.
But each morning, Beecher and the nurses weren’t the only ones keeping tabs.
Diagonally across the hallway, peering through the open door of the visitors’ lounge, the bald man known as Ezra eyed Beecher as he trudged down the hallway toward the elevators.
Ten days ago, Ezra had come to the hospital searching for the old man known as Tot. He knew Tot’s history. He knew what Tot had done all those years ago. And he knew that with a bit of patience and a side order of good luck, he’d find out everything else he needed just by sitting in this waiting room and studying who else came to Tot’s bedside.
A few of Tot’s coworkers had visited. There was an old lady who came every few nights and stroked Tot’s arm. But more than anyone else, there was the archivist. Beecher.
At the National Archives, Beecher was Tot’s protégé and best friend. In a way, he was also Tot’s family. And based on what Ezra had heard thanks to the nightlight-shaped microphone that he had plugged into the wall socket next to Tot’s bed, Beecher was most certainly a member of the Culper Ring.
“Want a bagel?” one of the nurses called out as she passed the visitors’ room. “We’ve got plenty.”
“I shouldn’t,” Ezra said, his slitted eyes curving into a grin. “I’ve got a big day ahead of me.”
There are stories no one knows. Hidden stories.
I love those stories. And since I work in the National
Archives, I find those stories for a living. Most of them are family stories. This one is too. But it’s time for me to admit, as I once learned in a novel, when you say you’re looking for your family, what you’re really searching for is yourself.
“I see it on your face, Beecher. This is bad news, isn’t it?” Franklin Oeming asks, trying hard to look unnerved. In his mid-forties, Oeming’s got a thin face that’s made even thinner by narrow wire-rimmed glasses and a long Civil War–style goatee. He’s a smart guy whose specialty is declassification. That means he spends every day combing through redacted, top-secret documents and reading beneath the black tape. It also means he specializes in people’s secrets. He thinks he knows mine. But he has no idea why I’m really here.
“Just tell me how he’s doing,” Oeming adds.
“Same as before,” I say as I slide both hands into the front pockets of the dark blue lab coat that all of us archivists wear.
He studies every syllable, smelling a rat. Even though he’s in a suit, Oeming’s wearing an awful Texas-shaped belt buckle that displays the words Planet Texas in block letters. I have a matching one at home. They were old Christmas gifts from the mentor we share, Tot Westman, who gave them to us as an homage to Kenny Rogers. We thought they were gag gifts. To Tot, they weren’t. “Planet Texas” is Tot’s favorite underrated Kenny Rogers song.
Needless to say, neither of us ever wore the belt buckles . . . until three weeks ago, when Tot was shot in the head and left in a coma. For luck or superstition, Oeming’s been wearing his since. I’ve been carrying mine in my briefcase.
“Beecher, I know you’re at the hospital every day. If the doctors say he’s getting worse—”
“He’s not getting worse. He’s the same. Last week, a nurse said he moved two fingers on his left hand. His right pinky too.”
Oeming watches me carefully. For three weeks now, I’ve sent him daily updates by email. So for me to suddenly show up on the fifth floor and see him in person . . .
“This isn’t about Tot, is it?” he asks.
I run my hand over the back of my recently buzzed hair, but I don’t answer.
“Why’re you really here, Beecher?”
He puts enough emphasis on my name that just outside his office, I can hear a few employees in cubicles start closing files and covering papers on their desks. Oeming takes a step back toward his own desk and does the same.
Five floors below us, the National Archives is home to original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and twelve billion other pages of history, including Lincoln’s preliminary drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation, the actual check that we used to purchase Alaska, and even a letter written by a twelve-year-old Fidel Castro to FDR, asking for ten dollars. If the government had a hand in it, we collect it, including the downed weather balloon that people thought was a wrecked flying saucer outside of Roswell, New Mexico. But like that weather balloon, which was classified for decades, when you store America’s history, you also get America’s secrets.
And as I said, secrets are Franklin Oeming’s specialty.
“I actually need your help with something,” I tell him, offering a grin.
He doesn’t grin back. “What kind of help?” “I need a file.”
Oeming is a second-generation archivist. His mom used to work in the LBJ Library in Austin, and he grew up playing in the stacks and pulling rusty staples from important documents. That makes him more of a stickler than most, which around here is saying something. “You mind taking a walk?” he says, tilting his head toward the door.
Before I can answer, he’s out of his office, weaving around the cubicles and heading out to the Archives’ marble and stone hallway. Every person in a nearby cubicle is now staring my way. By the time I join him in the hallway, Oeming’s on my left, swiping a security card at a set of locked double doors. As I follow him farther down the hallway, he points to a set of square metal lockers, each one the size of a small safe-deposit box.
I know the rules. Taking my cell phone from my pocket, I slide it inside one of the lockers, slap the small door shut, and take the orange key. He’s not talking until he’s sure no one’s listening. I don’t blame him. But if he’s taking me here? To the true inner sanctum of fifth-floor secrecy? Either things are looking up, or I’ve got a bigger problem than I thought.
Let’s go, he motions, pointing me to the end of the hallway and stopping at our destination: Room 509. It looks like any other room, except for the thick steel door that resembles a bank vault’s.
Oeming swipes his ID through an even more high-tech scanner, then punches in a push-button PIN code, which lets out a low wunk as the lock unclenches and the door to this giant safe pops open. In the Archives, we have SCIFs—secure areas to read classified files—all over the building. We also have Treasure Vault on nearly every floor. None of them hold what we keep in here.
Inside, it looks like any other fancy conference room: long oval mahogany table surrounded by two dozen black-and-tan leather chairs. On the walls are original posters from World War II, including a navy poster that reads Button Your Lip and another that reads Silence Means Security. It’s not just décor. They mean it.
“Watch your hands,” Oeming snaps, sounding annoyed as the automatic door with nonremovable hinges locks us inside. As the door slams, my ears pop. This room isn’t just soundproof; it’s airtight. The concrete walls are double the normal thickness and lined with foil and steel to stop eavesdropping, while the ductwork, telephone, and electrical systems are all on their own dedicated grids to do the same.
Around the Archives, this is the home of Ice Cap. The official acronym is ISCAP, which stands for Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which means every other Tuesday, in this fifth-floor vault, some of the highest-level thinkers in the U.S. government come together and take a biweekly vote on which classified documents will get released to the public.
Set in motion by Richard Nixon of all people, Ice Cap has released thousands of blacked-out files, from Cold War presidential briefings to My Lai massacre details to top-secret reports of Soviet nukes. For the American people, it adds trust and transparency. But for the archivists who wade though the documents and read what’s below the black tape, it adds a whole office of people who have access to what’s otherwise top secret and off-limits.
“Beecher, how could you put me in that position?” Oeming asks, circling around to the far side of the table.
“Listen, before you lose your cool—”
“My cool is lost! Are you even listening to what you’re doing? You’re asking me to break the law.”
“That’s not true.”
“It most certainly is true. If you had a high enough security clearance, you’d get the file yourself. But if you’re asking me to get it for you—”
“Will you just stop? I’m not asking for myself. This isn’t for me.
It’s for the Archivist.”
He stops when I mention the boss. Our big boss. The Archivist of the United States. “You’re telling me Ferriero asked for this?”
“He did. Call him,” I challenge. “I told him I was coming up here. He asked me to do him a favor.”
Back when I first met Oeming, I remember him telling me that when it came to classified information, the only files that had ever haunted him were the ones about the government secretly abducting people who wouldn’t be missed—the elderly and homeless—and the human radiation tests that they were subjected to. Oeming said he was sick to his stomach that day. He looks about the same now.
“Beecher, y’know whose chair you’re touching?” he asks, pointing to the high-backed chair near the head of the table. “When we vote, that’s where the CIA sits. The chair next to that belongs to DoD, representing our entire military and the Pentagon. On the other side, you’ve got the State Department. Then the NSA. Then the Director of National Intelligence,” he adds, pointing out each chair one by one. “The only bad seat in the room belongs to the Justice Department,” he adds, motioning to a chair by the door. “And y’know why that’s the bad seat?”
“Because it’s closest to the door,” I say.
“That’s exactly right. You have to move every time someone wants to go in or out. And y’know why the Justice Department gets that bad seat?”
“I understand you’re trying to make this analogy work—”
“It’s because they always want personal favors,” Oeming says coldly, pressing his fingertips down on the table. “Everyone else— CIA, DoD, NSA—they all understand how the process works. But Justice, with all its lawyers, always wants to know if we can make a special exception. So once again, Beecher, what’s the real story behind this file? And don’t tell me it’s for the Archivist, because I was in Ferriero’s office this morning, and if there was anything he needed, he would’ve asked me himself.”
I take my hands off the back of the chair. “I wouldn’t ask if this wasn’t an important one.”
“So it’s work-related?”
I shake my head. “It’s personal.”
“Is it for Tot?” he adds with enough concern that I start to wonder if he knows our real secret: that three months ago, Tot recruited me to become a member of the secret society known as the Culper Ring. The Ring dates back over two hundred years and was originally founded by George Washington.
I know. It still sounds insane to me too.
Back during the Revolutionary War, Washington created his own private spy ring to help him move information among his troops and beat the British. It worked so well that after he won the war, Washington kept the Ring around to protect the Presidency. To this day, the Ring still exists, and now I’m a part of it. Sounds sexy, right? I thought so too—until Tot was shot in the head and I figured out that the Culper Ring has been whittled down to barely half a dozen members. Tot chose me to help rebuild it. But right now, that’s the least of my worries.
“This isn’t about Tot,” I tell Oeming.
“So if it’s not Tot, how much more personal can you??” “It’s about my father,” I blurt.
Oeming’s eyes narrow, but not by much. “That’s still about Tot, though, isn’t it? With him in the hospital, and you all alone, well . . . looking for some info about your father would—”
“It’s not about being alone,” I tell him, finally realizing that the tone I hear in his voice isn’t anger. It’s concern. Franklin may be a second-generation archivist, but he’s a first-class good person. He doesn’t have a ruthless bone in him, which probably explains why Tot never picked him for the Culper Ring. “Listen,” I tell him, “I’m sorry for lying to you.”
“I don’t blame you, Beecher. I’d lie for my dad. Hell, I might even lie for Tot.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“You’re right. I wouldn’t,” he says, forcing an awkward laugh and looking down.
I pretend to laugh along with him.
“Y’know, Beecher, when you first started at the Archives and Tot started mentoring you, I was so jealous. Those first years he mentored me were some of the best of my life.”
“That’s funny, because every time I see him talking with you, I feel like you’re that firstborn child I can never measure up to.”
We both stand there a moment, the giant table between us. He finally looks up.
“Franklin, my entire life . . . going back to my very first memories . . . I was told my dad was a mechanic in the army—that he died when I was a baby, in a car crash on a bridge,” I offer, my voice hitching on the words. “Last month, someone gave me proof that there was no bridge . . . and no car accident. They showed me a handwritten letter that he wrote a week after his supposed death. Now I don’t know which story is true.”
Anyone else would cock an eyebrow or ask how that’s possible, but Oeming spends every day reading the secrets that people keep from each other, including their families.
“You think your dad’s still alive?”
“No. I actually don’t. But what keeps me turning at night is this one thought: You don’t cover up someone’s death unless there’s a reason to cover it up,” I explain. “Pretend it was your own dead father. Before he died, this is the story he couldn’t tell you. The bosses at his job said he tripped and took a bad tumble. Then you find out he might’ve been pushed.”
“I assume you’ve searched through everything at Archives II?” he asks, referring to our facility out in College Park, which holds most of our modern military records.
“There, St. Louis, even out in the Boyers caves. I’ve spent the last month looking for anything that would give me the full story. Then, a few weeks back, I found this,” I say, pulling a folded sheet of paper from the front pocket of my lab coat. As I unfold it, there’s no mistaking the handwritten file citation at the center of the page.
Oeming reads it for himself. “You said your dad was in the army.”
“This file, though . . . the record group . . . it’s from a navy file.”
I nod. “Didn’t make sense to me either. So you tell me: Still think my dad was just a lowly mechanic in the army?”
Oeming doesn’t answer. “How’d you even find this file?”
“A friend,” I say quickly enough that he knows not to ask any more questions. “The person who gave it to me, her dad was in my dad’s unit. She was the one who found their real unit name. Apparently, they used to call themselves the Plankholders.”
“You know this group?”
He looks down at the file number, his hand starting to shake. “Franklin, if you know something—”
“This is really your father’s unit?” he says. “He was a member of the Plankholders?”
“Tell me what’s going on,” I demand. “You’ve heard of them?” “Not until yesterday.”
“Yesterday? What’re you—?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. This group . . . the Plankholders . . . When I got into the office yesterday, someone had just asked for this exact same file.”
I cock my head, totally lost. “If you — If someone — I don’t understand. Who would possibly want my dad’s files?”
At that, Franklin takes a half-step back. He’s standing right in front of the World War II poster that reads Button Your Lip.
“Beecher . . . you’re not gonna believe it.”
So your office said today’s your birthday,” a Greek fifty-something archivist named Helena says as she angles our navy blue van onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
I nod from the passenger seat, staring out the front window and squinting toward our destination. I could walk if I wanted. But if I plan on pulling this off, the van’s my best way in.
“So no big birthday plans?” Helena asks, with no clue as to why I’m tagging along.
“Just the usual,” I tell her. “Birthday cake shaped like a book. Strippers dressed like naughty librarians.”
“The sad part is, you just described the fantasy of every Archives employee.”
“And some women,” I add.
“Speaking of, you ever reach out to—”
“I did. I’m going to,” I say, knowing who she’s talking about. Mina. A fellow archivist I’m friendly with. Helena thinks I should get friendlier, but until Tot’s health starts to—
“Please don’t tell me you’re waiting for Tot to get better. He’d hate that more than anyone,” she says, making me wonder if there’s anyone in the Archives who doesn’t know my business. It’s the occupational hazard of working in a building full of researchers. “Beecher, let me pass you the proverbial folded-up note in class . . .”
“No one passes notes anymore. They text.”
“Then I’m texting you,” she says, pantomiming a fake phone in her hand. “Mina likes you. Ask her out.”
“We went out. We had a good time. It’s just her brother was sick and—”
Before I can finish, my phone vibrates in my pocket.
“You there yet?” a text asks, popping up onscreen. It says it’s coming from our old hometown church in Wisconsin. That tells me who it really is. Marshall Lusk. Also known as a penetration tester who spends his days breaking into buildings and security systems. Also known as one of my oldest childhood friends and the kid who always had nudie magazines in his treehouse. Also known as the one person I’m hoping will help me rebuild the Culper Ring.
Marshall wants no part of it—or pretty much part of anything. Years ago, he was burned and disfigured, leaving his face looking like a melted candle. It also left him with an understandable bitterness and a ruthless streak that means I’m still not sure he’s 100 percent trustworthy. But since Marshall’s dad apparently served in the same Plankholder unit as mine, he’s willing to help. For now. As a result, he’s the only one who knows where I’m currently going. And who I’m trying to see.
“Almost there,” I text back.
Marshall knows what it means. My phone vibrates again, this time with a phone call. It’s from a different ten-digit number. I pick it up but never say a word. On the other end of the call, neither does Marshall. But now he’s listening. If anything happens, at least there’ll be a record of it.
“Y’know, Beecher, even putting Mina aside, I’m just glad you’re getting out of the building,” Helena adds from the driver’s seat, tucking a thick ringlet of graying black hair behind her ear. “I know how hard it’s been. I say a prayer for Tot every night.”
“I appreciate that. And I appreciate you letting me ride along with—”
The van hits a pothole, sending our cargo in back—half a dozen red plastic collection bins—bouncing through the van. Right now, every one of the bins is empty. Not for long.
“See? Even he has pothole problems,” Helena says with a laugh. In Washington, D.C., there’s only one he who gets talked about like that, and it’s not God.
Helena makes a sharp right, sending the old van bumping and climbing through a set of black metal gates, stopping at a small security shed.
I lean forward in my seat, looking out through the front windshield and finally seeing it: the world’s most famous mansion—and the home of the one person who, yesterday, requested the military files that hold information about my dead father.
“Welcome to the White House,” a uniformed Secret Service agent says. “Who’re you here to see?”
I’ll need to see some ID,” the uniformed agent says in a New Orleans accent as Helena hands over our driver’s licenses.
In the National Archives, we call it a gift run. At least once a week, Helena drives up Pennsylvania Avenue, making trips to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, to the other executive branch buildings across the street, and even here, to the White House, where she picks up everything from the priceless to the mundane.
All Presidents have the same problem. At each grip-and-grin, every guest, big shot, and visiting dignitary brings you a present. The Russians bring Fabergé eggs, the Australians bring crocodile luggage, the British once brought a Ping-Pong table, and the King of Jordan personally designed his very own motorcycle to give to the President. That doesn’t include the hundreds of signed foot- balls, basketballs, baseballs, golf clubs, hockey pucks—plus the countless jerseys with President Wallace’s name on the back— that every Little League and pro team brings, all of them thinking they’re being original.
At each event, President Wallace fakes a smile, takes a photo, and hands the gift to an aide, who eventually hands it to us. At the Archives, our job is to store it until Wallace’s presidential library is built, but also to keep it nearby—just a few blocks away—in case it has to be rushed back to the White House when the Jordanian delegation suddenly asks to see its favorite jewel-encrusted motorcycle. For Helena, gift runs are part of the job. For me, even Marshall agrees, they’re the single best way to get into the White House.
“You’re late. Usually, you’re right on time,” the uniformed Secret Service agent says, glancing down at my ID, then up at the side of the van with its National Archives logo.
“Just one of those days,” I say, keeping my smile and trying not to think about who I’m going to see. Back in college, President Orson Wallace plowed a baseball bat and car keys into the face of another man, eventually shattering the man’s eye socket, puncturing his face, and driving bits of skull into his brain, causing irreversible brain damage.
That’s the man who’s currently sitting in the Oval Office. If I could prove it, I would. Though this’ll be even better.
“Won’t take me but a minute,” the uniformed Secret Service agent says in his New Orleans twang, walking our IDs back to his shed and motioning another agent over to our blue van.
“Pop the back,” the second agent says as Helena unlocks the back doors and a rush of cold air floods us from behind. On my right, a third agent takes a thin pole that looks like a golf club with a round mirror on the end of it and runs it underneath the van. Bomb search.
“They do this every time,” Helena says, reading my expression. “Though usually”—she thinks for a moment—“usually they wait until I get up to West Exec,” she says, motioning with her chin to the narrow parking lot that runs along the west side of the White House. In the security shed, the New Orleans agent takes a long hard look at our IDs. In the side passenger mirror, the other agent extends the pole and slides it even farther underneath the van. Through the open back doors, the last agent examines the empty red storage bins, checking them one by one.
It’s all standard White House procedure. No reason for concern.
Behind me, there’s a loud ca-chunk as the back doors slam shut and the agent gives us the all clear. Faint puffs of smoke roll out of our tail pipe into the cold air.
With a twist of the ignition, Helena shifts the van into gear, hits the gas, and—
Tuuk-tuuk-tuuk. The knuckles tap against my passenger window. On my right, an all-too-familiar agent in suit and tie stares back at us. He’s got a military crew cut, no winter coat, and a blue-jeweled lapel pin that’s worn by all active Secret Service.
Jackpot. That’s the fastest service I ever got.
“What’re you smiling about, Beecher?” Agent A.J. Ennis asks as he pulls my door open. “Do me a favor and get the hell out of the van.”
We’re old friends,” A.J. tells my Archives colleague. I nod enthusiastically.
She actually believes it. A.J.’s right hand grips the back of my arm and his knuckles dig into my armpit. He’s moving so fast—forcing me forward and almost lifting me off the ground— I’m practically walking on tiptoe. In the Secret Service, this armpit carry is what they use during an emergency to rush the President out of a room. Usually, the President picks up his feet and the agents lift him out. I keep my feet moving. He has no idea this is all I was hoping for.
“You missed me, didn’t you?” I ask. No response. “It’s okay to say you missed me,” I add as we head up the South Lawn toward the White House. “I certainly missed you. At the Archives, there’s a real lack of muscular people bursting through their suits.”
As we pass the swing set that Obama put in for his daughters, A.J. sticks to the rolling lawn, weaving between trees to keep us out of sight. Wherever we’re going, it’s off the beaten path.
“This way,” he whispers, leading me toward a rectangular patch of grass with the most perfectly manicured garden I’ve ever seen. The White House Rose Garden.
A.J. pauses, searching my face.
In the corner, a huge blue painter’s tarp is tacked to the trees, draping down to the ground and covering a wide swath of flowers and plants. There’s yellow maintenance tape and a warning sign that reads:
BROKEN SPRINKLER HEADS
GROUND CREW REPAIRS UNDERWAY
A.J.’s eyes continue to drill me. I’m too busy staring past the garden at the tall French doors on the back of the building. The entrance to the Oval Office. There aren’t any Secret Service agents stationed outside. That means the President isn’t in there. He’s somewhere else in the White House.
With a nudge to the right, A.J. steers me past the bright white columns of the West Colonnade and through a set of doors that take us inside the mansion, toward the Residence. Across the pale red carpet, there’s no Secret Service agent outside the President’s private elevator. That means he’s not upstairs either.
A.J. shoves me to the left, through another set of doors that dumps us in what looks like an outdoor hallway and construction area. The place is a mess. Crates, boxes, and files. Spools of cables and wires. It’s all stacked up everywhere. “Workers’ area, huh?” I ask, loud enough that Marshall can hear it through the phone in my pocket.
A.J. again won’t answer.
Nearly tripping on a crate of hammers and handsaws, I smell French fries and chocolate. We’re back by the White House kitchen. Sure enough, as we cut through another door, chefs in spotless white aprons and black hairnets are scrubbing pots and stacking dishes. They don’t look up. It’s like we’re not even here.
With a final shove, A.J. steers me into a narrow hallway that, on the right, has two stainless steel doors and two stainless steel dumbwaiters. This is how they move the food upstairs to the Residence. But as A.J. opens the first steel door…
It makes no sense. We’re on the ground floor of the White House—level with the garden. But when the door swings open, there’s a dark circular staircase that goes down, down, down.
I freeze, confused. A.J. urges me on. In front of me, the circular stairs are so narrow that we have to go single file. I use the distance to pull out my phone and make sure Marshall’s still listening.
No bars. No service. No nothing. My phone’s useless. At least Marshall knows where I was when I disappeared.
It only gets worse at the next landing, marked Basement. Instead of going through the door, A.J. keeps me on the stairs, which continue going down. There’s a second level that goes down even deeper. There’re nearly as many floors below the White House as above it.
As we get closer to the bottom, the smell of fries and chocolate yields to the scent of rusted metal, bleach, and warm rain. In Wisconsin, when I was little, I got bitten by a dog on a night that smelled like this.
The stairs dead-end in a narrow hallway that’s connected to—
White House Laundry, the sign on the closed door says. Yet as A.J. shoves the door open, a heavyset woman with short-cropped hair stands up from her seat at an old card table.
“Francy O’Connor,” she says, introducing herself. I know who she is. So does everyone in the White House. “They told me you’d be coming,” she adds with a handshake that tugs me into the room.
“I just didn’t think it’d be this quick.”
Copyright © 2015 Brad Meltzer.
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Brad Meltzer is the author of the #1 New York Times bestsellers The Inner Circle, The Book of Fate, and six other bestselling thrillers. His nonfiction books, Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, were also New York Times bestsellers. He is the host of the History Channel series Brad Meltzer's Decoded and the Eisner Award-winning writer of Justice League of America. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School, he currently lives in Florida. You can find much more about him at www.BradMeltzer.com. You can also see what he's doing right now at Facebook.com/bradmeltzer and Twitter.com/bradmeltzer.