Monday, August 29, 2011

Free First Chapter - At Harper's Ferry


            Lawrence Hanson gently closed the back door to the office building and craned his neck to look both ways.  The flame of the gas streetlights reflected on the puddles of the lifeless street.  His pulse quickened with the fear of what he had just done.  He held a satchel tightly in his hands and felt the dampness of his palms slide against the leather.  Anxiety sent the blood rushing to his cheeks, and he felt sick to his stomach as his eyes continued to dart across the gloomy shadows.
            Out of nowhere, a sudden shaft of light struck Lawrence squarely in the face.  He froze in panic from the voice that came from the darkness.
            “Hold it right there!  What are you doing here?”
            Lawrence’s heart beat so quickly that he could hear the blood rush through his ears.  He uneasily turned to the direction of the voice and saw it was a watchman holding his lantern.  They patrolled the grounds of the War Office Building at night, keeping it safe from intruders.  Lawrence had the bad luck of meeting one making his rounds.
            “I-I-I work here,” Lawrence stammered.
            This watchman was a pudgy man with a sloppy cap hiding a bushy mess of gray hair.  His voice was hard and doubtful when he asked, “Do you now?  And who exactly do you work for, my lad?”
            “Mister Forsythe.”
            “I see,” the watchmen’s voice softened.  “Why are you out so late?  The office was closed hours ago.”
            “I was asked to work late,” Lawrence lied easily as his pulse began to return to normal.
            “Well then, be on your way.  And make sure to be careful out there since you never know who is prowling around this time of night.”  He touched the brim of his cap in respect and returned to walking his rounds.  His footsteps receded into the night, the shaft of light bouncing along the wooden boardwalk.
            Lawrence let out a pent up breath and wiped his sweaty brow.  Fighting the urge to run, he forced himself to slowly continue along his chosen path.  “In another hour,” he thought to himself, “I will finally be free.”
            He turned onto the main road.  As the sound of his footsteps died away, a tall man in a ranger coat stepped out of a shadowy doorway.  He silently followed in the same direction as his quarry.  The man’s steps were quiet and sure as he stayed in the shadows, far enough behind to remain undetected.  A smile crossed his thin-lipped face.


            Lawrence arrived at the Gay Lady Saloon a little later than he had hoped.  The normal crowd of workmen was only just beginning to thin as they began to stagger home for the night.  However the air was still thick with smoke and the smell of spilled beer.  He pushed past the crowded bar and looked in the back corner toward a row of high-backed booths.  There sat the man that Lawrence was supposed to meet. 
            The man was impatiently drumming his fingers against the table.  Lawrence made his way to the back corner and remained standing.  The tall man, who had been following him, came through the door and quickly caught up.   
            As Lawrence stood there, the man in the booth finally stopped drumming his fingers.  He looked up and slowly smiled.  He nodded at the tall, dark-haired man behind Lawrence.  “You can go now, Stevenson,’ he murmured with the same lazy smile.
            “Yes, Mister Abbott” the man called Stevenson replied.  Before turning away, he quickly looked Lawrence over again with cold, dead eyes.
            “So you came after all,” Abbott said to Lawrence with a smirk. “Now go ahead - sit down and join me in a drink.”  He poured out a shot of whiskey for Lawrence and one for himself.
            Lawrence sighed, shrugged his shoulders in resignation and sat down across from Abbott.  “I didn’t mean to be late,” he started. “It just took a little longer than I expected.  My office is staying busy late into the night with the news of Fort Sumter.  I just had to wait until everyone else left.”
            Abbot waved his hand, dismissing Lawrence’s tardiness.  “It doesn’t matter.  I’m just not used to meeting in such an establishment as this, but places like this do have their uses.  Who’s going to remember seeing us here out of this crowd?”  His hand loosely held the whiskey glass, and the bottle next to it was none too clean and nearly half empty. “Your lateness didn’t bother me much, though I was beginning to doubt your courage in this matter.  I just hope you brought what I requested.  Otherwise, you won’t be receiving your – ahem – payment.”  His smile widened and his voice was thick with innuendo as he continued. 
            Lawrence’s eyes shot daggers at Abbott, his brow lowered. My courage should never be doubted.  And I assume that you would get money out of her if you could, unfortunate woman.”
            Abbott grinned. “Men in your position should be more careful before they fall in love with a married woman.  And especially if it’s a woman who sold those letters to me.”  He gestured lightly to himself, his hand resting on his chest. 
            Lawrence’s face flushed.  “It’s none of your business who I fell in love with,” he said.  “If you had any decency, you would have left me well alone.”
            “Yes, but it became my business.  Perhaps you shouldn’t have written all of those letters to her in the first place,” his face cracked into a nasty grin.  “It was only a matter of time before they were in my possession.  Little did I know how useful they would end up being.”
            Lawrence’s face was red with anger and his voice trembled as he spoke.  “I’ve paid for those letters once before, and I’ve got what you requested here as well. This had better put an end to it all,” Lawrence said loudly.  He corrected himself and lowered his voice, hoping they hadn't been overheard.
            Abbot leaned closer towards him and spoke almost gently, “I think not, Mister Hanson.  There are several other small matters you can help me with.”
            “I’m not certain that I know what you mean.” Lawrence replied.  His anger was rising while the cool words escaped Abbott’s mouth.
            “Let’s not continue to play games.  We will need even more secrets from your office.  The Secessionists will come to rely on plans such as this, and how better to get them than from the War Department?”
            Lawrence’s hand slipped off of his glass in surprise.  He jerked to his feet and his voice once again rose in anger.  “I’m in enough danger as it is. You just can’t expect anything more from me.  I have taken more than enough risks already.  What I have done is traitorous.  If I am discovered, it will be the end of me.  I will be sure to take you along on the ride to the gallows.”
            “Be quiet you fool!”  Abbott warned him before looking over the saloon, checking to see that Lawrence’s words had not been overheard.  No one appeared to be paying them any attention.  He continued, “Now sit down and listen to me.  This business of selling documents could be quite profitable for all of us.  I don’t intend to let all that money be had by someone else, and your frail conscience will not stop me.  If you don’t do what is suggested, it may be a mistake you will  live to regret.”
            Lawrence sat back down, looking miserable.  “The only mistake I made was hoping that you could be reasoned with like a gentleman.  I will not give you these papers, and by my honor, I shall give you nothing else.  I will report this to the Under-Secretary in the morning and will take whatever punishment they mete out.”
            “Let’s think a bit more carefully before we do anything rash,” Abbot protested.  “Now give me those plans right now, and we can talk about this at a later time.”  He filled Lawrence’s glass again and watched him intently.
            Lawrence looked at the glass for a moment and then slid it away.  “No, I’ve made my mind up.”  His voice still trembled slightly but had a determined tone.  He slammed the table with his palms, stood up and walked away.  He was quickly out of the saloon with the satchel and its contents still in his possession.
            As Lawrence departed, Abbott shook his head and then found the eyes of his man Stevenson.  He gave him a quick wave of his hand.  With a nod in return, Stevenson walked out through the mass of drinking men and made his way to the front door to follow Lawrence into the night. 

Chapter 1

            Jack Blackwood lit a cigarette and leaned back heavily in his old office chair.  He had just finished reading the morning paper which lay on the desk before him.  It had detailed the latest on the continuing Secessionist crisis.  With the election of Abraham Lincoln, several Southern states had already voted to leave the Union.  Federal troops were moving to Washington to protect the capitol from the Rebel States.  The crisis in South Carolina had resulted in the bombardment of Fort Sumter, which had fanned the flames of war.  Virginia, which was directly across the Potomac, was voting soon to determine if they would secede, and their decision was the current concern of the fracturing  nation.  Already Secessionist sympathizers in Baltimore had cut telegraph lines and destroyed bridges leading to Washington.  While reporting to Washington, the 6th Massachusetts Regiment had been attacked by an angry mob.  The soldiers were then forced to open fire on the crowd.
            Jack touched his fingers together and blew smoke up at the ceiling, studying the patterns against the morning light flooding through the windows.  He wasn’t much bothered by the coming war but was more interested in the possibilities it could bring.  With the clouds of uncertainty over the city, there was money to be made.
            Jack then stood up and walked over to the window, looking over the low-rent district where he lived.  His office was in a corner building, above a tailor shop and it gave him an excellent view of the surroundings.  The street below was still wet with mud from a light morning rain and the wagon wheels had cut deep tracks in the muddy road.  Along the wooden boardwalk, the bustle of foot traffic around the stores could be seen.  He could hear the newsboys, the cries of street vendors, and the slow rhythmic sound of horses pulling heavy wagons.   
            Off in the distance, Jack could see smoke in the air from the many campfires of the large encampment stationed outside the city.  The increased presence of the Army had brought in packs of camp followers - ladies of the night, whiskey peddlers, pawn brokers, and traveling salesmen.   There was a sense of fretfulness and excitement which hung heavily over the entire city.
            Jack turned away from the window, looking over his office; at his desk with his familiar office chair, a coat tree, the chair for the rare customer, the old banker safe in the corner, and a gun rack with several well-polished pieces.  He took a turn around the room, continuing to smoke and ponder the future.  His head was hurting badly from the night before, but it helped if he didn’t stay still for too long.
            He rubbed his grizzled chin and swallowed hard, feeling his dry tongue clinging to the roof of his mouth.  Last night he had gone out drinking and could still feel the effects in his veins from the almost continual flow of whiskey.  The saloon he had visited was busy with activity as people threw caution to the wind and had played their card games like Judgment Day was just around the corner.  He himself had little money to spend playing cards, but enjoyed watching the rush of worried humanity act in their foolish ways. 
            There was a creak of the floorboards as the side door leading into the living area opened.  His partner Ezra stepped in.  Ezra was a lean ex-slave who had worked with Jack these past many years.  His dark face was scarred on one cheek from an old knife fight, but a sharp intelligence could be seen beneath the brown eyes.  Self-taught in reading and writing, he had escaped from Mississippi when he was younger and made his way up north.  Jack had met him while working on another case, and they had been inseparable ever since.   Over the years, Ezra had developed a deep knowledge of Washington by knowing the various servants of this well-to-do of the City.  He also had several paid informants within the underworld of prostitution and gambling.
            Jack smiled at his old friend, and then threw a dollar coin on the desk.  He said, “If you don’t mind Ezra, do me a favor and pick me up a pint of whiskey and some more cigars.  A little drink is in order right now – you understand, just to get my wits in order.”
            Ezra shook his head and leaned against the door frame to study his friend.  “You should be more careful the way you spend your money on liquor.  We only have a few dollars left and it’s been weeks since we were able to pickup any kind of work.”
            “Don’t worry, Ezra, I always manage to find us work.  With all these recent troubles, I can feel something good coming.  This year is going to bring both of us plenty of money.”
            Ezra looked at him in disbelief.  He said stiffly, “I’m not worried about this year, I’m worried about next week.”
            “I’m certain we have enough to last us until I can scrounge something up.”
            “I hope you are right,” Ezra said with little confidence.
            “Now do me a favor and get that drink for me.”
            Ezra shrugged, took the dollar and then turned to leave, whistling under his breath as he went down the side stairs. 
            Jack continued to slowly pace the floor, a cloud of smoke following him as he went.  The floorboards squeaked lightly as his heavy boots shuffled along.  He rubbed the side of his graying temples, and wished his headache away.
            A few minutes passed by, and then the silence was broken by a hesitant knock at the front office door.  Jack stopped in surprise.  He then went to the door.  Looking through the thick leaded glass, he saw a young woman standing in the hallway. Jack opened the door slowly.
            A sweet feminine voice said, “Excuse me, I wasn’t sure if I had the right place.  I’m looking for a Mister Jack Blackwood, the detective.”
            “Well, missy, you seem to have come to the right place.  I am Jack Blackwood at your service.”  He gave a little bow and motioned her towards the chair across from his desk.  “Now what can I do for you  Go ahead, let me hear you out.”
            He held the chair for her as she sat down and then walked over to the other side of the desk.  He stood behind it, waiting for her to begin.
             Not looking at Jack, she instead gave the room a careful scrutiny.   Jack, inwardly wondering at her thoughts and hesitation, decided to take his own seat while he waited for to start her story.  As he waited for her to begin, Jack looked her over with appreciation – she was in her mid-twenties, with no wedding band on her hand, a pale face, and was wearing an expensive brown dress with burgundy trim.  Long blond hair hung down beyond her shoulders where a small matching brown bonnet hung around her neck.  She was obviously rich and well-groomed – the product of wealth and proper schooling.  Jack decided that she was quite beautiful, but with that slightly pouty mouth that indicates a woman who was used to getting her way.  Her eyes appeared tired, with circles underneath and redness at the corners.  She fidgeted and continued to look over the dusty office.  She then took off her gloves and nervously twisted them in her hands.
            Jack could tell that she was worried.  She was also obviously not used to visiting the poorer side of town.  He decided it would take some doing to get the story out of her.  “Please, what can I do for you?” he said smoothly.  “You must not worry since everything discussed in this office is quite confidential.”
            She licked her lips, revealing a dainty tongue, and began to talk in a high timorous voice.  “Dear sir, my name is Faith Hanson.  I was sent by my father, the Honorable Daniel Hanson, to ask for your help.  You once did a small service for my dear uncle, James Dawson, when he was in a most delicate situation.  We are hoping you can do the same for us.” 
            “Yes, I remember that case.  It was a violent rather than a delicate situation.  I ended up with a knife wound from that blackmailer.  But please, do continue.”
            She gave him a small shy smile before continuing with her story.  “My brother has been most mysterious lately.  And now he is gone.  We need someone to help us.”  She then shook her head with confusion and sighed.
            “What exactly are you asking from me, miss?” Jack asked.
            “Please, I made a bad start of it.  Let me start again from the beginning.”
            “Go ahead.”
            She cleared her throat.  “Last year, my brother Lawrence started working for the War Department as a clerk.  My father got him the job and it seemed to suit Lawrence rather well.  He spoke highly of his superior and seemed at ease at his new workplace.  But the past month he has become most agitated.  Lawrence has been out late nearly every night and rarely comes home anymore after work.” Her hand grabbed an embroidered lace handkerchief she’d placed in her sleeve, and she dabbed her eyes, and paused to regain her composure.
            As she spoke, Jack imagined he knew the type of person.  They would try to lead a secret life, which would eventually catch up to them.  The drinking would begin to take over and, after awhile, they would feel unable to return home from the shame.  They would end up stuck in some cheap room with a bottle in hand, drinking their life away.  Jack had seen what could happen to a man when the bottle became his life.  He smiled reassuringly at Faith, dropped a little of his formal demeanor, and became more frank.  “Perhaps he has met a woman, got drunk, or wants to play a few cards after work.  Young men are always out and about these days.”
            Faith blushed lightly and looked away from Jack’s searching gaze.  “My brother isn’t quite that kind of person,” she said shyly.  “He has always been most kind to my father and me.  We are a good family and are sympathetic towards each other.”
            “Well, what is your problem then?  I could make the rounds and see what business is keeping him up after hours.” Jack said.
            “That’s not the problem,” she sniffed.  “You see, he has disappeared.  On Tuesday morning, he told me he had to go see a man that evening.  He said not to worry, but he looked most troubled.  He did not come home that night or even on Wednesday.   After making inquiries at his work, we found that he had not been there since Tuesday.  That’s when we decided to find someone to help us.”
            “Have you contacted the City Ward?” Jack asked coolly.  He was almost ready to dismiss the case since he was not interested in spending his time tracking down a wayward young man who was probably trying to drink his problems away.  “They’re pretty good at finding out where people are hiding.  Your brother could be in jail and is too embarrassed to send word to your father.”
            “The City Ward?” she replied with a hint of sarcasm.  “They are undermanned and are too busy rounding up drunken soldiers to help us.  We need someone who is exclusively dedicated to helping our family.”
            “I see,” Jack said slowly.   The thought of dismissing the case faded into the past as he thought of the cash possibilities.  He was currently short of money - it would only take a few inquiries and then he could get the payoff from the Hanson family.  “Do you have any idea where your brother could have gone?” he finally asked.            
            She played with the fingers of her gloves and said, “I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Mister Blackwood.  You see, the War Department is now investigating Lawrence.  His supervisor, a Mister Forsythe, came to our house to inquire of his whereabouts.”
            “What did they want from you?” Jack sat up straighter, now growing more interested.
            “Some important papers are missing, and they say they have proof that my brother was involved in their theft,” she sighed.  “This man Forsythe has accused my brother Lawrence of stealing these documents to sell them to the Secessionist States.”
            “Do you know what information the papers contain?”
            “I do not know.  We know my brother cannot have done this.  He would never do anything so terrible as to betray the trust given to him.  It would be totally against his character.”
            “You might be surprised what a man can do who is caught in the wrong situation.”  He leaned back into his chair and frowned at the ceiling, wondering where Ezra was with the pint of whiskey.  Jack then cleared his dry throat and continued on.  “This man your brother was going to see, do you know his name?”
            “Not quite a name, but a clue to where he could have gone.  Early this morning, with my father’s permission, I took the liberty of going through my brother’s room.  I found this message in his dresser drawer.”  She handed a small slip of wrinkled paper over for Jack to read.
Meet me at the Gay Lady Saloon at Eight O’ Clock tonight – A.

            Jack looked the paper over before placing it on his desk.  “This indeed may be a clue to where he has gone.  Do you know anyone with a name beginning with A?”
            “My brother did meet with a man named Abbott on occasion.”
            “What do you know of this man Abbott?”
            “There's not much that I can remember, but perhaps my father may be able to answer your questions in more detail.”
            “I would be more than happy to talk to your father,” Jack replied.
            “Please stop by to give us a moment of your time.”  Smiling, she jotted her address down on a slip of paper and then rose to leave.
            Jack looked at her and paused as if remembering something important before he spoke.  “I have a few early business appointments this morning, but I will come over as soon as I can spare the time.  If your father agrees to my bill of ten dollars a day, then I will be willing to look into this matter.”
            “We shall agree to pay anything if you can find my brother,” she said. 
Jack followed her as she walked to the door.  “Please make your mind at ease,” Jack said soothingly.  “I will be by with my partner as soon as I can.  If anyone can find your brother, it will be us.”
            She turned to smile at him and nodded.  She then left, taking the stairs in haste.  Jack watched her with interest before shutting the door and returning to his desk.
            Some moments later, Ezra stepped in through the side door holding a small pint of whiskey and a packet of wrapped cigars.  He saw Jack sitting behind his desk, methodically cleaning his old Starr revolver.  Jack looked up and grinned at him with his eyes twinkling.  Ezra set the bottle on the desk in front of Jack. “By that look on your face, there is something going on.  You only look that way when money is jingling in your pockets.”
            Jack picked up the bottle and pulled open the cork stopper.  “I told you something would come along.  We have a missing person case on our hands.”  He took a long grateful pull from the bottle and sighed with contentment.
            “That doesn’t sound like much of a job,” Ezra said, grumbling.
            “Hold on and let me finish.  There are some missing papers involved.  The War Department is also looking for this Lawrence Hanson.  If we can get him back to the family before he is caught by the government then they are sure to reward us rather well.”
            “That sounds a little more profitable,” Ezra said with renewed interest.
            “Now what do you know about the Hanson family?  One father named Daniel Hanson, a son called Lawrence, and a pretty little creature called Faith.”
            Ezra thought a moment before answering.  “They are an old Washington family that has been involved in politics since the Revolutionary War.  Until a few years ago, the old man was a Congressman.  Before his recent retirement, he was quite popular in the Whig Party.  The mother passed on a few years ago.  The son was always on the wild side, and his daughter is almost considered an old maid – she’s had several suitors but nothing definite.”
            Jack looked at Ezra slyly.  “She didn’t look anything like an old maid to me.”
            Ezra laughed.  “That may be so, but you are hardly respectable company.  I will have to ask a few of the local servants if you want to hear any more stories about them.”
            “I’m always surprised what you do know about this town.”  Jack knew that Ezra could always be counted on to know something about every important family in Washington.  Jack took another swig from the bottle and put the cork back in.  “Do you know anything about a man called Abbott?  He was mentioned, but I’m not sure where he fits in this business yet.”
            Ezra shook his head.  “Abbott is a fairly common name.  There are a few unsavory characters in the immediate area with that surname.  But there is one that really stands out in Washington - Lewis Abbott is a villain of the worst sort and has been involved in several nefarious schemes.  I’m not sure if he would have anything to do with this, but he is the only obvious person I can think of.  Perhaps your friend Garrett would know more about this disappearance.”
            “I like that idea.  Let’s head on over to see Garrett and then pay a visit to the Hanson house.  Then we can see if the family can tell us anything else about their wayward son and this mysterious Abbott.” 
            Jack slid the pint of whiskey into his coat pocket.  After locking up, the two of them headed towards the livery where their horses were kept.

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