Fiction Historical Fiction Thriller

It’s not like he asked for this, and he sure didn’t go looking for trouble either. But, it’s like his Pop used to say; “If trouble comes knocking, and your words aren’t working, you better finish it and finish it quick, one way or another.” Well, trouble did come knocking and it didn’t seem like there was going to be any sweet-talking his way out of whatever the hell this was all about.

Tuesday was usually Kitt’s “library and chill” day, opting for the quiet solitude the Boston Athenaeum offered over sloughing off elsewhere or knocking around with his friends who preferred the gripping embrace of the many digital streaming services. Not to mention their video game obsession. That was never his jam. But here, in these old walls, he found what his old soul needed for rejuvenation: quiet, peaceful comfort in the written word and space to let his gift of imagination run wild.

God, he wished he was imagining this insanity right now. Instead, two trains, a bus, and one cab later he’s finally catching his breath, hoping he saw the last of the silver-tongued Englishman with the stiletto and the presumably American fella with the biggest damn handgun he’s ever seen! Good lord, what the hell was all this? This wasn’t somebody’s joke with the likes of these two lunatics trying to run him down. Not to mention the heat he’d catch if caught with this antiquated pea-shooter in his pocket.

    This doesn’t happen in real life, Kitt told himself. This is straight out of his favorite fiction novels. And yet, here he was, running for his life with what he could only describe as a crazy hoax if not for the all too real chase he just experienced. Some guys just have the luck he mused. Maybe the universe was finally answering that cry for some excitement in his life.  He noted that he better keep his trap shut about thoughts like that from now on. But seriously, the book was sitting right there on the second bookcase near the reading room’s mezzanine stairs practically falling out of the shelf no less. Did this thing wiggle its way out, or was someone already keen on his little discovery.

    When the book first caught his eye he noticed it was just a little guy. Maybe 6”-by-4” at most, fairly worn with, surprisingly, a little brass medallion on the cover that read “Holy Bible.” Strange that it would be sitting in a collection devoted to American history he thought. Shouldn’t it be in some “organized religion” section, if that was even a thing here?

    As he opened the cover he noticed immediately that it seemed a little heavy for a book of its size. It was certainly beautiful but could have used a little more care. Right then, the girl at the table two rows over to the right sneezed like a banshee, scaring everyone in the reading room, and causing him to drop it. Something heavy enough to further disturb the silence landed with a thud seconds after the book and went skittering across the hardwood floor, stopping under the bookcase. Sheepishly, Kitt raised an apologetic hand and knelt for the bible while trying to look as inconspicuous as possible as he tried to fish the object out from under the case. “Pale as a ghost” would have been the understatement of the year to anyone watching as he finally got his hand around the small object and brought it to his face. After about 10 seconds of staring at it, whatever color that remained in his cheeks quickly fled the scene.

    He’d seen one in pictures and movies before, but never in real life. A derringer… At least, that’s what he thought it was. It looked like a micro-version of a musket. It even smelled of sulfur and iron, conjuring memories of trapshooting back in high school and the acrid smell of gunpowder. He quickly pocketed the tiny pistol, lest someone decide to see what the noisy guy was up to. Besides, it would be a long day of explaining what he was doing with what could prove to be a very expensive antique and a very much unregistered firearm in his possession. 

    After flipping through the book a little further, Kitt came to the origin of the little gun. About a quarter of the way through, the rest of the book had been cut out, or more precisely, cut so it looked like a complete book to the casual observer, all while keeping a terrifying little secret inside. He always thought that was a fun and clever little trick, albeit a little cliche now from overuse in so many prison flicks.

    In the back of the carved out space there looked to be a loose paper neatly folded, yellowing, and dry as a leaf at the end of the New England “peeping” season. He quickly collected his backpack and sketchbook as he hustled up to the mezzanine and away from the prying eyes of the other patrons.

    Parking himself in the far corner where he could keep an eye out for potential privacy invaders, Kitt gingerly opened the ancient book and shook out the paper. While doing so, the rest of the pages fell open, exposing the last page before the cover. On it was a blue, wafer-like sticker of sorts with what looked like… No! No way that was real and not in a glass box under lock and key in someplace like the national archive. At the moment he felt a little rattled, but if he wasn’t mistaken, that thing looked like a rudimentary stamping of a seal. The seal of The Supreme Court. Near the bottom of the page was a name, or so he thought. The handwriting was well faded. It read “William Thomas Carroll”, followed below by “Clerk of the Supreme Court U.S.”

    For the second time that day, Kitt dropped the book with a thud. Damn it! One more time and the cantankerous-looking attendant would surely find him and give him the boot. The realization of what this little book “could” be started taking shape in his imagination. Or was it a reality? Not really believing the dream, he began thumbing a few pages back. After the fire and brimstone chapters we all know wrap up “the good book”, it looked like there was a handwritten account of an event. Following in his father’s footsteps as a junior history buff, the storyline and dates began to solidify in his mind. This was an event alright. One that focused on a man his father had great admiration for. This was the telling of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 presidential inauguration!

Kitt slowly took a sip from his contraband water bottle while his mind raced out of control. No way, he kept telling himself, this could be a genuine article, let alone THE genuine article. The real thing lives in the Library of Congress. It was used to swear in the last two sitting US presidents for crying out loud! And yet, here this...this...this fake, or copy, or whatever it was has been sitting in an overlooked part of one of America’s oldest libraries, about 450 miles north of where it should be. The Lincoln Bible! That’s all it could be. The book President Lincoln swore his oath of office on. Nope. Nope, nope, nope. This would be a priceless piece of history and someone sliced and diced it up as a hiding place. For a gun no less! So then what was in the Library of Congress?

As carefully as his trembling hands could manage, Kitt began unfolding the parchment document. He’d seen enough movies to believe this is a no-no for the sake of preserving the old paper, but curiosity got the better of him. Gently and ever so slowly, he held it to the light as he unfolded the final third. At first, it was a little tough to make out due to the flair of the eloquent handwriting, but he soon got the hang of what was said.

After the fourth time going over it, he was more convinced than ever this was just some goofball joke. Someone used some imagination to come up with this little art project. Something this wild was nuts, but interesting, and well thought out nonetheless.

From everything Kitt knew of Lincoln, this seemed like something an orator of his stature could put together. As president, he had declared he would do everything necessary to keep the United States united as one country. The document, dated and signed August 17th of 1863, smack dab in the middle of the American Civil War, outlined a proposal for the assistance of weapons, military might, and financial backing from the British government, who, America had gained independence from only eighty years prior. The royal monarch, who had declared England would remain neutral in the American turmoil, was now offering support to the North. As casualties mounted in what would become the most devastating conflict in American history, it seemed Lincoln had little choice if he wanted to preserve as much human life as possible.

If Kitt was reading this right, President Lincoln and Queen Victoria were striking a deal. He was familiar with the history books and how the South had both the North and England in a vice over cotton production and export. “King Cotton”, as it came to be known, was a strategy the Confederacy was employing to destroy the New England and British textile industries. The United kingdom’s textile economy, which heavily depended on southern cotton, would spur the country into supporting the South’s secession from the North. As long as the American conflict raged on, so would the “Lancashire Cotton Famine.” For the cost of a little blood, bone, and iron, the UK could straighten out its economic strife.

While the first half of the paper made sense to Kitt from a historical perspective, although he was pretty sure such a pact never existed, the rest seemed straight out of fiction.

Reading on, in exchange for full support from the empire, the United States of America would once again be returned to the bosom of the British monarchy. A system of governing was to be established allowing the U.S., in all appearances, to remain a sovereign nation, all while supreme control and decision-making would fall back to British rule. This was to remain a covert matter and set by proxy through the American presidential and congressional system. A “puppet government” in essence, with the promise that the American governing body would be given certain privileges and leeway.

Someone must have had a real hoot dreaming this up! They did a pretty good job dotting the “I’s” and crossing the “T’s” too. Everything seemed neatly sewn up and tight. They even had a very good-looking signature of Lincoln agreeing to this right there next to Henry John Templis, acting prime minister, and the Queen! They also must have had a good grasp of history to know she famously signed documents with “VRI”, Victoria Regina Imperatrix.

So engrossed in reading it over for the fifth time, Kitt didn’t realize he had company that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. A tall, lean man, impeccably dressed in a tailored navy blue suit and a wry smile was staring down at him.

“Good day!” the man said in a clipped English accent as he extended his right hand.

“Hey, how’s it going?” Kitt replied, feeling a bit self-conscious for such a casual and stereotypical reply for someone of his age.

Kitt began raising his arm to politely shake the proffered hand when the gentleman cleared his throat, causing Kitt to hesitate.

“Actually, if you are quite done perusing the book I’ll be needing it back now.”

“Needing it back now? Was it you who cooked up this little goodie? Excellent imagination if so! I’ve always wanted to get a little more creative like that.”

The man’s smile widened. “Well, my friend, I wish I could claim such credit, but I must give it all to your Mr. Lincoln and the good heads of state back home.”

More confused than ever and clearing looking so, Kitt began folding the old parchment to place back in the book.

“And the firearm, if you please. You see, it’s high time the property of her majesty the queen returns home. I believe the Booth family of Canterbury would be delighted to have a family heirloom of such notoriety returned.”

“Notoriety?” Kitt stammered.

“Why of course! It was, after all, the instrument in the hands of J.W. Booth that helped prevent your Mr. Lincoln from attempting to nullify his agreement with the empire.”

With a swimming head and great hesitation, Kitt reached down to fish around in his jeans for the ancient derringer.

“Easy there, old chap. No need to rush. As I’ve once again been far too chatty, it seems you’re in a bit of a quandary that will need to be attended to.” With a fluid and practiced motion, an angry-looking stiletto appeared in his left hand.

“Aldrich King” came a deep, honeyed voice from behind the fellow wielding the knife.

Slowly, King gave a side glance, always sure to keep Kitt in his peripheral vision.

Kitt strained to see around King who the latest arrival to this terrifying and all too confusing little fiesta could be.

“William! Always a pleasure. Though, as usual, a day late and a dollar short as you “yanks” like to say.”

Though King feigned indifference, Kitt found it impossible to take his eyes off the hand cannon in the stranger’s grasp. It looked like it would be more at home on the deck of a battleship than a library in downtown Boston. What kind of fresh hell was this?

“And you, King, always bringing a knife to a gunfight.” the new arrival quipped.

“William, do holster that weapon. It would do no good to make a scene, not to mention a mess.”

As the two began to focus more intently on each other, something in Kitt screamed at him to get out of there post-haste. Not wanting to play host to this international pissing match, Kitt slowly began to slide from his seat, thanking heaven that it didn’t have arms to inhibit his movement, and praying it didn’t make the same squeak it did when he first sat down. 

“Be reasonable, William. I am here for England’s property and no more. Though I assume you are to make sure the dirty little secret remains quiet.”

“I guess that’s not just a hat rack” the gunman replied as he pointed the mussel of his gun at King’s head.

It was now or never. Kitt mustered every bit of fortitude he could and made a break for it. There was no way he was sticking around to see who the winning horse was.

Leaving his backpack, Kitt slid from seat to staircase with little effort. The two seemed to be engaged in a tense conversation and paid him no attention. In one quick move, he spun around and raced down the marble staircase, put on the speed when he hit the first patch of carpet, and straight to the stairs leading down to the lower floors. Shouts ensued from multiple directions but he paid no heed, taking the staircase three steps at a time.

Lungs burning and struggling to catch his breath, Kitt made a fast break past the security desk and out onto Beacon Street. Distance. Distance and time were what he needed. Time to think. Time to put this business together. First, he finds this unexplainable and out-of-place chunk of history, and next thing he is being chased by thugs with weapons!

After running around in circles for an hour and a half, Kitt hopped out of the cab and cautiously worked his way down the cobblestone alley, making sure to keep his head low, and ducked into the Green Dragon Tavern. Thankfully, it was midday Tuesday and there was still a table available below some faux Guinness barrels mounted on a wall. He couldn’t have chosen a better spot. Partially shielded from the front door, but enough of a line of sight to see everyone coming and going.

“Hi! Would ya like to start with something to drink? You’re cute, but I’ll still need an ID.” the waitress said with a wink.

“Hi. Yeah, sure. IPA, please. The brand doesn’t matter. Thank you.”

Okay, time to think. Derringer in his pocket, bible in hand, and a pint of beer sweating on the table in front of him, Kitt still couldn’t entirely think straight. Calm down. Just calm the hell down!

One sip into his drink, Kitt listened as the flirtatious waitress ran up to help whoever had just come into the tavern.

“Hi ya! Any preference on where you’d like to park it? We’ve got spots at the window, the bar, and a few short tables.” Kitt heard her say.

“Why thank you, but I see my other party has already arrived.”

Kitt stiffened as heard the familiar voice, looking up to see King sauntering up to his table.

“Well hello again!” he said with that same wry smile and contrived good nature. “Seems we parted rather hastily without concluding our little chat.” 

Unable to speak from surprise, Kitt mumbled the only thing that came to mind: “Ah shit.” For better or worse, this was going to be a very long day indeed...

April 30, 2021 12:08

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