January 24, 2012 Leave a comment
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!
“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.