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The President's Shadow
By Brad Meltzer
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A lethal message with terrible consequences for the Presidency.
Following The Inner Circle and The Fifth Assassin, #1 bestselling author Brad Meltzer returns with . . .
The President’s Shadow
There are stories no one knows. Hidden stories. I find those stories for a living.
To most, it looks like Beecher White has an ordinary job. A young staffer with the National Archives in Washington, D.C., he’s responsible for safekeeping the government’s most important documents . . . and, sometimes, its most closely held secrets.
But there are a powerful few who know his other role. Beecher is a member of the Culper Ring, a 200-year-old secret society founded by George Washington and charged with protecting the Presidency. Now the current occupant of the White House needs the Culper Ring’s help. The alarming discovery of the buried arm has the President’s team in a rightful panic. Who buried the arm? How did they get past White House security? And most important: What’s the message hidden in the arm’s closed fist? Indeed, the puzzle inside has a clear intended recipient, and it isn’t the President. It’s Beecher, himself.
Beecher’s investigation will take him back to one of our country’s greatest secrets and point him toward the long, carefully hidden truth about the most shocking history of all: family history.
Every time I write a novel, I convince myself I’m telling you a story about imaginary people. But by the end, I once again realize that the only story I can really be honest about is my own story. We’ve had a rough few years in my house. We buried both my parents and then, as I thought I was finally over it, I kept struggling through the seismic aftershocks and the inevitable identity quest that went along with it. Today I know: I’ll never get over losing my parents. And I don’t want to. They deserve to be remembered. These books—and the characters within—taught me that. So once again, I owe you, dear reader, for making these novels possible. On that note, I also owe massive thank-yous to the following: My first lady, Cori, who fought with me and for me, bringing me to the other side. C, you are my true love. I fight for you every day, and your input is felt on every page of this novel. I’m so thankful to have you there. Jonas, Lila, and Theo will always be my best blessings. I keep thinking I’m teaching the three of them, yet no one on this planet has taught me more about myself. I love each of you with everything I have. Jill Kneerim, my friend and agent, this book is for you. When I was twenty-three, you took that first chance. Along the journey of our friendship, you have educated me about writing—and about decency. You challenge me on every draft, and this book is the best of what you taught me; Hope Denekamp, Lucy Cleland, Ike Williams, and all our friends at the Kneerim, Williams & Bloom Agency. Also, an official welcome to the unstoppable Jennifer Rudolph Walsh and everyone at WME as they join our family. I so admire what you do, and here’s to many more together.
This book is about the power and emotional pull of family, but also about the definition of it. So I need to thank my sister, Bari, the one person who can both laugh and cry with me about our parents’ beautiful craziness. Also to Bobby, Ami, Adam, Gilda, and Will, who are always there with us.
Let me tell you who redefined family for me. Noah Kuttler did. There’s no one more loyal, more trusted, more dedicated. I can honestly say, he is always there for me. That is the definition of family we should all aspire to. I love you for it, Noah. Ethan Kline brings his big literary brain to every one of these books, shaping it for the better. Then Dale Flam, Matt Kuttler, Chris Weiss, and Judd Winick take those early drafts and give me the honesty I need to turn those pages into an actual book.
I could not write my imaginary President without the gracious help of President George H. W. Bush, who always shows tremendous kindness by answering my questions. Special thanks to First Ladies Barbara and Laura Bush, along with the amazing Jean Becker, for helping inform my imaginary counterparts. At this point, I hope my love of the National Archives is clear. But my work there could not have been done without Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, whose friendship is treasured. He is a host like no other (and I’ll admit, makes better pancakes than I do). Also at the National Archives (if you haven’t been, go visit), Matt Fulgham, Chris Isleib, Miriam Kleiman, David Mengel, Trevor Plante, and Morgan Zinsmeister once again helped me conjure my inner Beecher. Whatever the question, they knew the answers. Their friendship means the world to me. Additional thanks at the Archives go to Jay Bosanko, John Fitzpatrick, William Carpenter, and William Cira, who shared with me the coolest new details for the opening chapters. Thanks also to John Laster, Jana Dambrogio, Jon Deiss, and the memory of John E. Taylor.
In every book, there’s one person who goes beyond the call of duty. That person is Scott Deutsch. In eighth grade, when I first moved to Florida, I didn’t have any friends. Scott was one of the first who was nice to me. When he moved away, we lost touch for years—until a soldier in his unit in Iraq was reading one of my thrillers. That book led to our reunion, and to him being the true military adviser of this mission. Thanks for your kindness all those years ago, and for all you did here to keep the military details right. This book was also forever changed by my friend and hero Rochelle Shoretz, who shared the intimate details of her own illness. As you’re reading about Clementine, you’re reading about Rochelle. I love you for the trust, Roch. Also thanks to Eljay Bowron, Jim Mackin, Max Milien, Mike Sampson, and Emily Karcher for showing me even more reasons to admire the amazing work of the Secret Service.
Extra thanks to Nancy Russell, Dan Kimball, and Glenn Simpson for the Fort Jefferson details. They put up with every inane question, and in the process gave me my ending; Dan Ariely (go watch his TED Talk) for trusting me with the details of his own burns and hospital experience. I only hope I did it justice; Mike Ressler for Marine Band details; Ruth Martin for the green thumb; Mike Workman for his explosive expertise; my confidants Art DeHoyos and Dean Alban for their historical vision; Dr. Lee Benjamin, Dr. Michael Lemont, Dr. David Sandberg, Dr. Michael Steckbauer, and Dr. Ronald K. Wright for helping me maim and kill with authority.
Even more details came from Cris Alvarez, Kurt Bromund, Alan Brown, Paul Castronovo, David Funder, Wayne Greene, Gary Greenspan Michael Rogers, John Ryan, Jean Twenge, and Dan Watson; and the rest of my own inner circle, who I bother for every book: Jo Ayn Glanzer, Jason Sherry, Marie Grunbeck, Chris Eliopoulos, Nick Marell, Brad Desnoyer; David Watkins, Mark Dimunation, Matthew Bogdanos, and Bob Gourley. Finally, huge thanks to the USO for introducing me to so many of the incredible members of our armed services. My trips with you broke this whole book open—and gave me even more respect for what you do. And thanks to Don, Dan, and the other folks who anonymously enriched these pages. You know who you are. The books Dr. Samuel A. Mudd at Fort Jefferson by Robert K. Summers, Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, Diary of a Predator by Amy Herdy, Blank Spots on the Map by Trevor Paglen, and Women Who Love Men Who Kill by Sheila Isenberg were all greatly informing to this process; our family on Decoded and Lost History, and at HISTORY and H2, including Nancy Dubuc, Dirk Hoogstra, Paul Cabana, Mike Stiller, and Russ McCarroll for giving me so much; Rob Weisbach for being the first to take action; and of course, my family and friends, whose names, as usual, inhabit these pages.
I also want to thank everyone at Grand Central Publishing: Michael Pietsch, Brian McLendon, Emi Battaglia, Matthew Ballast, Sonya Cheuse, Martha Otis, Rick Cobban, Karen Torres, Beth de Guzman, Lindsey Rose, Caitlin Mulrooney-Lyski, Andrew Duncan, the kindest and hardest-working sales force in show business, Bob Castillo, Mari Okuda, Thomas Whatley, and all my dear friends there who change my life on a daily basis. I’ve said it before, and I’ll never stop saying it: They’re the true reason this book is in your hands. Super special thank-you to my fellow dreamer Mitch Hoffman, who never stopped pushing to make this book better. I love what we’re building, pal. Finally, I want to thank Jamie Raab. We’ve been together a long time. But what amazes me most about Jamie is that she always brings a new eye, new ideas, new enthusiasm. I respect her more than she’ll ever know. There’s no one like her. Thank you, Jamie, for your faith.
“History doesn’t repeat itself,
but it does rhyme.”
—attributed to Mark Twain,
though no one can prove
he actually said it
Every President has secrets. So does every First Lady.
Today, Shona Wallace was deep into her favorite secret as she knelt in the damp dirt, hiding behind the crabapple trees in the White House Rose Garden. On this cold March morning, she didn’t have to look for the cameras. She knew where they were. For now at least, no one was watching.
During the day, just a few steps outside the Oval Office, the garden was used for presidential press conferences and greeting visiting dignitaries. But now—at 5:30 a.m.—the outdoor garden was dark. Desolate. As if the First Lady were the last person left on the planet.
And really, wasn’t that the point?
Plunging her fingers into the dirt, Shona took a deep breath, letting the smell of fresh mulch transport her back to those days right after college when she and the President lived in that little yellow rental house in Michigan with the bad toilets and the narrow garden that flooded with every rain. Two weeks after moving in, she got the news that her mother had died. The garden saved her then. She cared for it, and it blossomed: Her matchless burgundy dahlias, which she used to wear in her hair. Three kinds of tomatoes. When they were running for governor, she dug up two hundred tulip bulbs from her mother’s garden and planted them in her own.
Even when your mother’s gone, and your husband’s working so hard he only comes home to sleep, you can count on your garden. You plant it; it sprouts; life blooms. That’s not some cheap metaphor for life; it’s a basis for sanity. Everyone needs something they can count on, a world they can own all themselves.
“Dammit!” the First Lady muttered, down on her knees and tugging with her bare hands on a buried tree root. The root was heading toward her precious bed of English bluebells, set to bloom this spring and perfect for cutting.
Even before Orson’s Presidency started, Shona had known she’d need a garden. During the campaign, she’d felt the burn that came with the spotlight of public life. And she’d had it all planned. On her very first night in the White House, she had sought out a little patch of land among the flowerbeds of the Rose Garden. It would be her ground. Her sanity.
Telling only the Secret Service, she’d slipped outside at five in the morning, knelt down in the dark, and planted the seeds of coral bells and morning glories. Many of the seeds came from her grandparents’ flowerbed by way of her mother’s. Shona had even grown early spring flowers in college, in an inconspicuous patch of ground she commandeered behind the dorm. She’d planted more flowers, even some vegetables, when she and Orson lived in that old rental house, and even later when they were in the governor’s mansion. Would she stop now, when she needed it most?
She never told reporters she was a gardener or tried to use it for political gain. Somehow that would ruin the purpose. No matter where life took her, or what her critics said (they had ripped her apart for gaining weight during the first year of her husband’s Presidency: “the freshman-fifteen First Lady”), here was the one patch on the entire planet where Shona Wallace, wife of the President, could run things just the way she wanted to.
“Gotcha…” the First Lady whispered, gripping the buried tree root and pulling hard. God, the cold March dirt felt good. And it smelled so fresh, full of promise. Winter had put so much on hold; she loved getting back to work in the earth. With a sharp tug, the root began to yield, though not by much.
Leaning on her left elbow and probing blindly into the dirt, the First Lady felt—
Something solid. Not a rock. The root felt weird, almost soft. Spongy. She turned and pulled a penlight from her tool kit, shining it into the hole and squinting down to see what was in there. Under the dirt, it looked light gray, but as she pulled it closer, it was greenish-blue, with a tint of pink. Like skin.
A hiccup erupted from her throat. The spongy root had— Those weren’t branches. It had fingers. Four fingers. Squeezed in a fist… An arm… Oh God! Someone was buried in—
Stifling a scream, the First Lady dropped the penlight, which fell into the hole. She jumped back, scrambling, crabwalking away from the pit. The press and early staff would be here any minute. Her body was shaking. Just don’t scream.
“Orson…” she whispered, stumbling toward the West Colonnade of the pristine white mansion. She was gagging and sobbing uncontrollably.
In the Rose Garden, the penlight still rested in the open hole, shining its little spotlight on a dirt-encrusted hand.
Each morning, the nurses watched him.
At 5:45 a.m., they’d see him step through the hospital’s sliding doors. By 5:50 a.m., he’d be up among the mechanical beeps and hisses of the ICU. And by 5:55 a.m., the young man with the boyish looks and sandy hair would approach the nurses’ station, dropping off that day’s breakfast: doughnuts, bagels, sometimes a dozen muffins.
The nurses never made requests for food, but over time the young man had learned that Nurse Tammy liked a pumpernickel bagel with a thin slice of tomato, and that Nurse Steven preferred asiago cheese. Over these past three weeks of hospital visits, they’d gotten to know him too. Beecher White.
“How’s he doing?” Beecher would ask as he presented his breakfast offering to the hospital gods.
“Same,” the nurses would say on most days, offering kindly smiles and pointing him to Room 355.
The dim room was sealed by sliding glass doors, frosted at the bottom and transparent at the top. For an instant, Beecher paused. The nurses saw it all the time, family and friends picking out which brave face they’d wear that day.
Through the glass was a seventy-two-year-old man with an uneven beard lying unconscious in bed, an accordion breathing tube in his windpipe, a feeding tube snaking through his nose and down into his belly.
“Okay, who’s ready for some easy-listening country music from the seventies, eighties, and today?” Beecher announced, sliding the door open and stepping into the room.
Aristotle “Tot” Westman lay there, eyes closed. His skin was so gray he looked like a corpse. His palms faced upward, as if he were pleading for death.
“Rise and shine, old man! It’s me! It’s Beecher! Can you hear me!?” he added.
Tot didn’t move. His mouth sagged open like an ashtray.
“TOT, BLINK IF YOU HEAR ME!” Beecher said, circling to the far side of the hospital bed and eyeing the pale purple scar that curved down the side of Tot’s head like a parenthesis. When Tot was first wounded and fragments of the bullet plowed through the frontal region of his brain, the doctors said it was a miracle he was alive. Whether he was lucky to be alive was another question.
Three weeks ago, during surgery, they shaved off half of Tot’s long silver hair, leaving him looking like a baseball with yarn sprouting from it. To even it out, Beecher had asked the nurses to do a full buzz cut. Now the hair was slowly growing back. A sign of life.
“You’re still mad about the hair, aren’t you?” Beecher said, pulling an old black iPod from his pocket and switching it with the silver iPod in the sound dock on the nearby rolling cart.
“Wait till you hear this one,” he went on, clicking the iPod into place.
Tot’s only response was the heavy in-and-out hiss from his ventilator. In truth, Tot should’ve been in a rehab facility instead of the hospital, but according to the nurses, someone from the White House had made a special request.
“I brought the Gambler himself,” Beecher added, hitting play on the iPod as a crowd started to cheer and guitars began to strum. “Kenny Rogers, live from Manchester, Tennessee, then another from the Hollywood Bowl, and a 1984 private corporate concert that cost me a good part of this month’s rent,” Beecher said, taking his usual seat next to Tot’s bed. One of the doctors had said that familiar music could be helpful to patients with brain injuries.
“Tot, I need you to squeeze my hand,” Beecher added, pressing his hand into Tot’s open palm.
Tot didn’t squeeze back. His ventilator coughed out another heavy in-and-out hiss.
“C’mon, Tot, you know what today is. It’s a big one for me. Just give me a little something…anything,” Beecher pleaded as Kenny Rogers began belting out the first verse of “Islands in the Stream.”
“By the way, Verona from Human Resources? She said if you wake up and come back to work, she’ll wear that tight black sweater she wore to the Christmas party. In fact, she’s here right now. In the sweater. You don’t want to miss this.”
“Okay, Tot, you’re leaving me no choice,” Beecher said. From his pocket, he pulled out a ballpoint pen, then turned Tot’s hand palm-down and pressed the tip of the pen into Tot’s nail bed.
At the sharp pain, Tot pulled his hand back.
In neurological terms, it was called withdrawal. According to the neurologist, as long as Tot responded to painful stimuli—like a sharp pinch or a poke with a pen—his brain was still working.
“It’s good news,” the doctor had promised. “It means your friend’s still in there somewhere.”
“C’mon, you chatty bastard—don’t ruin my big day. I’m not celebrating alone,” Beecher said, again pressing the pen into his mentor’s nail bed. As the skin below the nail turned white, Tot again pulled away, but this time… A nurse saw it from the hallway. Tot’s head moved sideways, as if he was about to say something.
Beecher shot up in his chair. “Tot…? Tot, are you—?”
Tot’s head sagged down, a string of drool falling from his bottom lip into his beard as Kenny Rogers—accompanied by Dolly Parton—continued to sing.
Slumping back in his seat, Beecher let go of Tot’s cold hand. A swell of tears took his eyes.
“It’ll happen. Give him time,” a female voice said softly.
Beecher glanced toward the sliding glass door. It was the nurse with the crooked teeth, the one who liked pumpernickel.
“It’s a brain injury. It doesn’t heal overnight,” she added.
“I know. I just wish he could—” Beecher stopped himself and swallowed hard.
“He’s fortunate to have you,” the nurse said.
“I’m fortunate to have him,” Beecher replied, standing up from his seat and wiping his eyes. He turned to the body in the bed. “Tot, you get some rest. I know you’re tired,” he added, leaning in and giving his mentor a gentle kiss on the forehead. “By the way,” he whispered into Tot’s ear, “if you’re good, I’ll bring you a photo of Verona in the black sweater.”
“If it helps, happy birthday,” the nurse called out as Beecher headed for the door.
“How’d you know?”
The nurse shrugged. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. Heard you say it was a big day.”
Nodding a thank-you and heading out to the hallway, Beecher glanced over at what bagels were still uneaten at the nurses’ station.
Each morning, the nurses watched Beecher.
Each morning, Beecher watched Tot.
But each morning, Beecher and the nurses weren’t the only ones keeping tabs.
Diagonally across the hallway, peering through the open door of the visitors’ lounge, the bald man known as Ezra eyed Beecher as he trudged down the hallway toward the elevators.
Ten days ago, Ezra had come to the hospital searching for the old man known as Tot. He knew Tot’s history. He knew what Tot had done all those years ago. And he knew that with a bit of patience and a side order of good luck, he’d find out everything else he needed just by sitting in this waiting room and studying who else came to Tot’s bedside.
A few of Tot’s coworkers had visited. There was an old lady who came every few nights and stroked Tot’s arm. But more than anyone else, there was the archivist. Beecher.
At the National Archives, Beecher was Tot’s protégé and best friend. In a way, he was also Tot’s family. And based on what Ezra had heard thanks to the nightlight-shaped microphone that he had plugged into the wall socket next to Tot’s bed, Beecher was most certainly a member of the Culper Ring.
“Want a bagel?” one of the nurses called out as she passed the visitors’ room. “We’ve got plenty.”
“I shouldn’t,” Ezra said, his slitted eyes curving into a grin. “I’ve got a big day ahead of me.”
There are stories no one knows. Hidden stories.
I love those stories. And since I work in the National Archives, I find those stories for a living. Most of them are family stories. This one is too. But it’s time for me to admit, as I once learned in a novel, when you say you’re looking for your family, what you’re really searching for is yourself.
“I see it on your face, Beecher. This is bad news, isn’t it?” Franklin Oeming asks, trying hard to look unnerved. In his mid-forties, Oeming’s got a thin face that’s made even thinner by narrow wire-rimmed glasses and a long Civil War–style goatee. He’s a smart guy whose specialty is declassification. That means he spends every day combing through redacted, top-secret documents and reading beneath the black lines. It also means he specializes in people’s secrets. He thinks he knows mine. But he has no idea why I’m really here.
“Just tell me how he’s doing,” Oeming adds.
“Same as before,” I say as I slide both hands into the front pockets of the dark blue lab coat that all of us archivists wear.
He studies every syllable, smelling a rat. Even though he’s in a suit, Oeming’s wearing an awful Texas-shaped belt buckle that displays the words Planet Texas in block letters. I have a matching one in my office. They were old Christmas gifts from the mentor we share, Tot Westman, who gave them to us as an homage to Kenny Rogers. We thought they were gag gifts. To Tot, they weren’t. “Planet Texas” is Tot’s favorite underrated Kenny Rogers song.
Needless to say, neither of us ever wore the belt buckles…until three weeks ago, when Tot was shot in the head and left in a coma. For luck or superstition, Oeming’s been wearing his since. I’ve been carrying mine in my briefcase.
“Beecher, I know you’re at the hospital every day. If the doctors say he’s getting worse—”
“He’s not getting worse. He’s the same. Last week, a nurse said he moved two fingers on his left hand. His right pinkie too.”
Oeming watches me carefully. For three weeks now, I’ve sent him daily updates by email. So for me to suddenly show up on the fifth floor and see him in person…
“This isn’t about Tot, is it?” he asks.
I run my hand over the back of my recently buzzed hair, but I don’t answer.
“Why’re you really here, Beecher?”
He puts enough emphasis on my name that just outside his office, I can hear a few employees in cubicles start closing files and covering papers on their desks. Oeming takes a step back toward his own desk and does the same.
Five floors below us, the National Archives is home to original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and twelve billion other pages of history, including Lincoln’s preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, the actual check that we used to purchase Alaska, and even a letter written by a twelve-year-old Fidel Castro to FDR, asking for ten dollars. If the government had a hand in it, we collect it, including the downed weather balloon that people thought was a wrecked flying saucer outside of Roswell, New Mexico. But like that weather balloon, which was classified for decades, when you store America’s history, you also get America’s secrets.
And as I said, secrets are Franklin Oeming’s specialty.
“I actually need your help with something,” I tell him, offering a grin.
He doesn’t grin back. “What kind of help?”
“I need a file.”
Oeming is a second-generation archivist. His mom used to work in the LBJ Library in Austin, and he grew up playing in the stacks and pulling rusty staples from important documents. That makes him more of a stickler than most, which around here is saying something. “You mind taking a walk?” he says, tilting his head toward the door.
Before I can answer, he’s out of his office, weaving around the cubicles and heading out to the Archives’ marble and stone hallway. Every person in a nearby cubicle is now staring my way. By the time I join him in the hallway, Oeming’s on my left, swiping a security card at a set of locked double doors. As I follow him farther down the hallway, he points to a set of square metal lockers, each one the size of a small safe-deposit box.
- "Clearly a history buff of the highest order, Meltzer knows his stuff, and he's included research from chats with none other than President George H.W. Bush....Beecher's got the mental acumen of Robert Langdon and the gumption of Indiana Jones, but unlike those globe-trotting types, Meltzer's protagonist is thrown into adventures made in the USA and acts as an awesome gateway into the deadlier aspects of American history."—USA Today on The Fifth Assassin
- "History and suspense collide in shocking ways - and the intensity never lets up. Beecher carries the weight of the story. He's a great character who will resonate with readers since he's like the fun next-door neighbor or your best friend in college....One of his best books to date...The ending of The Fifth Assassin appears to announce that Beecher White will return, and that cannot come fast enough."—Washington Post on The Fifth Assassin
- "Because not since the Fletcher Knebel seminal Seven Days inMay or James Grady's scathing Days of the Condor, has there been a political thriller as relentlessly paced or blisteringly effective as The Fifth Assassin. An early contender for the best thriller of 2013."—The Providence Journal on The Fifth Assassin
- "Full of surprises, action, twists and turns, it is a wild and entertaining (and yes, educational) romp, wonderful in every way...Read The Fifth Assassin and prepare to be entranced and enthralled."—BookReporter on The Fifth Assassin
- "All of Brad's books are a fascinating read. He is a great storyteller who keeps all of us on the edge of our seats."—President George H.W. Bush
- On Sale
- Dec 22, 2015
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Grand Central Publishing