Book excerpt

The Curse of Cain

J. Mark Powell and L.D. Meagher

Tor/Forge

The Curse of Cain
OneTHE MISSIONRichmond, Virginia February 1865 
A muffled drumbeat rolled down the street. It echoed off brick buildings in counterpoint to the patter of rain. Matching bay horses draped in soggy black crepe stomped their hooves and sent impatient clouds of steam from their noses. People lining the street bowed their heads as a squad of soldiers filed out of St. Paul's Church carrying a coffin through the steady drizzle.An old man watched from the sidewalk in front of the church's massive portico as the funeral procession pulled away. To his right, an Irishman scratched absently at his thick, black beard. To his left, a minister from a nearby church silently recited the Twenty-third Psalm.The hearse shed a stream of rainwater as it turned south onto Ninth Street. The old man passed a hand over his wet, flowinglocks. He shifted his gaze across the street to the statue of George Washington, which dominated the high ground of Capitol Square. He looked up through a latticework of barren tree branches to the flagpole atop the Capitol building. The Confederate national flag hung limp in the rain. There was no sign of the St. Andrew's Cross in its upper left-hand corner. On this day, only its field of white was visible.The old man sighed as he put on his tall black hat. "Anyone going out to the cemetery?""Not I," the Irishman muttered, looking up into the leaden sky dripping cold drizzle. "Not on a day like this.""I can't go either," the minister added. "I have to perform a funeral at my own church.""There's been more than enough of those lately," the old man noted. His eyes followed the funeral procession on its stately trip down Ninth Street. "Just ask poor General Pegram there."The minister shook his head. "We are losing the bravest men of the Confederacy.""Don't worry yourself." A grin spread through the Irishman's whiskers. "Soon we'll have the Negroes armed and in the trenches alongside our white soldier boys. That will teach the Yankees a thing or two, eh, Ruffin?""You sound more and more like a walking editorial from that newspaper of yours," the old man answered."Just doing me bit for the noble Cause," the Irishman sneered.The minister tugged at his frayed black velvet waistcoat. "If ever there was a time for Christian charity ...""Charity won't bring poor Pegram back," the old man observed as the drums died away in the distance. "Nor will it produce a new commander to lead our troops.""It isn't officers we're needing." The Irishman snorted. "It's a commander in chief who knows how to fight a war."The minister's eyes widened. "How dare you disparage the man who stands between us and the vile Yankees! Why, if the president were here--""He is, Reverend Hoge." The old man nodded toward the church steps. The President of the Confederate States of America stood bareheaded in the rain with the late general's family. Drizzle collected on the small tuft of beard at the bottom of his long face. His crown of gray hair gave him an air of distinction. He started to speak, then coughed. A racking spasm seized him. Two army officers rushed to his side and helped him back into the church."There's your savior of the Southern Cause," the Irishman spat. "Can't even take care of himself, much less look out for the rest of us.The minister peered down his long nose at the Irishman. "All the more reason for us to give him every ounce of support.""The Yankees are already at the city's back door, man. Are we to follow him like lemmings off the side of a cliff?" The Irishman's voice rose. "Are we to allow that fool to destroy the very last hope of our independence? Why, if there was a single member of Congress with an ounce of spine, Davis would be hauled before an impeachment proceeding."The old man spotted a familiar figure emerging from the church. He caught the man's eye and smiled. "Here's the very sort of man you described. Hello, Congressman."The newcomer offered a wan smile. His ashen face and bloodshot eyes contrasted sharply with the rich green brocade of his vest. His finely cut black coat, like everything else in the Confederatecapital, had been patched often. He mumbled a greeting."Perhaps you can settle an argument," the old man went on, nodding to the Irishman. "My passionate friend from the newspaper says our country needs a new president." He tipped his head toward the minister. "My compassionate friend from the clergy says our country needs more prayer. What do you think?"The congressman shrugged. "What we really need is a way through that damned Yankee blockade. With Fort Fisher fallen and Wilmington in a vise grip, we're cut off from our lifeline to England and France. The hard times of this winter will seem a fond memory come spring."The old man frowned. "That's a particularly harsh assessment.""Reality is harsh, Ruffin," the congressman replied. "We're already hard-pressed to feed the people of Richmond, not to mention the army. In another few weeks, there won't be a shop in the city with anything to sell.""My point exactly," the Irishman thundered. "The mismanagement of this government is criminal." He wheeled on the old man. "Is this what you planters saw in our future when you raised the banner of secession? Is this the vision that filled your mind when you pulled the lanyard on that cannon aimed at Fort Sumter?""Don't browbeat him, Mitchel," the minister objected."He is entitled to his anger, Reverend." The old man squared his shoulders, then glanced at the Irishman. "Even if it is misdirected.""What do you mean?""The source of our troubles is not to be found over there." The old man gestured toward the Capitol. "Were Thomas Jefferson himself to walk among us again, I have no doubt he would find the task of protecting the South every bit as daunting as PresidentDavis does. No, my friends, the true problem is not in the Confederacy." He lowered his voice to a menacing whisper. "It's our enemy. Our implacable, tyrannical foe who will not rest until he has crushed the skeleton of every Southern man to dust.""We must pray for deliverance," the minister intoned."Pray if you like," the old man growled. "But the Good Lord helps those who help themselves."The Irishman threw up his hands. "What more can we do? We hurl our armies at them, but the Yankees keep coming."The old man stroked his chin. "We must find a more effective strategy. Something that would strike at the very heart of the matter.""And slice it out," the congressman added.Ruffin cocked an eyebrow. "Yes. If there were only some way to remove the offending organ."A look of resolution settled on the face of the congressman. "That would require the services of a surgeon." A grim smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "A gifted specialist. If only there were such a man ..." 
 
She was snoring. The flare of a match sent light dancing across her naked form. Her hair was a dark waterfall cascading over her shoulder into the pool that was her breast.Beautiful girl, he thought.She snored again.Pity, he told himself as he drew the smoke from a long Havana. Unbecoming in one so lovely. And so talented. Slowly, he exhaledand closed his eyes. He recalled her laughter as he'd unbuttoned her dress, how eager she had seemed for him to take her, like so few women of her calling.He tried to remember her name as he pulled on his trousers. Annie? Amanda? Adelaide? Did it matter? Soon she would be a memory. Basil Tarleton seldom bothered to catalogue such memories by name.He cracked open the door, allowing a sliver of gaslight to slip into the room. This woman might be worth remembering. She had kissed and caressed him with a passion he had seldom experienced. As he buttoned his fly, he thought of her hands. They seemed drawn to his body, eager to touch, to explore.Amy, he remembered at last. Her name was Amy.Tarleton reached into the pocket of his overcoat draped across a chair. His fingers slid quickly past an envelope and a pair of gloves to settle on what he needed. He gripped it in his palm as he walked back to the bed and stood over her.She shifted to one side. Her breasts jiggled lightly. He smiled, remembering their soft texture. Her mouth fell open and another snore blasted across the room.In a single lightning movement, his left hand clamped down on her mouth as the knife in his right neatly sliced her throat. Her eyes bulged open. He pressed harder to suppress her scream, ducking to avoid a stream of blood.Her frantic kicking quickly subsided to a feeble twitch. With a final gurgle, she fell limp, her brown eyes staring up at him.Tarleton wiped the knife on the sheet and returned it to his coat pocket. Then he finished dressing.There was a faint tap on the door. "Mr. Tarleton?"He walked over and opened the door. "Miss Rosalie," he said warmly."I trust everything was to your liking?" The owner of the highest-priced brothel on Cary Street stood with one hand on her ample hip. The other hand, heavily decorated with gold and silver rings, delicately held a smoldering cheroot."As always." He smiled."A fella showed up at the front door and asked me to give you this." She passed him a calling card.MAJOR ROBERT MORTON was printed in bold black script. Flipping it over, Tarleton found a note written in a crabbed hand: "Will you please call upon me at one o'clock tomorrow afternoon in Room 46 of the Spotswood Hotel? It concerns a matter of the most serious nature. R.M."He mulled over the message as he tucked the card into his vest pocket. The phrasing suggested this Major Morton was a man of substance. Tarleton smiled. That meant money. As he shrugged on his overcoat, he felt the comforting pressure of the loaded revolver he kept inside."Tell me about the gentleman who delivered it.""He was no gentleman." Miss Rosalie puffed on her cigar. "A squat, dumpy little thing," she continued. "He was long past his last shave, and longer past his last bath."Tarleton rubbed a thumb along his sharp jaw. He revised his image of Major Robert Morton, and his calculations of the man's net worth, sharply downward. "Did you tell him I was here?"Miss Rosalie smiled. "I hope you know me better than that, Mr. Tarleton."He returned the smile as he reached into his pants pocket and removed a wad of currency. He flipped through the bills, bypassing the green Yankee notes. "I know I can trust you." He handed her two red Confederate fifties. "And you know I appreciate the trouble you go to for me."Miss Rosalie folded the bills into her palm. "It's no trouble at all, Mr. Tarleton."He stepped back into the room and picked up the carpetbag he'd concealed behind the armchair. Miss Rosalie advanced a step into the room and looked in puzzlement at the stain spreading across the bed. Tarleton produced a Confederate hundred-dollar bill."That should cover the cost of cleaning this up," he said, dropping the note on the foot of the bed. He retrieved his flat-brimmed hat from the side table, tipped it toward his hostess, and strode out the door. 
 
At precisely one o'clock the next afternoon, Tarleton stood outside Room 46 in the Spotswood Hotel. He passed his hand through his carefully trimmed dark blond hair and gave the waistcoat of his suit a quick tug. Then he rapped smartly on the door.It opened to reveal a fat, shabbily dressed runt who smelled of foul beer. Tarleton narrowed his eyes. "Are you the one who sent for me?""I sent for you," a voice called from within the room. The disheveled troll stepped aside and allowed Tarleton to enter.He let his eyes dart quickly around the room. The wallpaper was peeling, the drapes were frayed, and there was a musty odor in the air. Tarleton remembered when the Spotswood had been the pearl of the Confederacy, playing host to glittering Southern ladies and their dapper escorts. The best Richmond society couldproduce these days was the occasional "starvation party," full of false bravado but sorely lacking in amenities. Such as food.Tarleton's gaze fell on the other man in the room. He looked more like a "Major Morton" than the lout who had admitted him. The man's dark green brocade vest may have seen better days, but it was freshly pressed and matched the cravat knotted at his throat.He spoke in a rich baritone with a pronounced drawl. "I appreciate your punctuality, sir. May I offer you a drink?"Tarleton's smile did not touch his icy blue eyes. "Perhaps later.""Please make yourself comfortable." The man waved toward two faded armchairs. Tarleton glanced at the short, fat man still standing at the door. "Harry does odd jobs for me," his host explained, "when he's not fleecing some poor soul with a deck of cards. Harry, take Mr. Tarleton's hat and coat."Tarleton glowered at Harry. "That won't be necessary." The unkempt gambler remained frozen where he stood. Tarleton turned back to the other man. "Your message suggested we have important business to discuss. You must know that all my business is conducted in strictest confidence." He glanced again toward the man at the door."I assure you, Harry is very discreet."Tarleton eyed Harry, who seemed to shrink under his gaze. "I certainly hope so.""Come sit down." The man placed his hand lightly on Tarleton's arm and steered him toward a chair. "I'd like to offer you a proposition I believe you'll find quite rewarding."Tarleton settled into the chair and placed his hat on his lap. "By all means, Major." He smiled again. "Or should I say 'Congressman'?"His host lifted an eyebrow. "You know who I am?"The smile stayed fixed to Tarleton's face. "Robert Standiford is your name. You represent Georgia in the Confederate Congress."Standiford returned the smile. "I'm impressed.""I also know that you once served in the United States Congress, but quit Washington to return to Georgia and agitate in favor of secession." Tarleton's smile dimmed. "Perhaps that's why General Sherman paid special attention to your holdings south of Atlanta, and why your son Adam, when he was wounded at Peachtree Creek, was left unattended by Yankee doctors." He shook his head. "A belly wound, I am told, is a most unpleasant way to die."Standiford's face lost its color. His mouth was hanging agape as he stared at the expressionless man before him. Tarleton held his gaze and waited."Why," Standiford finally sputtered, "why, sir, I must say ..." He cleared his throat. "I must say, Mr. Tarleton, you seem to know quite a lot about me."Tarleton bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment. "And may I return the compliment, Congressman? It's not everyone who would know to leave a message for me at Madame Rosalie's.""That was Harry's doing." Standiford had regained some of his composure and offered Tarleton a small smile. "He has his uses." He cleared his throat again. "To business, then?"Tarleton nodded."I would be willing to engage your services," the Congressman began, "for the sum of five thousand dollars."Tarleton regarded him coolly. "Not interested.""I assure you, five thousand dollars is a respectable amount of money."Tarleton cast a dismissive gaze at the bare floor planks, discolored in the shape of a missing carpet. "Perhaps to the denizens ofthis hovel. I would suggest you engage one of them to do your bidding.""I am a man of some standing, you know." Standiford sniffed. "I could hardly be seen trafficking with riffraff from the streets of Richmond."Tarleton glanced toward Harry and snorted derisively. Standiford pressed on. "This is a most delicate matter. I require the services of a professional.""Then allow me to offer a professional opinion." Tarleton picked idly at unseen lint on his hat. "For five thousand dollars, you could perhaps rid yourself of a wealthy maiden aunt who had outlived her usefulness or a sticky-fingered underling at a small retail establishment. I judge neither example describes your present circumstances.""Certainly not."Tarleton's gaze swept across Standiford's face. "Just who is it you wish to be rid of?""Abraham Lincoln."Tarleton's eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed in contemplation. He absently tapped his finger against his pursed lips."Don't you wish to know why I want Lincoln dead?" Standiford asked."Not particularly.""That vile man has supervised the unjust, illegal, systematic destruction of the Southern people," Standiford hissed, his face growing flushed. "Lincoln has made it his personal mission to--""Enough," Tarleton said sharply. "My relationship with my clients is strictly a business matter. Whether it's a wayward wife, a crooked partner, or someone the client just plain doesn't like, it's all the same to me.""Even when the target is the President of the United States?""Well, there is that." Tarleton idly rubbed his finger along the brim of the hat on his lap. At last, he said, "Not for a mere five thousand. You'll have to do better than that. Much better."Standiford frowned. "How much do you want?""Twenty-five thousand dollars.""What?" Standiford exploded."In gold.""Dear God! You have nerve, sir!""I have nerve?" Tarleton gave a quiet laugh. "You ask me to kill the President of the United States and you say I have nerve? No, Congressman Standiford, it is not I who has nerve."They stared at each other."Ten thousand, cash," Standiford countered."Twenty. Ten in gold, ten in Yankee greenbacks. That is my final offer.""That amount can be secured." Standiford swallowed in defeat. "I'll have to talk to some people." He gestured his minion toward him. "Harry has already secured a mount for your trip north.""Tell him to have it ready at dusk."Impressed, Standiford arched his eyebrows. "You do not waste time, sir.""A great deal of money is at stake.""The horse will be at a livery stable near here." The congressman smirked. "With the cavalry rounding up every piece of horseflesh they lay their eyes on, it's the last place they'd look for one."And the money?" Tarleton prompted."You will receive five thousand tonight.""And you will deliver the rest after I complete the job.""Agreed." They shook hands solemnly."Now," Tarleton said, "I believe I'll take you up on that drink." 
 
A string of ambulances slowly groaned past. Jack Tanner stepped to one side so he could see around their tall canvas coverings and keep his eyes fixed on the hotel entrance across the street. The wind hit him full in the face, making him clutch his threadbare gray uniform jacket tight at the collar and huddle against a brick wall.Two years in the Confederate Provost Guard had taught him patience was even more important than cunning when trying to capture a suspect. For three hours he had stood on this busy corner, eyes focused on the Spotswood Hotel. He stomped his feet to fight the cold, aggravating the shrapnel wound in his thigh.As Jack rubbed the sore spot, he finally caught sight of the prize he had so patiently sought. A stump of a man in a coat more ragged than his own exited the Spotswood, turned the corner, and headed down Eighth Street toward the James River.Jack ignored the complaints from his throbbing leg and set off after him. The man passed the door of the oyster bar on the side of the hotel, then paused at the next corner to let a horse-drawn artillery piece rattle past. By the time he crossed the street Jack was on his heels.When they reached an alley farther down the block, Jack lunged forward and shoved his quarry into it. He slammed the little man against a wall and wedged a forearm against his throat."If it isn't Harry Kincaid." Jack leaned forward until his nose was nearly touching Kincaid's. "Remember me? I ran you out of town three months ago. I broke up your crooked little card game three months before that. I told you never to set foot in Richmond again four months before that. Remember, Harry?"The gambler's piggish eyes blinked rapidly. "Sure, I remember." Beer-laced breath puffed out of his mouth.Jack grabbed Harry's lapels and jerked him upright. "A lot of folks want to talk to you. First in line is that young fella you cheated at cards last week. You remember him, don't you?""Sure, whatever you say"A grin cut across Jack's face. "It's not what I say. It's what the attorney general's nephew has to say. You picked the wrong pigeon this time."Harry panted."The attorney general has been on my back all week to nail you. Confess and maybe he'll go easy on you." The only response was the man's stale breath. Jack again pressed his forearm against the man's throat. "I'm tired of chasing your sorry ass all over town. I can throw you back inside that hellhole of a stockade and make you so miserable you'll wish you'd died as a child. Or maybe I'll just march you down to Petersburg and let you starve in the trenches with the army."Harry shook his head, his eyes bulging, lower lip trembling."What's it gonna be?""How's about ..." Harry gagged on the words. Jack eased the pressure on his throat. The gambler coughed and sputtered. "How's about, maybe, you and me making a little deal?""What could I possibly want from you?"Harry's eyes narrowed. "Maybe I know about something that's coming up, see? Maybe I tip you to it in time to stop it.""What are you going to do? Squeal on some poker players you owe money to? Have me bust up their game for you?"Rivulets of sweat streamed down the little man's face. "Nothing like that. Honest. This ain't no small-potatoes card game." Harry lowered his voice and leaned toward Jack. "It's big.""How big?""Biggest thing I ever heard of."Jack gazed evenly at the gambler while his mind sorted through his options. Harry Kincaid was the worst sort of gutter trash and couldn't be trusted. On the other hand, he did socialize with the sort of people who might have information useful to the Provost Guard. "I'll give you one minute to convince me.""Not here." Harry nodded toward a vacant building a few paces down the alley. "In there." Jack led the way, dragging Harry by the collar. He stepped inside and cautiously looked around. The building was a deserted shop, one of the many driven out of business by the Union naval blockade and the wildly inflated Confederate money.Jack backed Harry against a wall. "All right, talk. What have you got that's worth saving your filthy neck?"Harry took a deep breath and said in a low tone, "Some men in this city are planning murder."That was the last thing Jack expected to hear. He was ready for Harry to describe a swindle or maybe a robbery. But murder? "Who's the target?""You ain't gonna believe it.""You're probably right."Harry drew himself up to his full, if insignificant, height. "Abe Lincoln."Jack paused, then threw back his head and let loose a roaring laugh. Harry blinked rapidly, then halfheartedly joined in."You're one funny man, Harry," Jack said as he gasped for breath. "That's the best one I ever heard. You expecting me to save your sorry hide for a wild story like that!" There was more laughter. This time, Jack laughed alone."It's the truth," Harry insisted. "I was there when they planned it."The laughter subsided, but a smile still creased Jack's cheeks. "Who? Jeff Davis and General Beauregard?""No, no." Harry reached up to clutch Jack's sleeve. "I'm telling you straight. I was there in the hotel this afternoon when they set it all up. I even arranged the meeting between Congressman Standiford and that fellow Tarleton."The smile evaporated from Jack's face. "Who did you say?""Robert Standiford. Congressman from Georgia."Jack waved the name aside. "The other one.""Tarleton. Got himself some fancy first name.""Basil Tarleton," Jack muttered."That's the one.""What do you know about this Tarleton?"Harry shrugged. "Got himself a reputation for solving other people's problems, if you know what I mean." He tilted his head back and scraped his forefinger across his throat. "I heard about him when I was working the Mississippi riverboats.""I've heard about him, too." Jack recalled the case of a wealthy planter killed the previous summer. There were no witnesses, no suspects, just a name whispered in dark corners--Basil Tarleton. When he had tried to track the man down, he'd learned Tarleton disappeared even before the body was cold, apparently aboard a blockade runner bound for Europe. "And you say you've seen him?" Harry nodded. "What does he look like?""Tall." Harry lifted his hand well above his head. "Thin as a rail. Dressed to the nines. A real pretty boy. Blond hair. And those eyes." He shook his head. "Those blue, blue eyes.""Lots of people have blue eyes."Harry shook his head. "Not like these. They're cold as a lizard's belly. Makes your skin feel tingly just looking at 'em."Jack finally released his grip. "You think he could kill Lincoln?"Harry's gaze was unblinking. "Sure as I'm standin' here."Jack scratched his head. His instincts told him to believe Harry Kincaid. His brain screamed a thousand reasons why he shouldn't. He eyed a wooden chair and kicked it toward the toady little man. "Sit down and tell me everything you know.""I've got a horse hidden at Green's old livery stable on Tenth Street. Place has been empty for months. I'm supposed to give this Tarleton feller the horse, and a big pile of money, at dusk."Jack examined Harry's features closely, looking for any telltale sign the man was lying. He found none."You'll be there, Harry. And I will be, too." 
 
A dark figure slipped through the rapidly fading sunlight. He was dressed entirely in black from his battered felt hat to his unpolished boots. One hand clutched a blanket roll, also dyed black. He hurried unnoticed down Main Street, then turned into an alley behind Tenth Street.He followed a soft yellow glow through the open doorway of an abandoned stable. A lantern cast a pallid light on a swaybacked knock-kneed gelding. He dropped his bags and regarded the nag. "You call that a horse?""Get the hell away from him." Harry emerged from the shadows and moved protectively in front of the animal. "What's your business here?" He jutted out his stubbled jaw and glared at the man before him. "Mr. Tarleton? Is that you?""Who else would come to this godforsaken shamble?""For a minute there, I thought you was a preacher.""That is exactly what I wanted you to think."A nervous smile twitched across Harry's mouth. "Kinda early, ain't you?""I'm ready to go now." Tarleton strode to the horse, took its head between his hands and carefully examined its eyes and teeth. "Where's the money?""It's all packed up for you over in the corner." Harry grabbed a currying brush and hurried toward the horse. "I'll have him ready in just a minute, Mr. Tarleton."Tarleton slapped the brush out of Harry's hand. "He's ready enough. Fetch me that blanket.""But Mr. Tarleton--"The tall man took one step forward and leveled his cold eyes on Harry. "The blanket, you insignificant cur. Now.""Yes, sir," Harry said as he groped behind him for the blanket draped over the wall of the stall.Tarleton jerked his head toward his mount. "Step lively. I'm in a hurry."Harry sidled to the horse and tossed the blanket over its back. "Mighty fine idea, Mr. Tarleton." He busied himself arranging the blanket. "No sense wasting the last bit of sunlight. After all, you got a lot of miles--"The wooden stock of a revolver smashed into the base of Harry's skull, stopping his words in midsentence. He reeled forward, blood flowing freely from the open wound. He seemed to catch himself for a moment before tumbling backward, crumpling to the floor. His head came to rest on a pile of dried manure.Tarleton allowed himself a satisfied smile as he slipped the revolver back into his pocket. He stepped over Harry's body and finished saddling the horse. Then he scanned the corners of the stall until he found two saddlebags. Inside were wads of crispFederal currency. He grabbed a handful and started counting the assorted tens, twenties, and fifties, even the occasional hundred-dollar bill. It was here, all five thousand dollars of his deposit.He flung the bags onto the horse, then strapped his blanket roll behind the saddle. Tarleton made a final check of the rigging, mounted the animal and rode off. 
 
The sound of hoofbeats caught Jack's attention. One didn't often hear a lone horse in Richmond anymore. He checked his pocket watch. Quarter to six. Though the last fingers of twilight were still falling through bare tree branches, he hurried the last two blocks to the stable.From the doorway, he saw a lantern's faint glow. He stepped toward it. "Harry," he called in a low voice. No response. A furrow cut across his brow. He took another step forward. "Harry, you in there?" Jack drew his revolver and crept toward the light coming from an empty stall. "Harry?"Something caught at his foot. It was all his bad leg could do to hold him upright. He staggered a few steps before turning to see what had tripped him.One look told Jack that Harry's luck had finally run out. The little gambler seemed even smaller and more pathetic in death than he had in life."Damn it to hell!" Jack returned his revolver to its holster and bent down to lay the back of his hand against the dead man's cheek. The body was already getting cold. He crouched over Harry Kincaid and cursed the day he had first set eyes on themiserable little man. Cursed him for telling him about Tarleton. Cursed him for getting himself killed. Cursed him for leaving Jack empty-handed. He cursed Harry for forcing him to figure out what to do next, for leaving him with nothing more than a vague description of the killer.He lowered himself stiffly to his knees and bent over the dead man. "What do I do now, Harry?" He stared into the lifeless eyes of the shabby little gambler. He cupped Harry's chin in his hand. Jack felt the stubble of his beard and the clammy chill of death on his skin. He looked again into Harry's eyes, then reached up and pushed his eyelids closed.Jack walked outside and lifted his eyes to the gray clouds rolling across the darkening sky. By the time he reached the Spotswood Hotel, Standiford would be gone. And Basil Tarleton was on his way to Washington City.Jack knew there was only one thing he could do. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his coat and started walking.It was fully dark as he began climbing Capitol Hill on Twelfth Street. The cold air was ripe with the odor of coal and wood smoke. Candlelight flickered in the windows of the fashionable houses on his right. The street was lost in shadow. The gas supply for the street lamps must be out again, he decided.Jack hunched his shoulders against the sharp wind blowing up from the river against his back. He chided himself for dithering over gas and candles when he had more important matters to consider.Such as what he was going to say when he reached the house at the corner of Twelfth and ClaySuch as whether this long, cold walk was a fool's errand.He had almost decided to turn around when he spotted the imposing mansion that was his destination. Chandeliers glitteredin the top-noor windows, framed by pairs of ornate columns rising along the formal façade.A sentry stood near the southwest corner of the President's House. As Jack approached, he snapped to attention and called for the countersign."Vigilance," Jack responded.The man waved him forward and shouldered his rifle. Jack could hear the sentry's teeth chatter.The sentry box at the Clay Street corner was empty. Jack turned right and saw another soldier walking his post in front of the house. Jack called out to him and again was waved on.He stopped at the front steps. This side of the house was much less ornate than the other. Rows of windows rose three stories, framed by gray stucco walls. A single pair of slender columns guarded the dark double doors. A dim light illuminated the fan-shaped glass panel above them. Jack took off his hat and passed his hand through his thick brown hair. He tucked his hat under his left arm and straightened his jacket. Then he climbed the marble steps, pressed the doorbell and waited.After a few moments, the doors opened. A black servant in a long dark coat stood before him. Jack explained he had a message for the president. The servant stepped aside and allowed him to enter.Jack walked into an oval-shaped foyer. The man asked Jack to wait as he backed out of the room and disappeared through a doorway on the left.Jack glanced around. He'd never been inside the President's House before and probably never would be again. He had little time to study the elegant surroundings.A dark-haired young man in a black suit strode into the foyer. He extended his hand. "I'll take it, Captain."Jack looked from the man's hand to his face. "Take what?""The message." The man snapped his fingers. "Give it to me.""It's for the president."The man's eyes narrowed. The edges of his luxurious mustache turned downward as he pursed his lips. "The president is very busy. Now, give me the message.""You don't understand," Jack said evenly. "I need to deliver this message to the president personally""Who sent you?""No one, sir. I--""I don't have time for this," the man said wearily. "I'm the president's secretary. Give me your message and be on your way."Jack now realized he was speaking with Burton Harrison, a close confidant of Jefferson Davis's who had once lived here in the President's House. Jack swallowed a lump in his throat. "I have information about a criminal conspiracy that could strike at the heart of the Confederacy. It requires the president's personal attention.""What sort of conspiracy?""As I said, this matter demands the president's personal attention."Harrison crossed his arms across his chest and gave Jack an appraising gaze. "Do you have any idea what the president is doing right now? He's in there." Harrison cocked his head toward the doorway. "With General Lee and General Bragg. They're trying to figure out how to stop Sherman from marching through North Carolina and joining up with Grant at Petersburg. And you want me to interrupt them?""Yes, sir," Jack replied evenly."And you won't tell me why.""I can't, sir."Harrison shook his head and brushed his mustache with his forefinger. "What's your name and unit, Captain?""Jack Tanner, Provost Guard.""I'll give you credit, Tanner." A small smile twitched through Harrison's mustache. "You have brass. Wait here." He turned and disappeared through the doorway.Jack wiped his forehead and wasn't surprised to find it damp with sweat. He stood still and locked his eyes on the yellow wall of the foyer. He was certain Harrison would be back any second to order him away. His mind was racing, trying to organize the information he had gathered in a way that would convince Harrison he wasn't a lunatic. He fought down a creeping sense of despair. Even if he had to argue with Harrison all night, he simply must tell the president about the plot he had uncovered.Harrison was suddenly before him again, wearing an expression of exasperation and bemusement. "I'll admit, I never thought I'd be saying this," Harrison told him. "But the president will see you.Jack followed as Harrison opened a carved wooden door leading into an ornate formal dining room. Jack took one step inside and froze.He was face-to-face with the most powerful men in the Confederacy. His eyes were drawn immediately to one of the figures seated at a long oval table. There was an aura of quiet confidence about him. A mane of white hair, a carefully trimmed white beard, deep creases around clear black eyes that were trained on a map spread out before him. He looked up and Jack found himself staring at the man who commanded the movements and the loyalties of every soldier who wore a gray uniform.Robert E. Lee.Jack couldn't move. He could scarcely breathe. He might havestood in that spot all night had the moment not been broken by a guttural cough. Across the table, General Braxton Bragg sat stooped and scowling. His gaze, hooded by the crag of his eyebrows, pierced Jack to the core. He coughed again, then brushed his grizzled beard with his fingers and turned toward the third man at the table.President Jefferson Davis sat between his generals, intently reading a document laid out before him. He flipped through the pages, seeming not to notice Jack or Harrison as his eyes raced over the papers. He sat erect, completely focused on his reading. Jack stole a glance around the room, noting the rich red wallpaper, the carved marble fireplace with its glowing coals, the portrait of George Washington on the opposite wall, the fine golden chandelier. The president looked up.Jack was shocked to see the ravages carved into his face. His gaunt features were pale and deeply creased. Lines radiated from around his eyes. His formal bearing seemed to mask physical frailty. For the first time, Jack wondered if the president would be able to bear up under the strain of the war."This is Captain Tanner," Harrison announced.Jack gave the sharpest salute of his life."Harrison tells me you have an extraordinary message, Captain," Davis said."Yes, sir." Jack waited for further instructions, but none came. The men looked at him. He realized they were waiting to hear his story. "I have reason to believe a serious effort is afoot to murder the President of the United States."He summoned his resolve as he began to talk. Step by step, he recounted how his search for a small-time card cheat led him to a member of the Confederate Congress, a notorious hired killer, and a plot to kill Abraham Lincoln. He continued withoutinterruption until he had detailed the discovery of Harry Kincaid's body."Mr. President," he concluded, "Basil Tarleton is on his way to Washington City at this very moment. Unless he's stopped, he may well commit the most outrageous crime of the age. Whether he succeeds or fails, his actions could be laid at the foot of this government. In fact, the Yankees might blame you personally, sir."Out of words at last, Jack stood rigidly at attention. His posture masked his relief. No matter what happened now, his conscience was clear. He had done his duty."This is most irregular, Captain," the president said quietly. "Most irregular.""You should have gone through the proper channels," Bragg growled."Begging the general's pardon, but there wasn't time, sir."Bragg brushed aside the objection. "I hardly think a junior officer can be expected to make that kind of decision.""You don't believe the report, General Bragg?" Davis asked.Bragg knitted his thick eyebrows. "There are crackpots and hotheads capable of anything. But a single report from a small-time criminal is insufficient cause for action."Davis nodded thoughtfully. "General Lee?"The white-haired warrior gave Jack a thoughtful look, then turned toward Davis. "I have served with a great many officers in my time, Mr. President. I have learned a very important lesson. No officer, junior or ranking, would risk his commission unless he was absolutely convinced he is right."Jack watched as the president reached for a white ceramic container holding a half dozen black cigars. "These gentlemen do not share my taste for tobacco, Captain." Davis handed a cigar across the table. "Care to indulge with me?""Thank you, sir," Jack said as he accepted the president's offer. "If you don't mind, I will save this for later.""As you wish." Davis took another cigar and held it up. Harrison stepped forward and clipped the end, then struck a match for the president before retreating from the table. "Now let us consider this report of yours," Davis said as the first wisp of smoke swirled around his head.Bragg wrinkled his face and leaned away from the offensive smell. Lee sat motionless, his dark eyes taking Jack's measure.Davis sat back in his chair, puffed deeply and stared into the thin white cloud he had created. "This is not the first such plot we've heard of.""And you can be assured it won't be the last," Bragg quickly added. "Desperate times make for desperate men. Those whose faith in the Cause has been weakened by our recent reversals are liable to attempt any manner of foolishness."Davis frowned. "I hardly think flagging patriotism is grounds for lunatic actions, General.""Lunatics don't need much more."Davis studied a smoke ring as it floated across the table. "Perhaps."Lee shifted slightly in his chair. "This situation is not unique to us, Mr. President. Our adversaries must also contend with the mentally unhinged running loose with wild schemes. You will recall the unpleasant Dahlgren matter last winter."Davis exhaled another long finger of smoke. "Dahlgren." He spoke the name softly, almost tenderly, as if recalling a lost friend.But Dahlgren was no friend. Jack knew the name all too well. Ulric Dahlgren, a young Union officer, had been killed almost a year earlier while leading a cavalry raid just outside the capital. He carried papers indicating he was under orders to kill JeffersonDavis and his cabinet officers. The North had repudiated the orders, but Southern skepticism lingered.Bragg snorted. "After what they tried to do to you, why not let this killer ..." He cocked an eyebrow at Jack. "What's his name?""Tarleton, sir.""Right. Why not let this Tarleton go after Lincoln?"Lee stiffened. "A government founded on Christian values would never condone such a thoroughly evil act, General."Davis shook his head. "I cannot be responsible for how the United States conducts its affairs. But I will not permit the Confederate States to overlook something so fundamentally vile, so horrendously wrong as this."Bragg rubbed a patch of boils that covered the back of his left hand. Jack wondered how much the pain was driving his words. "If Lincoln is stopped, the entire Federal war machine is stopped. That means independence.""That means certain defeat!" The voice was so forceful, every head in the room swung to see if it was actually coming from Lee's mouth. He was leaning forward, his cheeks flushed above his immaculately trimmed beard, his eyes angry black diamonds glimmering with restrained rage. "The men of my army have not sacrificed everything to defend a government that would sanction wanton murder."Bragg also leaned forward, his face equally aflame. "Unless decisive action is taken, there may not be any government in a few weeks."Jack looked across the room at Harrison, who had drawn himself so tightly against the wall he almost seemed part of the wallpaper."The government, indeed our very country, survives, General Bragg, because my thin line of brave men is keeping those peoplefrom entering this city. When my soldiers lose faith in the principles that guide and sustain this nation, there will be no more army. And that will mean ..." Lee's words trailed off, their implication too clear to require explanation.Smoke climbed from Davis's cigar, erecting a thin barrier between the two generals who glowered at each other across the table. The president leaned forward, tapped his cigar on an ashtray, then stubbed it out. A ribbon of smoke rose from the stump. His eyes followed it upward, then shifted to the portrait of the first American president on the wall. He sat motionless, contemplating Washington's face for a long moment.At last, Davis shot a sidelong glance at Lee, who gave a barely perceptible nod. "There is no doubt about which course we must take," the president announced.Bragg slumped in surrender.Jefferson Davis looked Jack squarely in the eye. "Do you know this man Tarleton?""I have some familiarity with him, Mr. President."Davis stood up and clasped his hands behind his back. "This government disapproves in the strongest possible terms of the sordid crime in which he is apparently engaged. Nor can we stand idly by as he prepares to carry it out." His voice deepened as he spoke slowly and deliberately. "I charge you, Captain, with finding Basil Tarleton and stopping him. Use whatever means it takes to ..."--Davis groped for the right word--"assure that he never poses a threat to the Federal president. Do I make myself clear, Captain?""Very clear, sir."Davis bent down, dipped a pen in a bottle of black ink, and began hurriedly writing. "Proceed to Washington immediately. This order relieves you of your duties. Give it to your commandingofficer." He waved the paper dry and held it out. Jack stepped quickly toward the table and took the order. Davis began writing again. "This document will guarantee your safe passage through our lines." He passed it to Jack, who nodded and folded the papers into his jacket pocket."When you have completed your mission, you will report to me, here, in person. Understood?""Yes, sir."Davis drew himself up to his full height and set his jaw as he studied Jack's face. "Your country is counting on you."Jack swallowed hard. "I understand, sir."The President of the Confederate States nodded slowly. "Good luck, Captain."As Jack walked out the door, he realized he was still holding the cigar."It's going to be a long night," he said to himself as he tucked it in his pocket and stepped out into the biting cold of Clay Street.Copyright © 2005 by J. Mark Powell and L. D. Meagher

J. Mark Powell is a veteran journalist currently working as a Congressional staffer.  L.D. Meagher is a journalist and broadcaster.  This is their first novel.