Western Wednesdays—THE RELUCTANT ASSASSIN by Preston Darby

Imagine, if you will, that the infamous John Wilkes Booth actually survived his flight from the nation’s capitol after assassinating President Lincoln. When two men find a body and the lost memoirs of Booth himself, the clues lead to the development of a conspiracy more dramatic than Ford Theater’s production of Our American Cousin (for those of you who aren’t crazy history buffs like me, this was the play that Abraham Lincoln was attending the night of his assassination. Dramatic, indeed).

The Reluctant Assassin spans from Lincoln’s assassination to 1903, with many a colorful historical figure making an appearance along the way. But of course, John Wilkes Booth is the star of the show, and you’re sure to see a side of him you never thought possible.

If you’re into the National Treasure films, the Da Vinci Code, and other conspiracy-solving books and movies, then The Reluctant Assassin is sure to please!

PROLOGUE

“What I want to know is …is it human?”

In fifty years of medical practice I had encountered many peculiar experiences, but the most bizarre event occurred soon after I retired. It involved a man long dead, a man known to history as John Wilkes Booth.

Ken Casper, long-time friend, neighbor, and noted author, had recently acquired some long-abandoned ranch property along the sluggish Concho River near San Angelo and was busy renovating a dilapidated rock storage building.

Ken soon recognized a disparity in the measurements of two walls enclosing an interior room and suspected a concealed space between the partitions. When he had initially confided his suspicions to me, we had jokingly speculated over the possibility of hidden treasure. From the tone of Ken’s voice when he phoned me to come out right away, however, I knew whatever he’d found wasn’t treasure and it had rattled him.

“I don’t know what it is,” he answered my first question, his voice half an octave higher than usual. “Come see for yourself.”

Ken had been correct in his measurements. A double wall had been constructed between the rooms. Fragments of white limestone and mortar were piled below a manhole-size opening Ken had pick-axed through one wall. Without a word of explanation he handed me a flashlight and stepped back.

I hesitated. “What about snakes?”

Ken clucked his tongue. “With all the racket I’ve been making around here the last few days, any snakes have crawled to Mexico by now. Look in there off to the right.”

I flicked on the light and stuck my arm in the hole, then cautiously inserted my head and peered in the direction of the beam. Motes of dust obscured the flashlight’s rays, and at first I saw only the outline of an old wooden chair and what looked like a deteriorating black suit draped over it. I raised the beam slightly and jerked back so quickly I struck my head on one of the protruding bricks. There was something in the suit—something with shrunken hands protruding from the coat sleeves. Curiosity overcame my apprehension and I squeezed through the opening, then played my light up and down the apparition.

“My God, Ken, it’s a mummy.”

Ken snorted. “I figured that. What I want to know is …is it human?”

“Hold on, let me get a better look.”

I moved closer to the mummy. The withered hands certainly appeared human, four fingers—or what was left of them—and an opposing thumb. I attempted to move one of the hands from its resting place on the figure’s pants leg. With a whispery sound the entire arm separated from the shoulder, decayed cloth fell away, and I dropped the creature’s bony appendage as swiftly as if I had grabbed a rattler.

I forced myself to be calm, then squatted and focused my light where I expected the mummy’s face should be. The neck was flexed, but enough flesh adhered to the skull for me to know the discovery was human. As I backed out of the opening, I picked up the loose arm and called out to Ken.

“Congratulations. You’ve found a real human mummy. Here, let me give you a hand.” I extended the withered remnant out to him.

Ken recoiled, his eyes wide. “Oh, great. You’ve really screwed up now. I’ve written enough detective novels to know better than to disturb a crime scene.”

I reached inside the opening and laid the arm back in the mummy’s lap.

Ken nodded. “Oh, that’ll help.”

“We don’t know this is a crime scene,” I said. “Whoever he is, he’s been in there for decades. Maybe he’s a relative of somebody who owned this place. He was dressed, placed carefully in the chair, and walled in. So somebody went to a lot of trouble to hide him, right?”

“No doubt about that.” Ken shook his head slowly and walked over to sit on the window sill. “But what am I supposed to do? Wall him up again? That’s like Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado’.”

“Aw, Ken, that’s a murder story. I’d bet this guy was dead long before he was put in there. Anyway, we have to call the justice of the peace. First, he has to pronounce him dead”—I smiled wryly—“though that shouldn’t tax the JP’s neurons too much, and then he’ll probably order a forensic autopsy. The pathologist will try to identify the body, determine cause of death, find any evidence of foul play, get tissue samples for DNA testing. . . .” I trailed off, embarrassed at my oration, and shrugged. “What am I doing telling you about all this? You know the procedure better than I do and make a dern’ good living writing about it.”

“Just listening to see if you know your stuff.” Ken grinned and rose from his perch at the window. “Now let’s go call the JP and see if he knows his.”

After a cursory examination and considerable deliberation, our justice of the peace concluded that Ken’s mummy was indeed dead and could be removed to Foster’s Funeral Home. Attempts to encompass the mummy in a standard receptacle resulted in frustration for the attendants and further minor trauma to the body. Therefore, he was seated on a chair in the cooler to await the arrival of a forensic pathologist from San Antonio, the esteemed Dr. Nasir Taboor.

Three weeks passed. Only a small paragraph mentioning the mummy’s discovery made our San Angelo Standard Times. Somehow the newspaper’s brief account was relegated to the sports section.

Then I received a phone call from an uncharacteristically excited Ken Casper.

“Pres. I’m picking you up in five minutes. The pathologist just called. I could hardly understand the man’s accent, but he said he had found something ‘veeery interrresting’ in the mummy. See you.”

He hung up before I could speak.

Except for the unpretentious lighted sign on the front lawn, Foster’s Funeral Home could have easily been mistaken for any upscale colonial residence. Lush manicured lawns and meticulously trimmed shrubbery surrounding the edifice provided a sharp contrast to the usual potted cacti and concrete landscaping of downtown San Angelo.

Dr. Taboor had been given a small office to use while dictating his findings, and responded to our knock with a heavily accented: “Enter. Enter, please.”

After brief introductions, the gnome-like little doctor with tiny manicured hands bade us to—“Sit, sit.”—and almost disappeared behind the desk when he returned to his seat.

“Now you, Mister Casper, are the owner of this mummy, is that true?”

“I guess so,” Ken answered guardedly. “I found it, but I’ve not talked to a lawyer about the legalities yet.”

“I suggest you do so, sir, because of the very interesting findings in this case, you see.” Taboor leaned back in his chair, obviously enjoying the suspense he was creating. “Let me summarize.”

He placed a pair of ridiculously large horn-rimmed glasses on his prominent nose making him appear more hobbit-like than ever. After shuffling through a sheaf of papers on his desk for an exasperatingly long time, he began to read. “The mummy is an adult male without evidence of significant external trauma sufficient to cause his demise. There is an old well-healed fracture of the left fibula and a surgical scar on the posterior neck. His left arm has been recently separated from the shoulder. An old scar is present in the right eyebrow region and some deformity of the right thumb is present, probably secondary to a previous injury. The body is remarkably well preserved in a state of mummification.”

Taboor looked up from his papers and removed his glasses. “That’s probably because of the arid west Texas climate, as well as being hermetically sealed, so to speak, away from insects, animals, and such.” He perched the glasses back on his nose, pursed his lips in a sly smile, and returned to his notes.

“Now for the good part. A lengthy Y-shaped surgical scar extends caudally from the infra-clavicular areas to the xiphoid process and thence to the symphysis pubis. This incision was made post-mortem and roughly sutured.” Taboor squinted over his glasses at us and smiled wickedly. “All internal organs have been removed.”

Ken leaned over and whispered: “What did he just say?”

“Somebody gutted him like a hog.” Ken’s shocked expression indicated that my reply should be less graphic and more clinical, so I added: “I would suspect someone removed his insides to prepare the body for mummification.”

Taboor shifted impatiently in his chair. “If you please, gentlemen, I have not finished.” He paused until our attention was completely focused on him, and cleared his throat. “From the abdominal cavity, I removed this.” He reached into a drawer to produce an obviously heavy, thick, rectangular-shaped object wrapped in oiled leather, and placed it dramatically on the desk.

“My God,” Ken exclaimed. “It’s a book.”

The three of us stood and stared at the package for a moment.

“I did not open the wrapping,” said Dr. Taboor, “for presumably you are the rightful owner and should have that privilege.”

Ken needed no further encouragement, and slowly removed the fragile covering. “It looks like some sort of journal,” he murmured, “and there’s something written on the front.” He moved the desk lamp closer and bent over the book. “A True Account,” he read, “by JWB. What do you make of that, Pres?”

“I’ve always heard every man has a book in him.”

Ken and Dr. Taboor groaned.

“But seriously, folks,” I offered lamely. “This does look like someone’s journal or diary. Ken, I’d suggest you make sure you’re the legal owner before opening it.”

“I certainly agree, sir,” Dr. Taboor chimed in. “This is why I left it sealed, you see. I have obtained X-rays, dental films, and tissue samples for DNA testing which may help us to identify the mummy, but examination of this book could be crucial.”

“OK, OK.” Ken raised his hands in mock protest. “I knew I’d need a lawyer sooner or later. Now I’ll have to find out what to do with this book and the mummy.”

We thanked Dr. Taboor, and I sat in the foyer idly turning the pages of an old National Geographic while Ken phoned his lawyer from an adjoining office. Like an unbidden refrain—JWB—mummy, mummy— JWB—echoed in my brain. What was the connection?

“We’re all set, Pres,” Ken said as he entered, his face glowing. “Tom Davis says if I found the items on property legally owned by me, and there are no heirs to make a claim, the items are mine. I bought the land in a bank auction and the title is clear, so there are no other claimants. Tom’s going to send me a document with all the whereases and wherefores just in case, but says it’s OK to examine the journal and …dispose of the mummy.”

“Mummy . . . JWB,” I murmured.

“What?”

“I’ve got it.”

“Got what?”

“The connection. JWB…John Wilkes Booth, it’s his journal.” I stood up, trembling. “The mummy. . .”

“Oh, come on, Pres, be serious,” Ken interrupted. “Booth was killed in a barn somewhere in Virginia a couple of weeks after he shot Lincoln. How could a dead man write a diary?”

“Wait, listen. This time I’m not joking. When I was in high school, I wrote a term paper on Booth. Lots of people claim he escaped and ended up living in Texas.”

“Surely, you jest,” Ken said wryly.

“No, really. And I remember my grandmother telling me when she was a young girl, she saw a mummy at a county fair that was supposedly John Wilkes Booth.” I almost laughed at Ken’s incredulous expression. “Wait, there’s more. Booth’s diary was supposedly found on his body after he was shot. So what’s this?” I pointed at the volume.

“Hold on, hold on, old buddy. This time I’m calling your bluff. I’ll get my camera set up at home to photocopy this journal as we read it before it falls apart, and we’ll go through the entire document, page by page.”

Ken shook his head at me and grinned. “Every man has a book in him. You ought to be ashamed.”

True to his word, Ken had rigged his digital camera over a small table in his study and clamped a flood lamp on the tripod. The journal had been removed from its leather case and lay unopened under the apparatus. Ken reached to unclasp the cover, then paused dramatically. “I have a bad feeling we’re opening a real can of worms here, whatever we find.”

I nodded in agreement, feeling a little uneasy myself. “But my curiosity is killing me.”

Ken opened the book and adjusted his spotlight. Although the journal’s pages were fragile and yellowed with age, the spidery handwriting was distinct and legible. Ken’s prediction was confirmed in the first sentence.

BOOK ONE

Fear that man who fears not God.

Abd-el-kader

 CHAPTER ONE

I never intended to kill Abraham Lincoln.

I detested the old gorilla and his fawning sycophants, but was wise enough to know that he was much more valuable to our Cause as a pawn rather than a martyr.

So much drivel has been written concerning the events of April 14, 1865, and the weeks following, that I feel compelled to furnish this accurate narrative. After all, who should know the true story better than I? And at my present stage in life, I have no reason to lie.

Early in 1864, it was manifest to me that the South’s chances of effecting further stunning military successes and a negotiated peace were fading. Despite our best clandestine efforts the New York Draft Riots had not resulted in widespread demands by the Northern populace that Lincoln end the war. Even our fire-bombing of several hotels in New York City had not terrified the residents of that accursed city as we had hoped, and unfortunately only resulted in the capture and hanging of Robert Kennedy, one of our most valuable operatives.

I, therefore, concluded that our only salvation was a dramatic event which would demonstrate the hidden weaknesses of the Yankee government and the steadfast resolve of my beloved Confederacy.

We would kidnap President Lincoln, race to Richmond, and place him in the custody of authorities there. His release would be contingent on his despicable accomplices ending the war and recognizing the independent states of the Confederacy. To harm or kill Lincoln would be self-defeating and monumentally stupid. If I had truly wanted to murder him, I could have easily accomplished this task during his inauguration on March 4th. I am an excellent marksman and was positioned just above and behind him during his address, affording an elegant opportunity and a clear shot. But I harbored no desire to martyr this man or myself.

I am not at heart an assassin. What I did was done on my part with purely patriotic motives, believing, as I was eventually persuaded at that time, that the death of President Lincoln and the succession of Vice President Johnson, a Southerner fromTennessee, was the only hope for the South.

For more than a fortnight I had argued vehemently against any attempt at assassination, and in fact organized several attempts to kidnap the President. But faulty intelligence information, which I now know was intentional, thwarted every effort. The incompetence and downright stupidity of those whom I was forced to employ played no small part in our failures.

Notwithstanding these disasters, I continued to recommend kidnapping and initially refused to abide any discussion of alternatives in my scenario to eliminate Lincoln. My feelings on this subject did not change even after publication of incriminating documents found on Union Colonel Dahlgren detailing the federal government’s plot to murder our President Jefferson Davis.

However, unforeseen matters beyond my control forced me to alter this view.

On the 9th of April, 1865, our beloved General Lee surrendered. Not because he succumbed to the overwhelming forces arrayed against him, but to rescue his valiant troopers from starvation and death. The surrender of General Johnson and the remaining Confederate armies would soon follow. Therefore, kidnapping Lincoln to force a negotiated peace was no longer a viable option. Even if our current plans for his abduction had proved successful, the Confederate government in Richmond had collapsed, and there would be no official means of negotiation.

However, our plans for a kidnapping continued, for we hoped to bargain Lincoln’s release, unharmed, for more favorable treatment of the defeated Confederate States. I was unaware of any change in intent until just prior to an afternoon meeting with my colleagues at Washington’s Kirkwood Hotel on April 14th to finalize our plans for that evening.

We had learned through our sources that President and Mrs. Lincoln would be attending this evening’s performance at Ford’s Theatre. During intermission after the second act, a White House messenger would enter the box and tell the President that his presence was needed immediately at the War Department. His guards would have been lured away on a ruse, chloroformed, and replaced by our men.

The President, and Mrs. Lincoln if she refused to stay at the theatre, would be rushed to his carriage and escorted by a troop of horsemen disguised as Union cavalry to the homes of Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson. These notables would be forced to enter the carriage with the threat that the President would be killed immediately if they did not comply.

The entourage would then proceed into Maryland via the Navy Yard Bridge and be loaded onto a ship waiting at Benedict’s Landing on Chesapeake Bay. Such an outrageous plot seemed doomed to fail, but my reasoned objections were overruled by that idiot, James William Boyd, who had been designated agent in charge by Confederate sympathizers funding our venture.

Earlier that day I had learned that General and Mrs. Grant would be seated in the same box as the Lincolns, security measures would be even tighter, and the plan could not possibly succeed. I would attend our meeting only to inform the others I wanted no further rôle in this harebrained scheme.

No one had arrived at our selected meeting room in the Kirkwood Hotel, so I repaired to the comfortable bar for a small glass of brandy. One drink is never enough for me, for I staunchly believe the old maxim: “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.”

As I sipped my third glass, feeling quite mellow, an immaculately attired Union officer armed with sheathed saber and holstered pistol approached my table. Without uttering a word, he handed me a note and waited until I opened the envelope and read.

If you value your own life and the lives of your fellow conspirators, accompany my messenger.

It was unsigned.

Curiosity and the brandy overcame my momentary fear. I downed the remains of my glass and followed the silent officer up several flights of stairs and into the anteroom of a lavish suite. He motioned for me to be seated, then closed the door behind him as he exited into an adjoining bedroom. I had scarcely taken my seat in a plush, overstuffed chair when the officer returned followed by a man I recognized instantly.

Until I am confident this manuscript can be properly secured following its completion, I shall refer to this gentleman as Z. Suffice it to say that I had met this high governmental official over a year ago in Nashville after my performance in a play and had recognized him at several events in Washington. Coarse in manner and appearance, rough in speech, he was by birth a Southerner, but by no means a gentleman. I had never seen him completely sober, and he exhaled cheap liquor with his greeting.

“By God, Booth, we’ve got you and your bunch in the cross-hairs now, and I mean to pull the trigger. You’re the single person in your gang with enough sense to be of any use to me …the rest can hang for all I care. One of your cohorts”—an evil smile creased his face—“with a little encouragement and to save his own hide has confessed to your dastardly plot to kidnap the President. I can probably save this man from the noose, but I would offer you a better bargain.” The boorish man’s pig-like eyes narrowed to slits. “I know you as an accomplished actor, Booth, but let me warn you, don’t try to bluff me.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Even the most skilled thespian could not have concealed his shock at this vermin’s answer.

“Tonight, I want you to kill Lincoln.”

Evil exuded from this man like a vapor as he informed me that I would perpetrate this monstrous act or be killed on the spot by his armed guard, Colonel Browning. Investigators would be told that Browning was defending Z from my insane attack.

Recovering my speech if not my equanimity, I protested that an attack on Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre would surely fail and would be suicidal. Not only Lincoln’s bodyguards, but a military contingent protecting General and Mrs. Grant would surround the Presidential box. Even if the attempt should prove successful, there could be no escape through the narrow corridors and passageways of the theatre.

If, by some miracle, I could escape the theatre, all bridges from Washington were constantly guarded by soldiers who allowed no one to exit the city without a secret password. As a matter of fact, my young companion, David Herold, and I had recently been detained for hours at the Navy Yard Bridge before being allowed entry into the city.

Z smirked, and signaled to Browning. The menacing, silent man immediately poured a tumbler full of bourbon for him from an ample supply on the ornate sideboard. He downed half the glass without wincing, then looked me up and down like a predator readying his kill.

“I dearly love a good old Tennessee fox hunt,” he drawled, “but it’s boring if the fox has no hope of escape.” His ghoulish smile returned. “So let’s say I’ve changed the odds a little.”

I then learned that General and Mrs. Grant would not accompany the Lincolns, having received an urgent message that their daughter was ill and required their presence. No guards would be outside the President’s box except “my man, Parker” who would be called away at an appropriate time. A password, to be furnished after the deed was done, would satisfy guards stationed at the bridge. There would be other attacks on “the Lincoln bunch” in Washington as a diversionary measure. Once out of the city I would be on my own—“With all the hounds of hell nipping at your heels.”

Surely the brandy had confused my reason more than I realized. I felt sure much of what he had told me was false, and he could not allow me to escape once I had killed the President. But I could die knowing I was a martyr to my cause, famous beyond belief. Far better, I decided, than dying here alone, impaled on Browning’s saber. This faulty decision would haunt me to my grave.

I rose and swallowed to control my voice. “I have little choice, sir, but to do as you wish. I would ask that you spare my friends, guilty only of….”

“You fool!” Z roared and leaped to his feet, shoving his face close to mine. His breath was foul. “Save your heroics for the stage. I will see you all hang. You, Booth, are being given a chance only because I have need of your detailed knowledge of Ford’s Theatre. Accept . . . or face death now.”

I dropped to my seat and nodded slowly. The die was cast.

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