The entropy lines of the time-transporter field bowed outward above the receiving platform, distorting the small room into a grotesque, carnival-mirror reflection of itself. The field lines collapsed, sending miniature dust devils dancing over the hardwood floor. They fluttered the fringed hem of a hand-sewn quilt that was draped over a carved bed.
Dr. Geoffrey Wilson stepped down from the platform and allowed his eyes to focus in the room’s soft light. The sulphurous glow that radiated from the receiver’s brushed-metal surface faded. It yielded to a gauzy light that slanted through the dust motes dancing in the air before him. As the field dissipated, the room regained its rectangles.
An upholstered bergère chair stood beside the bed, and next to that, an oversized chest of drawers. A smoke-stained oil lamp and a white ceramic pitcher and bowl rested on the chest’s upper surface. A thick braided rug, which softened a large oval in the center of the floor, was the room’s other furnishing. A few unremarkable paintings, suspended from long cords, were scattered over subdued wallpaper. A single wooden door, capped by an open transom, led to an outside corridor.
A window opened into the room and the sunlight spilled through it, settling into an angular pool that flowed over the floor and onto a corner of the rug. A breeze trailed in behind the sunlight and billowed a pair of sheer cotton curtains.
A man stood across the room from Wilson, his arms folded over his chest. He was watching him, waiting for the field effects to subside. The man was tall and muscular – some would describe him as blocky. He had dark eyes and brows and a lion’s mane of black hair. He wore a new three-piece gray suit cut in an antique style. His tanned skin was drawn into cobweb wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. As their eyes met, Wilson flinched. The man’s stare was hard and inhospitable. Wilson dropped his gaze and brushed at the hem of his knee-length toga.
The man stepped forward. “Professor Wilson?” His voice was guarded.
Wilson extended his hand. “Yes.”
“Aaron Malleck.” He didn’t return the handshake. “Welcome to 1865,” he said, but didn’t sound like he meant it.
“Thank you. I’m … relieved to be here at last.”
Malleck didn’t respond.
Wilson turned around and looked at the receiving platform which squatted in the doorway of a narrow closet. The air above it still shimmered like summer heat over blacktop.
“The device is incredible,” he said. “I feel I have just stepped here from the next room.”
Malleck’s lips parted in a thin line. “A simple effect produced by a complex system. The bulk of this ‘device’ resides in the laboratory from which you embarked.” Malleck gestured in the direction of the open closet. “But I’m sure you know all that.”
Yes I do, thought Wilson, so why am I getting this condescending lecture?
Malleck stepped around Wilson and bent over the platform. He removed a section of baseboard in the interior closet wall. A dark space opened there of the same dimensions as the platform.
“Excuse me; I’d rather not leave the receiver in the open.” He pushed the edge of the flat metal box with the toe of his boot until it disappeared beneath the closet wall. “My colleagues here would find it confusing.” He bent again and snapped the baseboard back into place. As he straightened up, he gave Wilson a quick inspection. “I’d say that’s true of you as well,” he said.
Wilson fidgeted. He felt unaccountably embarrassed by his form-fitting leotards. Malleck turned to the closet again.
“We must do something about your clothes, professor.” Malleck said this as if Wilson’s choice of clothing offended him. He selected one dark suit from several there and handed it to Wilson. “Change into this and then we’ll discuss your itinerary.”
Wilson accepted the clothes and sorted them onto the back of the chair. As he loosened his braided belt, he glanced down at the city street, visible through the open window. “It’s hard to believe,” he said.
Malleck settled on the edge of the bed with his eyes closed. He looked up when Wilson spoke. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
Wilson struggled out of the leotards and paused for Malleck to continue. He did not. The man is annoyed with me and I’ve just arrived. Malleck’s attitude irritated him. He had many questions, but the man’s hostility was daunting. He tried again. “How long have you been here, Mr. Malleck?”
Malleck frowned and opened his eyes. “Twenty-three years.”
Wilson blinked. “I don’t understand. Do you mean Demeter has been shuttling you back and forth across a quarter century of this era?”
“No. I mean I have lived in these times since 1842.”
Wilson pulled the toga over his head and reached for the rumpled cotton shirt. “I understand a few years, but I didn’t realize traffic to the entire era demanded such attention. The Department requires a full-time representative here?”
Malleck raised his eyebrows. “I’m certain there are a number of things you don’t realize, Professor. Did you forget how you got here? You can appreciate the need for a permanent persona in this time, if for no other reason than to provide visitors like yourself a secure place to arrive and depart.”
It was obvious that Malleck lost no love for such visitors. Wilson just nodded and finished buttoning his shirt. At least he had coaxed some conversation from the man. He was curious. What would make a man devote the bulk of his lifetime to living in the past?
“However,” Malleck continued, “as you’ve no doubt surmised, providing escort is only one of my duties. An annoying and distracting one, I might add.”
I would not have guessed that.
“I’ve read two papers by you in the Journal of Applied Historiography, Dr. Wilson. They relate to the subsequent influences of the Civil War years, so I know that you are well aware of the significance of this era.” He paused for a few seconds and then added, “It should come as no surprise that the Department is concerned.”
Now Wilson raised his eyebrows. The man had done his homework. Wilson wondered if the research was done in preparation for this visit. He felt no false modesty in the recognition Malleck gave him. He’d spent his adult life in the study of Abraham Lincoln and his times and he knew the era as well as his own. For the last five years it had been his all-consuming passion, and an oblation to exorcise the ghost of Colleen.
“I am aware of the Department’s caution regarding the eras they classify as Time Nodes,” Wilson said. “And this is one of those.” He had always disliked that sobriquet. It sounded like bureaucratic technospeak, and it was imprecise.
“Caution?” Malleck stared at Wilson through narrowed eyes. “I also read your Doctoral dissertation, professor: The Quantum Reshaping of Historical Reality. Did I get it right?” He closed his eyes a little. Probably scanning a reference, Wilson decided. “I can quote from your abstract. ‘The insertion of an observer from the future into the established circumstances of a given historical event is mathematically equivalent to a contemporary historical observer witnessing that same event for the first time. Each possesses the potential to influence its outcome. The extreme result is an abrupt fracture to the perceived reality of one or the other’.” He looked at Wilson. “In layman’s terms, everything we know could be replaced with something else. ‘Caution’ seems inadequate to describe the Department’s attitude, wouldn’t you agree?”
Wilson flinched again. I must be careful with this man. “You flatter me, Mr. Malleck,” Wilson said, hoping he sounded less ruffled than he felt. “Yes, I quite agree that the influences of Lincoln and his times were significant. If you’ve read my work, you also know I need no convincing on the extraordinary caution required here.” He lifted the trousers and held them before him, legs dangling, and balanced on one foot and stepped into them. “In fact, this particular time seems a heavy responsibility for one person to bear.”
Malleck grunted. “I suppose it does.”
“Ow, what the –?” Wilson dropped the trousers; they crumpled into a pile around his feet. He rubbed his hands up and down the length of his legs. Had he been attacked by ants?
Malleck responded with a humorless laugh. “I see you have made an acquaintance with wool.”
“Wool? It’s barbaric. It’s like stepping into a hive.”
“You’ll get used to it. Time travel sometimes puts us closer to history than we might wish.”
“Lord. Three hours in that?” He looked at the dark, bristling cloth, and then over at Malleck. The agent’s eyes were closed.
Just like my own contemporaries – he can’t take a breath without consulting his microcomputer. Apparently their conversation was now closed. Wilson cursed under his breath and scratched his thighs. He stepped into the trousers and lifted them to his knees, stopping every few inches like a bather testing the water. Malleck volunteered nothing more so Wilson finished dressing. He occupied himself with the view out the room’s small window.
A fresh breeze, swept clean by spring rain and dusted with the aroma of new grass, danced with the delicate curtains. There was an unfamiliar hush to the noise drifting up from the street – the laughter of young people, the clip-clop of hooves on the dusty thoroughfare, a distant puffing from a brass band – the sounds of living things. Missing were the competing hums and clatters of the ubiquitous machine, the metronomes that forced the frenzied tempo of his own time.
How softly the days fall, he thought. I’ve arrived in the Age of Innocence on its final day. He smiled at the thought. He had used that phrase over the years to describe this day. The final day. And where was Wilkes at this moment? In spite of the Department’s seminars and class work, they could not answer that question with any certainty.
Wilson had resented the Department’s training. He was far more knowledgeable of the events of this era than those the Department had selected to instruct him. He had, after all, been a well-compensated consultant to the Department for over fifteen years – but the instructions were compulsory nonetheless. In providing its unique service the Demeter bureaucrats left little to imagination.
The waiting period between application for an embarkation grant and admission to candidacy often took many months, sometimes years, and even so an applicant was frequently rejected, always without explanation. Though academia protested such cavalier treatment, their outcry always fell on deaf ears. From his years of secure access to Demeter, Wilson knew something of their methods. He knew, for example, that before anyone was granted access to the transportation facility, Demeter performed innumerable analyses on the consequences of inserting a new observer into a particular historical era.
As with every project the Department undertook, the modeling and simulation techniques were classified. Wilson had discovered that the Department relied in part on the work of Stoneking at the University of California at Berkeley on the use of human mitochondrial DNA as an indicator of genealogical preservation. Wilson had landed his first consulting assignment with the Department based on his own work in applying the Calculus of Variations to this indicator.
Competition among the scientific and research communities for use of the facility hardware was substantial and highly qualified; the pre-jump screening was mandatory and tedious. To those few persistent scholars selected, the Department granted up to three consecutive hours in a restricted number of periods accessible to the time-transporter field.
Considering the grudging reluctance with which his own candidacy had been handled, Wilson wondered why the Department bothered with the program at all. He had heard it had been instituted only because political pressure had been brought to bear, a sop to the voters in exchange for the use of public funds in this joint venture with a private institution. Even so, Wilson was certain that no researcher was ever admitted to the program unless Demeter found the subject of their research important to its own needs. The full range of activities in which Demeter engaged had always been zealously obscured from public view. Wilson recalled the period of his candidacy with something less than fondness.
He had applied for April 14, 1865. The objective stated on his lengthy application was to resolve an historical mystery associated with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He had requested entry to John Wilkes Booth’s apartment early on the day of the assassination in an attempt to recover the murderer’s memo book. Lincoln’s War Department agents had removed the notebook-cum-diary from Booth’s body after he was killed on April 26 and it had subsequently vanished. It reappeared several years later during the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson in the possession of Lincoln’s former Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Many of the pages leading to the day of the assassination had been removed. What remained were the notes of Booth’s self-confession to the crime and two enigmatic references to some “evidence” that the government possessed which would “clear his name.”
For three centuries historians had argued over the contents of those missing pages, and of their possible relevance to a putative conspiracy to the assassination by members of the Confederate Secret Service. A few historians even believed Stanton himself was involved. His vehement distaste for Lincoln’s reconstruction plan was well documented, and the Secretary, after all, had kept the existence of Booth’s diary undisclosed during the original trial of the assassins. Though he felt no great admiration for Stanton, Wilson gave that theory little credit. Stanton was fiercely loyal to Lincoln during the war, deeply grieved by the President’s death, and merciless in his search for his murderers and their accomplices.
Reports of rediscovery of a few of the missing pages surfaced from time to time in later years, but none was authenticated. Wilson tried to convince Demeter that examination of the intact diary would represent not only a significant item of historical research but also could lay the secret details of any conspiracies to rest.
Booth had carried the diary with him from at least the day of the assassination until his own death twelve days later. But there was some evidence Booth didn’t have the notebook on his person that afternoon but rather tucked it into his coat later when he left for the theater that night … tonight. He sometimes tore pages from the book to use as notes – some believed that alone accounted for the missing pages – yet he had left a note for Andrew Johnson on a calling card that afternoon. Wilson believed his best hope for inspecting the intact journal lay in a search of Booth’s quarters early on that fateful day. Today.
The Department consumed seven months in final consideration of Wilson’s application and then turned him down. The date of the assassination, April 14, 1865, was far too critical to permit visitation, they said. He appealed and was rejected again.
His position as senior consultant had permitted him access to all but the most sensitive documents in the Demeter archives. He had used that access for fifteen years to support exhaustive research on the Agency’s behalf into numerous historical obscurities. During one foray into the old, rarely visited physical records he discovered a single page of John Wilkes Booth’s diary – a previously unknown fragment that was misfiled and unaccountably misclassified.
The page was dated April 13, 1865. Booth’s mood was dark. He noted that he had spent the night in drink and despair. The South was lost. The war was lost. And he lacked both resolve and will to act against the President. But an odd-speaking and equally drunken man had confronted him inside the Star Saloon and berated him for trying to assassinate Lincoln. Booth was galvanized. Until then he had done no such thing, but surely this was a sign he was to prevail. That very night he resolved to kill the tyrant.
Booth didn’t name this annunciating angel – the man who had spurred him to action – but Wilson was hopeful other of the missing pages might. And he was suspicious too. If this fragment existed, was it outrageous to assume Demeter knew more of these missing pages than they’d let on? It was then that Wilson had determined to go back to that day and see for himself what was “real”.
After his second rejection he went straight to the Director. He told him he’d discovered and hidden the fragment of Booth’s diary and he implied it was inflammatory to the Agency’s reputation, which was untrue. He threatened to make it public unless his application was approved, but would temper his attacks on the agency if he was accepted, a pledge he never intended to keep. And then he twisted the knife of the Director’s tawdry role in Coleen’s last days. The bastard’s career would not survive that revelation.
The Director’s reaction was predictable. He expressed outrage and then distain and dismissed Wilson from his office, but two days later his confirmation was announced. With it came restrictions on the method and timing of his entrance to Booth’s apartment, and on the handling and subsequent dissemination of any additional information Wilson might obtain. Although the restrictions affronted him, he had conceded them. In the end his application was accepted, the appropriate legal waivers were signed, and the transportation facility was scheduled – an achievement that now found him dressed in an ancient suit and barely controlling the urge to scratch his legs.
He finished dressing in silence and awaited Malleck’s attention. The agent paid him no notice, so he cleared his throat. Malleck looked up and then let his eyes slide over Wilson’s attire. He said nothing at first, which Wilson took as an expression of dissatisfaction.
“You look ill at ease, Professor. Try to keep from scratching with both hands like that.” Malleck stood up, came over, and undid the knot in Wilson’s ribbon tie. He retied it and adjusted its fall on Wilson’s shirt.
“I believe you will get by. There are many out-of-towners in the Capitol for the victory celebration. I’m sure most of them will look more disheveled than you.”
He tugged the edges of Wilson’s coat and straightened the upturned shirt collar. Wilson endured the attentions in silence. He would permit the Department its rituals if he could be on his way.
Malleck stepped back to perform a final inspection. Wilson found a gold pocket watch in his vest and withdrew it.
“Let’s see, how to read this thing …” Out of long habit, he closed his eyes to check the time. His inner eyelids were blank of course. He’d submitted to surgical removal of his microprocessor – another outrage imposed before his journey. He reopened his eyes and studied the round face of the watch with its archaic hands and numbers. “Umm … twelve and eight … my God, 12:40. Is this watch correct?”
Wilson looked at the window. “Mr. Malleck, could we finish here? I’ve already used more than thirty minutes of my time.”
Malleck’s heavy eyebrows compressed to a frown. “We’re nearly through.” He opened the top drawer of the dresser and withdrew a leather wallet. “Here is some money, and your identification. You are Geoffrey Wilson, a Maryland businessman, in town to purchase horses. The identification will withstand a reasonable inspection. I don’t anticipate that you will need this, but we will be prepared.”
Wilson took the wallet, flipped through it, and slipped it into his coat pocket. “Businessman? And how am I to explain if I am caught in Booth’s apartment?”
“Well, I suppose you would not be here if there was any real chance of that,” Malleck said. Disdainfully, Wilson thought. There was something else going on here, he decided. He nodded but didn’t comment.
It was known that Booth had spent most of the morning and afternoon soliciting the support of his co-conspirators and feeding his courage with liquor. He would not return to his room until mid-afternoon. But there was always the possibility.
“You don’t know for certain though, do you?” Wilson asked. “This is quite unbelievable. Why hasn’t the Agency already followed Booth around today? What is the likelihood that Booth’s notebook is in his apartment? What good is time travel if you can’t even use it to predict the past? If I get caught in his room without –”
“We are envoys here, Professor, or ambassadors, if you will. We are not historians. In spite of your enthusiasm for this document, and the fact that the Director gave you permission to look for it, it is of little practical importance to me. I deal in events that are happening, not historical retrospective.”
“All right, events, then. Is any moment of a day like this not important enough to study?”
“We do not have infinite resources at our disposal.” Malleck’s stare went cold. “As you have pointed out, professor, I shouldn’t have to lecture you. Reality is a delicate fabric and is easily torn. Repeated or unnecessary probing at some event is like yanking at the loose thread of a sweater. It could unravel into a tangle of wool. Even a careless tug could transform the shape. It can be fingered, but it must remain intact. When we have finished, history’s tiniest fibers must be smoothed.”
“I know better than any man alive how significant this day is to become. I don’t need to be lectured. But I do want you to be certain.”
“I cannot be certain, I can be careful. While you perform your academics in Booth’s room, I will remain in the lobby to intercept any visitors.”
Wilson’s heart sank. He had expected, unrealistically he realized, to be free to roam Washington at will for his allotted time. Malleck’s sudden denial, pronounced so casually, made him feel foolish.
Malleck read his expression. “Professor, did you think I’d entrust this day to the bumbling of an amateur?” Malleck dropped his tone of forced courtesy. Wilson felt a combination of irritation and apprehension.
“I didn’t authorize your coming here, and I don’t agree with it, but it’s done, so let’s make the best of it, shall we. I’ll be coming with you, though I’ve far more urgent business to attend.” Malleck held Wilson’s gaze. “But understand – whatever you do in Booth’s room, you must leave everything as you found it. Nothing must be removed, nothing must be changed, and nothing left behind. Do you understand?”
“Don’t patronize me, Malleck.”
“Do you understand?”
He pressed on the last words and let them hang in the air. Wilson felt his throat tighten. He nodded and tried not to shy from the threatening eyes. I must be careful, he thought again. There was something else that bothered him, something that Malleck had said? It was hard to think in the presence of Malleck’s unflinching threat. Malleck gestured to the doorway.
“Good. Shall we begin then?”
Wilson frowned. He followed Malleck outside, into the recaptured memories of a long-dead afternoon.
Malleck said little as they walked the narrow flagstone sidewalks under the noonday sun. Wilson paid him scant notice. They headed west from Malleck’s apartment at 616 C Street, into what seemed to Wilson a magically animated Matthew Brady photograph. He could concentrate on little else. Even without the overarching dome that transformed the sky into a ceiling of triangular panels of glass, this city looked smaller than the Washington he knew. It was scaled to manageable proportions by the startling absence of all but a few of the marble-facade government buildings that choked the skyline of his time.
For all its importance to the Union, in this age Washington is still a simple city, he thought. It bragged of low, frame homes and of unpaved streets; of modest boarding houses joined shoulder to shoulder in rows of dark red brick; of hundreds of small shops and livery stables, perfumed by odors unknown to Washington three centuries hence. It was an unassuming town by Wilson’s standards, that held the future in a fragile shell.
Today it was dressed for celebration. Red, white and blue bunting decorated the gas lampposts lining the streets, and Union flags fluttered in the wind. A small band trumpeted a brassy concert from a street corner. Wilson smiled at the preposterous mustaches and the once-colorful uniforms of the four sprightly men who stood sweating under the sun puffing on their horns.
Wilson and Malleck skirted the Capitol building. Its familiar, majestic rotunda stood incongruously amid the hundreds of lower-middle-class lodging houses. A large banner swept across the Capitol’s western facade proclaiming:
THIS IS THE LORD’S DOING.
IT IS MARVELOUS IN OUR EYES.
Wilson looked westward from the marble edifice toward the Mall, in this time a stretch of grassy fields and young trees, green with spring buds that extended to the distant sparkling waters of the Potomac. The flat parkland was mounted by the red sandstone towers of the Smithsonian, and beyond that, by the unfinished Washington Monument, truncated at a quarter of its planned height. Even from this distance, Wilson could make out the angular shapes of abandoned scaffolding that littered the top of the structure. The Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Memorial Wall, and the Great Sphere of the Martyred, as well as the other landmarks familiar to Wilson, were, of course, missing. In the near distance, across the river on a nearby Virginia hill, Arlington house stood once more, though it was now a Union soldiers graveyard.
The Mall was busy with people who collected in small groups, talking, singing, and laughing. The air was lively, blending the innocent flirtations of young women, the raucous croaking of drunken soldiers, and an occasional victory salvo of gunfire. An enterprising huckster had seized upon the conviviality to turn a quick profit. He was standing on a chair hawking pictures of Lincoln and other war heroes. Two small boys ran by, chattering over a picture of General Robert E. Lee.
Colleen would have loved this. Wilson cherished the walks they had taken together over this very ground on the long summer afternoons of his younger years. His daughter held his hand as he transformed for her the cluttered landscape of modern Washington into this bygone city molded from his knowledge and imagination. They would pretend that she was a beautiful lady, and he her escort, a handsome colonel returned in triumph from Appomattox. In his dreams they had often lived the vision shimmering before him.
How many ages ago that was. He could almost hear her laugh, the sweet, soft sound of her calling out his name. He blinked as the grassy Mall misted in his eyes. It had been a time of innocence for both of them, when a father’s hand was a young girl’s strength, and a father’s dreams her reality. He wanted to stand and absorb the moments of renewed time, to savor the miracle molded before him that had returned him to a world unstained by deeds to come. If only she could see this.
Malleck nudged him toward the Old City Canal. Its sluggish waters, congested with sewage, trickled toward the Potomac along the north edge of the park. Wilson saw the bloated carcass of a large animal floating amid small boats moored near the bank. A fetid odor drifted from that direction when the breeze shifted, and Wilson felt his already anxious stomach turn nauseous. Thankfully the Old Canal had not persevered to modern times. It reeked, as John Hay once phrased it, of “the ghosts of 20,000 drowned cats”.
The city bells restored Wilson’s purposefulness. One o’clock. He had already lost an hour of irretrievable moments. He picked up his pace as they passed over the high bridge that spanned the death-choked canal. Malleck spoke again as they crossed Pennsylvania Avenue toward the broad, brick facade of the National Hotel. He pulled Wilson aside next to the small rise of steps that led into the building.
“Follow my instructions precisely.” He locked his eyes on Wilson’s again. Wilson heard the coiled restraint in Malleck’s voice. “It distresses me to let you out of my sight for even a moment, Wilson, but my employer has left me little choice. The hotel clerk has been taken care of. Approach his desk and show him the calling card you’ll find in your wallet. Say the words: ‘Will Mr. Booth return before dark?’ He will answer, ‘I should expect him well before dinner.’ Remember that. If he answers any other way, even a slight difference, return outside. Your visit will be terminated. Do you understand?”
Wilson stood stunned and silent. He had not expected the arrangements to involve such intrigue. The fulfillment of a life’s ambition hung in the subtle phrasing of a desk clerk. He nodded his consent.
“If the clerk responds properly, say, ‘I will wait in his room.’ It is on the second floor, to the right near the end the hallway. Room 228.” He paused again until Wilson nodded that he understood. “Let’s check the time.”
Wilson fumbled for the gold chain and retrieved the timepiece. One-twenty. Malleck glanced at it and reset his own watch.
“You will have twenty-five minutes to finish your work.”
Wilson’s eyes widened. “Twenty-five minutes?” He felt betrayed. “But I was promised three hours. I’ll barely have –”
“Professor.” Malleck made the title sound contemptible. “In twenty-five minutes I’ll come to Booth’s room. We’ll inspect it together to insure it is as you found it, and then we will leave. Those are the conditions. If you do not agree, we are finished here.”
Wilson lowered his eyes. He slipped the watch back into his pocket. He fingered the chain like prayer beads through the fabric of his coat. He hadn’t felt such pressure since his thesis defense.
This is outrageous. To expect anything of value to be discovered under these conditions is madness. He looked at the National’s covered portico and then at Malleck’s black eyes. He knew he’d find no sympathy here.
“What if Wilkes returns while I’m in there?”
“That’s why we must separate. I’ll station myself outside for ten minutes and in the lobby for the remainder of the time. If Booth comes back, I’ll detain him. The desk clerk will come to signal you, and you must stop. Return the room to its original state and follow the instructions the clerk gives you. Understand?”
Wilson nodded. Malleck returned the nod and backed away from him. He walked down along the front of the sprawling, four-story building to the corner that housed the telegraph office. He leaned against the graying wall and stood with one leg bent and boot pressed against the concrete surface. He looked like someone awaiting a telegraph. Wilson watched him for a moment then turned and ascended the broad, flat entrance porch. He felt he was acting out an empty role now, but the slim chance for success still tantalized him. He had come so far. Just to tread upon this vanished stage was exhilarating and it was this at last that propelled him forward.
The hotel lobby was bright and wide but it smelled of mildew. The floor was thick carpet with an elaborate weave and was threadbare in the areas of heavy use. A huge dining room, now crowded with noisy patrons and busy waiters, was visible through a double doorway that opened beside an ornate staircase. Wilson approached the maple reception desk and addressed the clerk, a middle-aged, balding man whose name he recalled was Merrick. He recited the litany he had memorized and held his breath. The man studied him and the card he had presented.
Is he suspicious? What was done to “take care” of him?
To his relief, Merrick replied with the prearranged phrase. Wilson completed the ritual and accepted the room’s key with a silent thankfulness. He ascended the stairs, one hand clutching the key to Booth’s secrets, the other fingering the pocket watch. He felt some of the tension disappear as he opened the door to the assassin’s small apartment.
The room had the look of a museum exhibit. Wilson stood at the doorway, immobilized by the familiar surroundings. He was having difficulty accepting the reality of what he experienced. It was as if he had entered an elaborately detailed amusement park, tailored for his personal entertainment. He shook off the reverie and set to the search for that which had brought him here.
Wilkes’s belongings were compulsively tidy. A riding outfit was arranged on the bed: black suit and close fitting trousers. The clothing had been fastidiously placed, and calf-high boots with new spurs were arranged in a straight line on the floor below them.
Wilson looked at the watch. Twenty minutes – he would have to hurry. He fought his vexation; this was not a time for self-indulgence. He closed the door and crossed to a heavy wooden trunk that was set, military-like, at the foot of Booth’s bed. If he was to have any success, he must at least examine the obvious. He opened the lid and began his search, cautious to leave no trace of his intrusion. The trunk had several stacked compartments and Booth’s clothes were arranged in neat piles within them. The man exhibited an orderliness to his personal affairs that had not been suspected.
It was unthinkable that Demeter had stationed a man like Malleck here and yet did not trouble to collect such historical data on their own.
He sifted the contents of each compartment before replacing it and moving onto the next. He felt tension creep back as he refolded and replaced the third stack of clothing.
If Wilkes has the notebook with him, this endeavor is pointless. Or perhaps he has hidden it somewhere else.
Wilson glanced at the bed, at the closet, at a small dressing table. It could take a half hour to exhaust the obvious possibilities in the room. He turned back to the trunk and lifted the bottom compartment. Half of it was filled by several large jars of stage makeup, plus a hand mirror, a long red wig, and two false beards. Wilson sorted through the tools of Wilkes’s trade. A dark riding coat was folded into the other half. Wilson lifted a corner of the garment and discovered beneath it a rectangle of frayed, black leather. He had found it.
The instant of discovery burst over him. His hand shook as he lifted the small book from its resting place. He half expected it to crumble to ashes with his touch. He let himself rock backward until he was sitting, legs sprawled on the floor. He clasped the precious artifact between his hands.
The memorandum book. He had hoped against the impossible and he was not denied. He gave thanks for his outrageous good fortune. Booth had no reason to suspect a search of his room before his bloody act, and he had left the incriminating document in the safety of his trunk. It was just as Wilson had hoped.
He remembered the time and tugged at the pocket watch. The discovery had taken little more than five minutes. He would barely have time to examine his find and perhaps chip away some new nugget of insight into the long-hidden circumstances of the assassination. He swallowed against a dry throat and opened Booth’s journal. His heart jumped. It was complete. Complete. No pages were removed. No jagged fragments mocked him. Wilson sat trembling and read through several passages.
What he found sobered him. Many powerful people had conspired against Lincoln, and Booth had been their tool. Not just agents of the Confederacy were engaged; the trail to Booth’s deed ran through the Union as well. Here, in the damning script of Booth’s own hand, was the list of connections to those politically influential – Northern and Southern – who operated out of Washington; documentation of trips to Canada to meet with secret agents of the Confederacy; late evening meetings with lower members in own Lincoln’s War Department. Booth had help from both sides: prearrangement to receive shelter in the South and misdirection of the search from the North, in the crucial first hours following the deed. There was evidence paving a trail of collusion to the doors of both Jefferson Davis and of Lincoln’s own government.
It was astonishing. Here beyond all expectation was concrete proof that, while Edwin Stanton himself was nowhere named, his War Department was involved in the murder of the President. The persistent allegations of those conspiracy-minded advocates of over three centuries were confirmed after all.
Wilson turned the pages like a man unearthing a long-interred corpse. He found it hard to believe. To think the old canard of the President’s men’s involvement was true. Not a few of his colleagues would be forced to eat crow over this – as would he himself. Amazing.
He skimmed past a familiar name entered on one of the pages when realization broke over him like a whitecap. His eyes jumped back to the paragraph and he studied the small script letters again. He was not mistaken, and the truth of what he read jolted him like a physical blow. Booth had named his principal contact in the War Department and Wilson felt tiny beads of sweat break out on his neck. He read the name aloud to himself.
He glanced over his shoulder at the door, half expecting his escort to burst in upon him.
Malleck? Demeter’s man is involved? This doesn’t make sense.
He studied the name, staring back at him in silent argument in Booth’s handwriting.
Impossible. They are obsessed with non-interference. Wilson’s disbelief flashed through him like a brush fire. He examined the page a third time.
Malleck? But then maybe he …? He paged forward to yesterday’s entry, to the fragment that he had found in Demeter’s vaults. He received his second shock – there was no mention of a meeting in the Star Saloon. He flipped back and forth a few pages, thinking he had missed it but it wasn’t there. According to the book’s blank testimony, Booth had not met anyone there; no one had sparked his resolve to assassinate that night.
“What is going on here?” Wilson asked aloud. “Have the bastards duped me then? Put a false fragment in the archives to put me off Malleck’s trail?” His furor turned to panic. But Malleck must know what I’ll find here now. He knows about the diary, and he’s waiting out there. He’s plotted against the President and now he knows that I know. His mind reeled. Why had the Director approved his application then? What would they do with him now that he knew?
He tried to steady himself, to devise a plan, but a single urge trumpeted in his brain – escape. He closed the diary and tucked it back into its hiding place in the trunk. He stood up and inspected the room. He struggled with his self-control while he satisfied himself that he room looked undisturbed. A part of him screamed that none of that made any difference now. But he was frightened and he needed time to think things out. He couldn’t risk making things worse.
He crossed to the door, opened it a crack and peered out into the corridor. The hallway was deserted. He stepped out and edged to the top of the stairway. Malleck was seated downstairs with his back toward him, facing the hotel entrance. As Wilson watched from the shadows, Malleck withdrew his pocket watch, consulted it, and turned in his chair in the direction of the stairs. Wilson leaned back out of sight. In a few more minutes, Malleck would be coming for him. He looked back down the hallway. There was a window at its opposite end, open against the warm spring day. Wilson remembered that a smaller building adjoined the National on that side. Perhaps its roof was accessible from that window. He crept down the hallway toward it.
For several hours he wandered through the reborn streets of the Union Capitol, far too distressed now to appreciate their charm. He needed time to think, to clear his head.
History is a farce if people like Malleck can bend it to their petty needs. They’re hypocrites. The self-styled “guardians at the gates” are the very ones who meddle like ancient gods. And for what – the Institute’s version of truth? Malleck is helping Booth, for Christ’s sake. How would Lincoln’s last days pass if these villains did not intrude? Would he even be sacrificed to Booth’s ego if not for Aaron Malleck?
He walked along 6th Street away from Pennsylvania Avenue, putting distance between himself and Aaron Malleck.
The Director must know about it as well. He must have ordered it, and yet he overrode the objections of his people to let me come here. Maybe he doesn’t know; maybe Malleck is a rogue working his own agenda.
Wilson wrestled with his thoughts as the hours wore on him. He stayed away from the main thoroughfares, from public gathering places. By now Malleck was out there searching for him. All around him the city was celebrating, but its gaiety only punctuated his gathering despair. As he wandered he found himself drifting westward, led inexorably along F Street. Finally he stood in the rutted carriage tracks at the corner of 10th and F, staring at the white arches and imposing red face of Ford’s Theater. Its blocky structure dominated the buildings that surrounded it.
He found that he was settling into a calming certitude. He had not willed it but it had formed nonetheless, taking substance from the current of emotions that eddied like dark smoke in his head. In her letter to her husband Helen Carr had said she’d stop Booth, stop the assassination of Lincoln, if she wasn’t rescued. Her reason was different from his, but he saw now that her purpose was sound; each of them hated the Department for what it had done to them. He could finish what Helen Carr had planned; he needed only the courage to act in her stead.
He retreated back down F Street and turned into the darkened alleyway, called Baptist Alley, which blossomed with stable odors. He was behind Ford’s. He entered the theater through a rear stage door and stumbled up to and across the great, darkened stage. It was nearly six o’clock. The large room and its several hundred wooden chairs were cast in heavy shadows. The sky had grown overcast with the passing of the day; the last rays of late afternoon sun filtered in through the theater’s high front windows. He tried to move quietly. Historians disagreed on the exact time of Booth’s last visit to Ford’s on the afternoon of the fourteenth. It would be a terrible mistake to arrive before he did, or worse, to find the assassin still at his work. The theater was empty though. The stagehands were out for an early dinner before starting the evening’s final preparations.
Wilson moved up the center aisle and pulled open one of the two tall doors leading to the lobby. It was empty as well. He slipped through and crept up the carpeted stairs to his right, to the level of the dress circle. From the back of the balcony he could look down at the varnished pine stage mounted between the fluted columns that supported the ceiling. To his right lay the Presidential box, decorated with flags and tapestry for the evening. Wilson moved along the semi-circular aisle behind the last row of seats, the same path Wilkes would follow four hours from now. He arrived at the white door that opened into a short and narrow corridor behind the President’s box. This was the dangerous place; he held his breath and listened but no sounds came from the other side. He twisted the broken knob and pushed open the door. The passageway was dark and empty. He stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and struck a match from a box in his pocket. In its flickering light he saw that Booth had already come and gone.
A short, straight stick was propped in a corner behind the door; it was the broken pedestal of a music stand. In the wall next to the door a small hole had been gouged in the plaster. Later that evening, once Booth slipped past the guard into the secluded passage, he would use the stick he had concealed there to wedge the door closed. The match burned down and he struck another. He turned away from the door and took three steps down the passage to the Presidential box itself. In the first of two doors leading into the box Booth had bored a small viewing hole in the wood. Wilson crouched to peer through it; he could see the back of the red Victorian rocking chair that Harry Ford had placed there for the President’s use.
Wilson had the sensation of déjà vu. Many years in the future he would visit the restored Ford’s and crouch in just this manner to squint through this same hole. Now he could almost see the angular head and unruly hair nodding above the back of the chair. He could see the rocker moving, back and forth, back and forth, in the slow rhythm of a dirge, while his own pulse beat with a nervous staccato. He could feel the cold metal of the derringer slip a little in the sweat of his palm while he waited to burst in upon the tyrant and strike a blow against the hated Union.
The match burned down. Wilson turned back to the darkness of the corridor. He reached the outer door and hesitated – the broken pedestal was there, awaiting Booth’s hand. He reached for it in the darkness, felt its shape beneath his fingertips, and lifted it from its resting place. He clutched it like a bulwark as he stepped through the door into the dress circle. He stood gasping against the door, pressed into it by the weight of what he’d done.
How could he dare even this? Booth would be alarmed tonight when he entered here and found his wedge was missing. Would it stop him? Was the fear of apprehension enough? This change, even this change….
A patina of sweat covered his face and a chilling gust whispered past his soul. But Wilson gripped the stand and pushed away from the door.
No, it was not history that had happened here. It was their damnable work. He must not, and he could not, accommodate an obstruction to their downfall now.
He had reached the first landing, midway down the stairs, when he saw Malleck again. The Demeter agent had entered the lobby from the street side, pushing through the entrance doors. The fading daylight painted his long silhouette on the red carpet. Wilson halted and pushed against the wall of the stairwell.
Of course he knew I would come here. The theater is a magnet for both of us.
Malleck had not seen him though. He watched as Malleck took a few steps toward the inner doors, pulled one open, and stared at the deserted stage. Wilson pressed back further, hoping the shadows would conceal him. Malleck stood there for what seemed hours. He was looking for some movement, listening for an unexpected sound. Wilson feared that the hammering of his blood would betray him. Malleck closed the door and turned around and exited the lobby.
Wilson waited to be certain he was gone before he descended the remaining stairs. He entered the theater again, hurried toward the stage and climbed up on it. He crossed to the rear, hesitated, and dropped the music pedestal behind some cutout scenery. As he turned to leave he heard the lobby door open. He wheeled and saw Malleck there and this time he also was seen. He turned to run and Malleck shouted. He heard the clatter of his approaching boots.
“You’re a fool, Wilson. You don’t know what you’re doing. You could ruin everything with your meddling.”
Wilson was outraged and he stopped then and turned to face the man. His movement also halted Malleck. He started moving forward again as Wilson glared at him.
“You talk of meddling? You accuse me?”
“I read the diary. I know about you and Booth.”
Malleck stopped again. “The diary? You’ve made a grievous mistake.”
“No mistake. How does the saying go? ‘Who watches the watchers?’ Do you deny that you work for Stanton?”
Malleck had recovered. He inched forward, glancing around as he did so. “Keep your voice down.”
Wilson stared at him, his fists clenched.
“Of course I am with the War Department,” Malleck said. “It’s a role that allows me effectiveness in this time.”
“Effectiveness? You’ve used your position to help Booth.”
Malleck glanced behind him and then at Wilson. “Of course I did, that’s how we keep history whole. You’re the scholar; don’t tell me you don’t understand that.”
“Intact? It’s because of you that Lincoln will die tonight. Have you not considered that Booth might fail without your help, or turn away a coward for fear of being caught? You talk of preserving history, but it’s a history of your making.”
Malleck approached the orchestra pit and Wilson started a slow movement backward, toward the stage door. Malleck edged along the rim of the pit until he reached a point closest to Wilson and then extended his arms and leaned against the stage.
He lowered his voice when he spoke again. “Doctor Wilson, I know what you are planning. Believe me when I say, I will not let you do it.” His eyes were flat as a reptile’s. “You dream of seeing Lincoln live, but what else will change if he does? Everything will be different? Better, you think? Perhaps, or maybe far worse. People yet unborn will never be. Scientists. Leaders. Scholars. And that’s if we’re lucky; if not, perhaps the chaos of the void will remain.”
“I comprehend the implications of Lincoln’s death far better than you, Mr. Malleck. It’s been my life.” Wilson lowered his eyes. “Who knows what our country could have achieved if he’d lived to direct its next steps? If you hadn’t killed him.”
“I’m not his killer, Wilson. The murder will be Booth’s act alone. He doesn’t require my support for that. It was done, and will be done, whether I contacted him or not”
“But why help him? Why interfere at all?”
Malleck’s tone was flat. “Do you imagine you’re the first to want to interfere? The first to try to impose your solution to history? There are many others, from all the times ahead of us, and compared to them you’re a bumbling fool. They are ingenious, devious, invisible, and nearly undetectable. They invade us like a virus, like a cancer that passes unseen into the body to spreads. That’s what I face. That’s what I work against.”
Wilson’s resolve began to bend. “But how can you? You are one man –”
He thought he could receive no further shocks. He was mistaken.
“One? No, not one, but nearly that. We are little more than fifty in this time. We’ve been placed at many levels of society and government and yet we are still far too few. Our enemies outnumber us by magnitudes. Still we wait and watch for the clues that an intruder has arrived and then stop them, prevent or correct their interference. We’ve worked for a generation and we’ve been successful thus far. But the crucial moment is now hours away. “
Wilson’s mouth dropped open. “Fifty? And you spent your time today escorting me on a search for a worthless document.”
“It was not my plan or desire, I assure you. Your self-righteous meddling has cost me valuable hours. You are an inept blunderer who nonetheless has become as grave a danger as any scheming intruder. Come on now, Wilson. Come back with me. You’re not ruthless enough to play at this game.”
“But … but you are helping Booth.”
“Yes, and what reason would be grave enough to do so? Because he did his deed the first time without us. History has to close on itself.”
Wilson was battered; his head reeled. “In his diary Booth said he decided on assassination instead of abduction today, Malleck. You must have been the catalyst that spurred him to it. You provided him a guarantee of safe passage. Without your support, he might not have acted.”
“That’s the point, Wilson. How many times must I repeat it? Booth will assassinate Lincoln tonight. That was history when time travel was still a dream. We preserved what has already happened.”
“How can you know that? Fifty of you – mingling, interacting and carrying the knowledge that you possess. You’ve polluted history.”
With a fluid motion Malleck vaulted onto the stage. Wilson had let Malleck’s words pull him closer to the man. He turned and bolted to the rear of the stage with the hard rap-rap of Malleck’s boots behind him. He pushed open the stage door and stumbled out to the alley. The cobblestone was dark, shadowed by the press of buildings on both sides and by the overcast evening sky. He knew this alleyway as if he was raised on it. It had received extensive attention by the popular press of the day and by later historians because it was Booth’s first route of escape after the murder.
Wilson ran down the narrow concourse, hugging close to the wall of a livery stable. The air was filled with the smells of straw and manure. He heard the theater door bang open and he didn’t stop running. He raced past the alley’s first exit leading off to his left, knowing that would be the route Malleck would expect him to take. He slowed down then, shuffling, trying to muffle the sounds of his boots on the stones underfoot. It was dark now and he was pretty certain he couldn’t be seen. He pushed through the open doorway of a stable and crouched in its shadows. He heard the footsteps behind him slow to a jog as Malleck reached the first exit.
“Wilson, come back now and I’ll send you home.” The voice echoed in the silence. “If not, you’ll not leave here alive.”
The boots shuffled, stood still for a moment, and then clattered away, up the exit from the alley. Wilson stood up and ran in earnest the other way. He came to a second crossing that led to the right and hurried down it. He stumbled once and almost fell, and then he reached the safety of the thoroughfare.
It was sparsely filled with people hurrying home from work. A covered Hansom moved down the rutted street; across the street a lamplighter was removing colored streamers from a post so that he could fire the gaslight inside. Wilson turned and ran. He weaved between pedestrians, dashed across the street, dodged the spoked wheels of a carriage, and ran on. He stopped when he was many blocks from the theater. He leaned, wheezing, against the brick wall of a boarding house and stared back along the sidewalk. The glances of passersby set him on edge.
Where are you now, Malleck? Waiting at Ford’s? You know I’ll come back, don’t you. Know I must go back. Maybe I am like you after all, trying to have your actions justify mine. And maybe my first sin is already echoing into its future.
He collapsed against the building and covered his face with his hands.
You’ve murdered history and now the rest of us are drowning in your corruption. You’re right, I’m not ruthless enough. I’m just looking for something to cling to, something untainted to believe in, and I know who that is. It’s not your world that should have been saved here, it’s his.
He brushed his eyes with his sleeve and straightened and looked around. This section of street was empty. Parallel rows of decorated lampposts stood vigil, like mourners at a funeral of state. Further down, two soldiers were weaving in the yellow light. They sang a tuneless song and were searching for a tavern. He reached for his wallet. Perhaps his “horse” money, and the festivity in the air, would be enough to persuade one of them. He stepped out of the shadows to meet them.
Wilson fidgeted in the hard wooden chair. He pulled out the pocket watch, now tucked beneath a blue belt trimmed in red piping. Seven-thirty. He put it away and drummed his lap with white-gloved fingers. A woman was sitting next to him. She wore an evening dress made of white silk that was cut over her bare shoulders. She sighed.
“How long before this play-actin’ starts?” She yawned and cast a look at the empty seats that surrounded them.
“Another half-hour,” Wilson told her. He continued to face forward, staring at the stage.
She sighed again and fidgeted in her chair. “You sure you wouldn’t rather go back to the house and spend the evenin’?”
“No,” Wilson sighed.
“I’m very good, Lieutenant. All the men say so.”
“Just sit quietly.” He glared at her then. “Please.” She seemed to have an innocent youthfulness in the dim light of the bordello. Now he saw her eyes were pinched with crow’s-feet; her neck was drawn and wrinkled. Even her caked makeup, which she wore like wall plaster, couldn’t deceive in the theater’s gas houselights. When she smiled, she exposed the ragged edge of a broken tooth. Thankfully, she was pouting now. Wilson felt the anxiety and fatigue of the last hours overcome him, and he directed his frustration at her.
“It’s my money and my time. Lord knows I’ve paid enough to have you sit there and be quiet, so please do so. And stop squirming.”
She lowered her eyes and folded her hands, childlike, in her lap. He watched her a moment more and started to apologize but the words caught in his throat. He looked away and surveyed the theater.
It was half-filled. The audience was mixed, largely civilians, but interspersed with a number of Union officers and their female companions. In his newly acquired uniform, and with this rented consort, Wilson hoped to blend in. Now if time just wouldn’t drag so, he thought. He drummed on his lap again.
“Don’t think I’m not grateful for this beautiful dress.” She leaned into him and rested her hand on his arm. He resisted the urge to draw away. There was an exasperating squeakiness in her voice too. “I mean, I don’t know the last time I felt so lady-like.”
She smiled and Wilson watched the broken tooth bob like an insect. For this I had to nearly break down the shop door to get the owner to open? This was a mistake; there was so little time to think it through.
The idea of attending the play as a Union officer seemed perfect. After negotiating with the drunken soldier for his uniform, Wilson asked directions to a brothel. He went in there seeking the first live woman to enter his life since his daughter had gone out of it. And when he saw this woman in its flattering light all the pain and memories came flooding back like a tide, stripping bare the wounds he’d believed long since healed. She had the same long and gleaming hair, the same petite frame, and the same brown eyes. He had even called her Colleen once during their carriage ride to the theater.
He realized she was still talking to him. “It reminds me of when I was a little girl. My mamma used to get her ‘n me fixed up to go out walkin’ on the Mall. Mamma was real pretty and I was proud she’d take me walkin’.” He watched her now; her face had been open and smiling but now it clouded up like a summer storm. “We had good times ’til Pa got home. He’d come in drunk and lookin’ for us, stinkin’ of whiskey and swearin’ a streak.” She was looking down at Wilson’s sleeve but he knew she wasn’t seeing it. “One night he got back early and found ma with one of the boys from the park. Killed ‘em both.”
Dear God, Wilson thought. He averted his eyes but she continued on.
“I ran off and ain’t never seen him again. Don’t care to neither.”
He turned away; he needed to stay alert, not get dragged into her self-pitying tale. She went silent then, lost in her own past days, he hoped. He looked around at the theater and vowed not to listen if she started in again.
He was sitting in a hard-backed chair all the way to one side of the balcony and several rows back from the railing. The dress circle was a semicircle that spanned the rear and back side walls of the theater and extended above half of the lower-level seating area. The seats in the balcony followed the semicircular pattern so that, from the far end where Wilson sat, he had a view of both the stage and of the comings and goings to the dress circle. The only stairway to it lay opposite him on the far side of the circle, behind the last row of seats. To his right and behind him was the small white door that led to the President’s box. His seats were suited to his purpose; he’d used his uniform with the ticket clerk to get so close. The box opened over the stage and was flanked by several American flags and a portrait of George Washington in honor of the evening’s special guests. A Treasury Department flag was draped over the balustrade.
Wilson knew that flag was the flaw in Wilkes’s otherwise perfect plan. Booth wore spurs in anticipation of his hasty flight, and he snagged one of them on the flag during his leap to the stage. A broken ankle resulted. The fracture retarded the assassin’s flight into the Confederacy, allowing his capture in twelve days and sixty miles from the Capitol.
Twelve days. After the assassination, Stanton will grab the reins of power, and because of the substantial confusion, or bungling, or the duplicity of his staff, he’ll grant Wilkes twelve days of freedom. And in spite of this, those in the War Department who are abetting Booth’s escape, Aaron Malleck and his kind, will see their plans undone by a spur and a flag. But Malleck must know about the broken ankle; that’s history at least, isn’t it? Wilson shook his head, bewildered.
He squinted past the flag to the inside of the box, now lit by two large gas chandeliers that hung over the stage. Because of his angle, Wilson couldn’t see much but he knew that the box was empty. The President will not arrive until after the play had begun, around eight-thirty. The theater seats were filling and the laughter and the conversation and the orchestra tuning were competing with the now droning voice of his companion. A large crowd had turned out on Good Friday evening, unusual for a holy day. But revelry was in the air. The war was ended less than a week. The orchestra began to play a popular patriotic tune. Several people in the audience sang along. Those who were here were less interested in Laura Keene and her benefit performance of Our American Cousin than in catching a glimpse of the President, now a lionized hero, and of his expected guest, General Ulysses S. Grant.
Wilson knew the audience would be disappointed on that account. Grant had little taste for the theater, and that, in addition to Mrs. Grant’s intense dislike of Mary Todd Lincoln, had convinced him to decline the invitation. And though assassination was a constant threat, Stanton had assigned John Parker to attend to the President as his guard, a man with a prior record of negligence to duty. Parker’s negligence would allow Booth to enter Lincoln’s box unchallenged.
How much of that is your doing, Aaron?
Wilson sat upright. A familiar dark mane had appeared at the top of the dress circle stairway. Malleck, dressed in the same gray wool suit and ribbon tie he had worn that afternoon, stood craning his neck and examining faces in the balcony’s audience. Wilson turned to present a partial profile to him. He smiled at his companion. She had been talking to herself for several minutes and his sudden attention caught her short. She stared at Wilson, mouth open in mid-sentence.
“Don’t stop now, please,” Wilson said, trying to hold his smile. “This is what I’ve paid you for.” He gave Malleck a sidelong look. The man was still searching.
The woman hesitated at first and then giggled. “Lordy, you’re a strange one. Are you ready to go back to the house?” She fluffed of her hair with one hand. “I knew you couldn’t hold out all night.”
“Just sit still and keep talking.”
Wilson made his voice low and menacing sounding, like Malleck had, though he continued to smile at her. The woman frowned. Wilson tried to look casual as he placed his hand on her arm and squeezed hard.
“Hey, you’re hurtin’ me.” She whimpered through her clenched teeth. “All right, all right, I’m smilin’.'”
Malleck was looking right at them. Wilson saw him shift to one side to get a better view. Wilson propped his chin on his hand and tried to cover his face. He agonized for several seconds until Malleck turned to inspect other faces. After several more minutes of this, Malleck seemed satisfied and disappeared down the stairway. Wilson released the woman’s arm and looked over. Had Malleck recognized him? He couldn’t be certain.
“Look, mister, I don’t know what you are up to, but money or no money, I don’t have to take this.” She glared back at him. “If you want to sit in this dreary place and twist people’s arms off, that’s your business. But it ain’t gonna’ be mine.” She gathered her dress and started to rise. Wilson caught her arm, gently this time.
“I … I’m sorry. I’m in a bit of a fix here and it’s got me upset. Ellen. That’s your name, isn’t it? Ellen? I need you with me now very much. I can’t explain it, but there is no danger to you. Just stay with me, please. I promise that before tonight is over you’ll have a lifetime’s worth of stories to tell your friends.”
“Humm. Will we see President Lincoln?”
“And more, Ellen. Much more.”
She studied him and Wilson watched her deciding. She sat back in the chair again. Her face puckered and she scrutinized the people surrounding her.
“What kind of a fix?”
“Someone is looking for me and you’re part of my disguise.”
“What…?” She looked around a second time, now poring over each face as if she expected one of them to leap at her. “I don’t want to be part of no disguise.”
Wilson patted her arm. “I told you, you are in no danger.”
“I don’t care. You’re a peculiar one and this is makin’ me upset. I want to leave.”
“Uh … you’re right, Ellen, I guess I am a bit peculiar.” He gave her his biggest smile. “That was just a joke. I’m not in any trouble at all. I’m … I’m an actor myself, and I was just trying out for a part I’m working on.”
Her look told him she thought he was either lying or crazy. “I don’t know,” she said.
He was rescued by the first appearance of an actor on the stage.
“Look, the play’s going to start. Let’s watch.”
The gaslights dimmed and the theater hushed. Ellen stared at Wilson for a while but he pretended to be absorbed with the actors. She stopped twisting in her seat and peering at the audience; in spite of herself, she was drawn in to the action on the stage. She didn’t know it yet, but what was to be the last performance in Ford’s for more than a century was beginning.
Wilson looked at the dress circle stairs; they were empty. He relaxed a little and gave some attention to the actors. He had only passing interest in the unfolding of the broad farce itself. But this play was so embroidered into the fabric of this fateful night; it held a certain fascination for him. He’d been immersed so long in the study of Lincoln and his times that by now he knew the words of the play by heart. How queer it seemed to watch Laura Keene and her company walking through the familiar lines. They seemed exaggerated, even amateurish, compared to several of the Presidents’ Day performances he had seen at the restored Ford’s in his own time.
Disconnected thoughts, like wind-driven clouds, scudded across his mind. Just a little longer, Aaron. Just long enough to see it happen. Let me witness the assassin’s leap, and maybe help bear the dying President’s body across the street. Why do I torture myself? I’m watching all of this and yet I’m powerless. I sit and let it happen. What will happen to the future, to my future, if I did interfere? Would Kathryn have left me if Lincoln had lived? And Colleen. Would Booth’s act left undone give me more time with you? You grew up so fast. The drugs, the thieving; I had to send you away. Why didn’t you give me another chance? Why take it out on me with Henry Madison? Oh, I’m so sorry, Colleen.
The chattering brought his thoughts back to the theater. People were talking in hushed tones, their attention diverted from the stage. The actors were fumbling their lines, distracted by the noisy commotion in the audience. Wilson saw several people on the main floor below stand up. They turned from the stage, looking toward the rear of the theater. There was a lot of pointing and murmuring. The orchestra conductor, annoyed, turned to the audience, straining to locate the cause of the disturbance. The actors stood motionless on the stage; they squinted over raised hands, shading their eyes from the footlights.
The conductor turned back to the musicians and called out something to them. There were several moments of shuffling sheet music, and on the conductor’s command the orchestra struck the electrifying first notes of “Ruffles and Flourishes”. With this as a cue, a great roar went up from the audience; most applauded, men stood on their seats, whistling and cheering. The houselights came up and the play was temporarily forgotten. Wilson saw some people at the back of the dress circle lean over the stairway railing, trying to catch a glimpse of the late-arriving President. Before he came into view, they pulled back, as if pushed like the sea from the bow of a great ship. They fluttered and smiled to one another as Lincoln ascended the stairs. When the familiar shock of unruly hair came into view, the murmur in the dress circle swelled to a crescendo. Wilson found himself caught up in it, a loud cheer rose from his throat. He saw the tired face break through the waves of people that strained to see him.
Lincoln stood almost a head above those who surrounded him, and Wilson could see his craggy features, worn by years of anguish and the toll of a sensitive conscience embroiled in a fratricidal war. He smiled, but his eyes were weary. The heavy lines of his cheeks were drawn into gaunt slashes that made him look disfigured. His eyes were dark and heavy-lidded; folds of wrinkled skin surrounded them. His smile was an upward twist at each end of his firm lips. He held his ubiquitous stovepipe hat in one hand and reached out with the other to squeeze some of the hands outstretched to him. He made his way along the aisle behind the dress circle seats, pausing to speak a few words to one or another of the acquaintances he spied there. Mary Lincoln, plump, homely, and smiling proudly, trailed to one side of her husband. Behind them were their last-minute guests, Henry Rathbone, dressed in Union blue, and his fiancée, Clara Harris. John Parker, of the Metropolitan Police and on special assignment to the White House, trailed behind.
Lincoln touched many of the hands that reached to him. He senses it, Wilson thought. This outpouring is a catharsis for the anguish the war has wrought upon his beloved nation. He knows they need to touch him, to say, “Thank God, it’s over,” and he can’t deny them that.
As the Presidential party moved closer to the small white door, Wilson found himself on his feet. The theater faded around him. The cheers of the audience, the stirring rhythms of the orchestra, became a whisper on the edge of reality. The universe was filled to overflowing with that gaunt and tragic face. Each movement, each gesture, each twist of the mouth and nod of the head was slowed to dreamlike motion and amplified as though projected on a gigantic screen. Wilson was lost in the face, in the immensity of the moment he had lived in his imagination for more than thirty years. He was adrift on the confluent tides of love and impending loss that rushed over him.
Oh Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done.
His thoughts reached out to the face. Have you borne us through the fire only to lose the dream on this wretched night? How your country will suffer for the assassin’s deed. If you could live to shepherd the strays back to the Union, to hold in check the forces of hatred and retribution that profane the halls of Congress. If you could stay to win the peace for us, as you have so lately won the war. Will a madman’s bullet end your country’s last hope for leadership and moral council? The degeneration of our national will, the rise of petty regionalism, the subjugation of our brothers beyond the bloody conflict that was to have settled the issue, and all of the decay of our once-proud civilization will spread through time, like your blood upon the carpet, when Booth performs his deed tonight.
Wilson let the presence of the man close about him like the sea, submerged his personality in the sublime sensuality of the event. He was helpless before the undertow that drew him to that face and drained him of energy and will, save that derived from nearness to the man.
Lincoln is alive.
Wilson throbbed with a single, irrepressible thought. How can I let him die again?
When at last the President gave a small bow and disappeared behind the white door Wilson’s eyes were blurred and wet. He was transfixed, staring at the spot where Lincoln had stood, until Ellen tugged at his trouser leg. He glanced around in confusion and allowed the theater and its people to flow back into the vacuum. He didn’t know how long he’d stood there, but everyone was seated, the theater was dark, and the play had resumed. He dropped into his chair and for a long time could only stare at the fluted gothic column and bit of tapestry that blocked his view into the Presidential box.
A roar of laughter brought his attention to the play. He felt a disorienting shock. The actors were walking through the third act. Harry Hawk was convulsing the audience with his portrayal of the outrageous American backwoodsman. How long had he sat daydreaming? He must stay alert. He pulled out the watch and looked at it. Ten o’clock. He looked at the Ellen. She was involved in the comedy’s broad humor.
Enjoy what is left to you, he thought.
He looked at the stairway. In a few minutes Booth would appear and start his journey around the dress circle. Wilson twisted to see where John Parker had positioned himself. The wooden chair provided for the bodyguard was empty. The man would later testify that he had moved down a few rows to get a better view of the play. Wilson searched but could find no evidence of the man. He scrutinized the stairway again. Could he do it? His timing must be perfect. If he acted too soon, Booth would accuse him of assaulting an innocent actor. Too late and the President would be dead. Again.
The thought struck him that maybe whatever he did here tonight could make no difference. Maybe his role in the event was like that of the audience of Our American Cousin. He could watch it unfold; engage his emotions in its outcome, but the event itself was foreordained. He was viewing the replay of what was once reality but now was re-creation. Like a video cycling endlessly through the projector of history.
No. That must not be the case. He could change the ending of the night.
A strong hand gripped his left shoulder. He turned toward Ellen, but she was staring, mesmerized, at the stage. He turned his head the other way to look at the intruder, knowing who he would discover there. Aaron Malleck’s black eyes stared down into his. Malleck squatted behind Wilson’s chair and Wilson gave a start that turned heads in his direction.
“Come with me.” Malleck whispered. The command was cloaked in an unchallengeable threat.
“Pardon me, sir?” Wilson forced a gruff voice and let it carry. “Are you addressing one of your country’s officers in that tone?”
Several people turned toward him, annoyed. Ellen went stiff in her chair; she was wide-eyed and silent. She too had discovered the dark man.
“We’re finished here, Wilson,” Malleck said. “Let’s go.”
Wilson was paralyzed. He couldn’t leave now; Booth was due at any minute. Beneath his overcoat, a French Perrine revolver waited for his command. He’d purchased it from the drunken officer along with the uniform. Though he had acknowledged its need, he feared its use. He glanced at Malleck’s hands. One was thrust in a coat pocket and an object bulged there as well.
Wilson’s will deflated. He nodded at Malleck with a gesture that meant defeat, not agreement, and stood up. Ellen sat in her chair and Malleck ignored her. He backed toward the aisle and Wilson followed him. On stage the actors were leading into the lines of scene two. Downstairs in the lobby Booth would be beginning his move. He would time the deed with a particular line from this scene. Wilson looked at Malleck, his eyes pleading.
“Please,” he begged, “I –”
Malleck cut him off with a shake of his head. He was angry. “We’re leaving now.”
Wilson led the way around the circle. I can’t save him. I must be content to have seen him, and to return to my own time with his face before me. He turned to Malleck and whispered, “Let’s hurry then.”
They started to descend the stairs. “I … I’m sorry, it seemed so –”
He was interrupted when a small man in a black riding coat bumped into him. The man was looking down at his own feet, preoccupied, as he ascended the stairs. When they bumped together, the man looked up, angry at the intrusion. He glared at Wilson and his young, handsome face drew back in a scowl. The stranger noticed Malleck next and Wilson saw the man’s fiery black eyes widen. He lowered them and continued up.
Wilson listened to Wilkes’ spurs jangle and all doubt drained from him. He deliberated furiously as he and Malleck descended to the lobby. There was a small crowd of men there standing to one side engaged in some animated conversation. Two of them were soldiers. Wilson wheeled around and shouted.
“You dare insult a Union officer, sir? Are you yourself a traitorous rebel?”
Malleck was nonplused. He stared at Wilson for an instant and then realizing his intention, looked around. He saw two soldiers glaring at him and he smiled. His threat came through bared teeth. “So help me, if you do that again, I’ll drop you. Now move.”
Wilson played out his hand. “Is that a threat, sir?” The group of men drifted over. “I believe you are up to no good here,” Wilson added, even more loudly. “I may be forced to have you arrested.”
Malleck was seething; he dropped the smile. “Wilson –”
He snipped the words when one of the soldiers, a burly sergeant, grabbed his arm.
“Is this reb bothering you, Lieutenant?” His eyes were bloodshot with whiskey but he looked like he was nasty even when sober.
“Sergeant, take this man into your custody. I believe he is one of Jeff Davis’s agents. He made a personal threat against my life.”
The sergeant leaned into Malleck, twisting his forearm in his mallet-sized hand. Malleck’s muscles bunched. They were teetering on the edge.
“I caught him nosing around the President’s box upstairs,” Wilson added.
Malleck stared hard at Wilson. His nostrils flared and he spoke through compressed lips. “Take your hands off of me, soldier, or I’ll have you court-martialed. This officer has no pass. I am with the War Department.”
The group of men surrounded Wilson and Malleck. Wilson let the men flow around him and then he was standing outside the circle of bodies.
“And I wipe the president’s arse,” the sergeant growled. The circle closed.
Wilson knew he must act quickly. He looked at Malleck, who was disappearing behind an ever-widening crowd of spectators. Several theater employees had joined in on the confrontation. Wilson turned to the door that led outside and opened it to the chill night air. From somewhere behind him, he heard Malleck shout his name. He pushed past a doorman and jumped down into the gas-lit darkness.
Once outside he turned left and entered a closed passageway that separated Ford’s from the Star Saloon adjoining it. Access to the passage was through a narrow door. He let the wooden door slam closed, plunging the narrow corridor into blackness. He fumbled for a match, struck it, and raced down the length of the covered alleyway. Near the end was a second entrance to the theater. Through that door was the backstage. The President’s box was just above him then. He opened the door and went inside. An open trapdoor led down to a flight of stairs on his right. The stairs led to a basement level underneath the theater.
He took the stairs two at a time and reached the first of several interconnecting storerooms. He pushed through them, pausing to relight his matches, and protected the flame with his cupped hand as he ran. The rooms were cluttered with packing crates and stage props and scenery. He tripped once and fell sprawling in the dirt and darkness. He scrambled to his feet and struck another match. He came to a corridor; its space was more cramped than the storerooms had been. It was dimly lit from the gaslight that filtered through the floorboards overhead. He was beneath the stage. He heard the boards creak as the actors moved through their impersonations. Their hollow voices echoed in the passageway and the laughter of the audience peeled like distant thunder.
“What, no fortune?” a woman was saying.
“Nary red.” That was Harry Hawk. “It all comes to their barking up the tree about the old man’s property.”
The thunder rumbled.
Wilson’s heart pounded. Those were the lines just before Wilkes cue. He scrambled through the corridor and found a second flight of stairs. He raced up them and out another trap door on that side of the stage. It was also open; Booth had used both trapdoors earlier.
“Augusta, dear, to your room,” the woman said.
“Yes, ma, the nasty beast!” came a younger woman’s voice.
Wilson rushed to the wings on stage left.
“I am aware, Mr. Trenchard,” the older woman spoke again, “that you are not used to the manners of good society.” The woman turned to leave.
Behind her, Harry Hawk waited for her exit. He was thinking aloud to the audience. “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh?”
Wilson jostled a stagehand who tried to restrain him. He pushed the man aside.
“Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old –”
Wilson burst from the wings opposite the President’s box and into the full light of the stage. He pointed up into the darkened box and shouted.
“Mr. President, behind you!”
There was a commotion in the box and a larger one in the audience. Wilson saw shadows wrestling in the darkness and heard a single gunshot. It reverberated through the shocked stillness of the audience like the tolling of a great bell, and it was followed in a heartbeat by a scream so anguished it had to have been Mary Lincoln. The audience gasped, and then as realization crested over them, disintegrated into a cacophony of shouts and screams. Wilson locked his eyes on that curtained box, ten feet above the stage. His heart squeezed in his chest and seemed to stop. He sucked in his breath and held it.
The scuffling shadows disappeared and a handsome man in a dark riding coat appeared at the balustrade. In an instant he was over the edge. In his leap to the stage, his spur caught in the blue Treasury Department flag and he fell hard, his full weight crushing onto his left foot. His face twisted, but he pushed himself to his feet and shuffled across the stage, thrusting Henry Hawk aside. When he reached midstage he turned to the audience and lifted both arms over his head.
“Sic semper tyrannis!” he shouted, his arms raised like a romantic statue.
The orchestra director grasped for the assassin’s leg but Booth slashed him with an already bloody hunting knife. The director fell back into the orchestra.
The action shook Wilson from his trance. As Booth turned toward the wings, Wilson fumbled with his long military coat. Booth was staring at him now and Wilson was horrified by the wildness in his eyes. Booth hobbled toward him, the wicked knife gleaming in the gaslight. Wilson pulled the Perrine free,
He aimed with both hands and pulled the trigger. Booth’s eyes opened in disbelief and he took a few halting steps. Wilson fired again and again. The assassin fell, the full length of his body dropped at Wilson’s feet. Wilson was screaming too and he continued firing into the unmoving figure until the metallic clicking of the hammer and the echo of the gunshots punctuated his sobs. He dropped the pistol. It rebounded from Booth’s back with a thump and then clattered onto the wooden stage.
The theater was in bedlam. Most of the people were scrambling for the lobby doors. Some were hurrying up the dress circle stairs and others still stood by their seats, staring in uncomprehending horror at the bloodied stage. But Wilson’s eyes were raised to the dark box. A strong hand moved there; it gripped the balustrade in an effort to lend support to a gangling body. The hand became an arm, then a chest, and a face.
Lincoln was standing. Standing.
He leaned on the rail. A wet stain enveloped his left coat sleeve but his face was clear.
“We are all right,” he called above the confusion of the crowd, in his throaty, backwoods accent. “We need a doctor for Major Rathbone.”
The pinched, sad eyes drifted across the stage to where a Union Army lieutenant stood, shoulders slumped, above the body of a dead assassin. The President and Wilson locked eyes. Lincoln nodded to Wilson and gestured with his right hand. Wilson’s own hand rose without volition and the President disappeared back into the box.
Wilson came aware of the confusion around him. Actors and stagehands hurried onto the stage, and all of them gave Wilson a wide berth. When he sought their eyes, they looked away. He stared at the body at his feet. Booth was dead. He lay in a widening pool of blood. A young woman stood near the body; tears streamed down her makeup.
“You killed him,” she sobbed. She was looking at Wilson. Wilson looked at her and then at the still figure. Wilkes’ outstretched hand was inches from his boot.
“Murderer!” the woman screamed. “Assassin!” Again, a wail echoed in the theater.
Wilson turned away, hesitated, and then turned back again. He crouched over the prostrate Booth and fumbled in his red-stained coat. He groped for a moment and withdrew his hand. In it he clutched the leather bound notebook. He slipped the book into his pocket, but couldn’t focus just then on why it seemed important. He saw smears of blood that streaked the fingers of his white gloves. He wheeled and ran to the rear of the stage and out through the stage door. Outside in the alley a young boy lay on a bench holding the reins to Booth’s horse. Wilson grabbed the reins from him and swung up into the saddle. He was crying when he shouted at the boy.
“Get back inside and forget you saw this horse – or me.”
He kicked the horse’s flanks and turned it around in the alleyway. The hooves clattered beneath him on the cobblestones as he raced down the narrow side passage that led out onto F Street. He had the horse in a full gallop as he turned south. He must leave Washington before Malleck could pick up his trail. Both he and Malleck were trapped now, trapped in the history that Wilson had created. He was sure Malleck would not rest until he found him. Lincoln lived, but his life had been purchased at what terrible cost.
Geoffrey Wilson would become an enigma to history, little noted and unremembered. A shadowy figure with no past who appeared in time to save the President’s life. Now he must disappear again and, like the future he had fathered, begin anew.
A light rain fell as he turned the assassin’s horse in the direction of the Naval Yard Bridge that led across the Anacostia River and south into the Confederacy. He knew the bridge should be lightly guarded.
Jack Clemons has a Masters in aerospace engineering and spent most of his working career on the Apollo Moon Program and NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. He has appeared on the Science Channel in the series “Moon Machines” and has written and made numerous presentations on the space program, on the importance of systems engineering (for non-engineering audiences), and on leadership.