DEADLY ANTHEM: Available now
by David Healey
Rear Admiral George Cockburn watched another Royal Marine collapse into a puddle of red wool on the dusty road to Washington City. The August heat and humidity had proven to be a far more fearsome opponent for the British invaders than the American forces they had encountered.
Adhering to their strict discipline, the other marines did not so much as pause, but marched right over the fallen man.
Beside the admiral, red-faced in the heat, rode Major General Sir Robert Ross. The general hadn’t failed to notice that the summer sun had claimed another soldier.
“Get that man off the road and be quick about it!” Ross shouted.
Several troops broke ranks and scrambled to obey the general’s direct order. They knew that Ross, a veteran of the long years of war against Napoleon Bonaparte, was not a man to be trifled with and that the heat had not improved his patience.
Each British soldier wore leather brogues with iron hobnails in the heel of the shoe, blue-gray cotton breeches the thickness of sailcloth, a shirt buttoned to the neck, the distinctive red woolen uniform coat, and a black campaign hat made of lacquered felt, complete with decorative cockade. Cockburn watched as the fallen marine’s hat tumbled to the side of the road. The seven-inch tall hats resembled stubby top hats and were not much use against the mid-day sun.
Seeing the marine’s motionless body being moved, Cockburn gathered that the man was stone dead.
“Brains must have baked inside his skull like a bread pudding,” Ross muttered.
“That is quite a vivid description, Sir Robert,” Cockburn said. “I do hope that bread pudding is not on the menu tonight.”
Sir Robert grunted amiably. He and Cockburn understood each other perfectly as professional soldiers. Over the years, they had also become friends.
On this day, it was Ross who commanded the overland invasion force of Redcoats. Cockburn’s fleet had long since subdued the Chesapeake Bay. He was along as an observer, and if truth be told, to satisfy his own desire to play a role in the sack of the American capital.
Cockburn removed his bicorn hat and mopped his brow. The admiral’s hat, made of wool felt and heavily adorned with ribbon and feathers, was beastly hot to wear, but Cockburn was too correct to trade it for a sensible broad-brimmed hat. As an officer, he had the advantage of being on horseback, but there was no more breeze to be found in the saddle, and just as much dust.
As the younger son of a Scottish baronet, Cockburn had spent countless hours riding across his family’s vast estate and was an excellent horseman. His father had sent him into service with the Royal Navy when he was nine, and Cockburn had risen quickly through the ranks. He was a highly capable officer. He was glad of this American war, now that the French were contained in Europe. War was everything to an officer. It was an opportunity for advancement and for enrichment through taking prizes of war. Peace meant half-pay and the sort of doldrums where an officer might go for years without advancing in rank. Lacking war and any chance to distinguish oneself, rank was based on seniority. Once peace arrived, Cockburn would quite literally have to wait for the officers ahead of him on the seniority list to die of old age.
Despite the August heat and the overall hardships of the campaign, he had welcomed every opportunity brought by this war. His conquest of the Chesapeake Bay had made him highly unpopular with Americans, who derided him as Cock-burn—because he was so cocky—while the rear admiral himself preferred the pronunciation, Co’burn. During his marauding across Maryland, he’d often had his men raid newspaper offices and seize all of the letter Cs from their type boxes so that his name could not be used in a derogatory fashion. The British officer was touchy about such things, even with a war on.
So far, the fighting had mostly been one-sided. The American forces had mounted a last-ditch defense of the city at Bladensburg. However, facing disciplined British ranks, the Maryland militia had quickly broken and run in order to save themselves. Already, the battle was becoming known as “The Bladensburg Races” for the fleet-footed actions of the militia. Somewhere in the American lines had been the United States president, James Madison. Apparently, he had run off with the rest.
The only Americans who had put up any real fight were the sailors under Commodore Joshua Barney. Barney’s men had fought on land as an artillery unit. Cockburn had finally met his longtime adversary when the guns had been overrun. Cockburn had spent a few minutes talking with Barney, who was wounded in the fighting. Cockburn had seen to it that the American received the best care possible from the British surgeons. As a general rule, Cockburn did not think much of Americans, but the capable commodore was an exception.
Through the heat and haze, the American capital slowly came into sight.
“This is the capital?” Sir Robert sounded aghast. “No wonder the Americans did not bother to defend it.”
“It is not much to look at,” Cockburn agreed.
For two aristocrats who had seen some of the world’s greatest cities—London, Paris, Naples, and Vienna—the American capital left them the opposite of awestruck. Weeds grew in the avenues leading into the city. Hogs rooted in midden heaps and chickens pecked at insects along the sides of the road. A few of the troops tucked chickens under their arms to make a handy dinner that night.
Adding to the atmosphere of desertion and disrepair was the fact that almost every American had fled the city, save for a few drunken bands of rapscallions intent on looting the vacant capital. The Redcoats ran them off with fixed bayonets.
The buildings of the capital were disappointingly modest. The capitol building itself, home to the Americans’ new-fangled system of democracy, was nothing impressive. A few sheep and cattle grazed in the unkempt grounds.
At the opposite end of the overgrown and deeply rutted Pennsylvania Avenue was the White House, home to President James Madison.
It was toward this last building that Cockburn and General Ross rode. Modest did not begin to describe the president’s so-called mansion. Cockburn’s ancestral home was far grander.
Not so much as a guard was posted, nor was there a door locked. Cockburn entered with a retinue of Royal Marines, muskets and bayonets at the ready, but they found no need for the added security. The White House was utterly deserted.
“Jemmy’s gone and run off,” Sir Robert said with satisfaction, referring to President James Madison.
Officers and men alike wandered the presidential mansion. They were amazed to find that the White House dining room was set for a feast. Dishes of roast chicken sat covered on the sideboard, along with breads, cakes, and boiled garden vegetables. To Cockburn’s relief, there was no bread pudding.
Several bottles of wine had been set out as well. Clearly, the Americans had planned a victory feast but had found at the last minute that it was necessary to abandon the capital. Their spies informed them that the Americans had set up a government in exile in the town of Brookeville, some miles to the west of Washington.
Cockburn looked with curiosity at a large, empty frame. Whatever portrait it had contained had been cut out by the fleeing Americans.
The Royal Marines set about searching the White House for anything of value. Cockburn was reminded of a pack of terriers set loose. But the men were quickly disappointed. There was more pewter than silver. Not so much as a gilt-framed mirror. The president lived with few trappings of wealth.
Cockburn picked up an embroidered cushion off a chair at the far end of the table, where the first lady would likely sit. “I believe that I should like nothing better than to help myself to Dolly Madison’s seat,” he said, making a crude allusion.
He glanced at the head of the table, where a document lay rolled up near what would be the president’s chair. The document was tied elaborately with ribbon. Curious, Cockburn picked it up and read the document. His eyes widened at the words on the page, as well as the signature at the bottom of the letter.
Cockburn rolled the document back up, and hurriedly slipped it into a pocket of his heavy naval coat.
“What did you find there?” Sir Robert asked.
“A menu, of all things,” Cockburn lied smoothly. “I shall keep it as a souvenir.”
“What a fine meal they have prepared. We can’t let it go to waste.”
They sat down at the table, joined by some of the younger officers, and helped themselves to the food and drink. Several bottles of white wine sat in buckets of ice cut months ago from the nearby Potomac River, and the cold wine was consumed quickly. The fact that they were enjoying what was intended to be the American victory feast made a wonderful sauce.
A sweaty captain of Royal Marines appeared in the doorway. Outside, a summer dusk was finally beginning to fall, although it did not offer much relief from the heat. Thunder grumbled on the horizon. Some of the Royal Marines beyond the window carried torches.
“What are your orders, sir?” the captain asked Sir Robert, who was busy with a chicken leg.
“Burn it,” Cockburn suggested to the general. “Burn it all.”
Sir Robert nodded his consent, and the Redcoats set to work with their torches. The summer night soon glowed for miles around as the flames claimed the United States Capitol, the White House, and the Navy Yard. The British even burned the Library of Congress with all the leather-bound works of law and literature still on the shelves. The flames could be seen far out into the Chesapeake Bay and down the Potomac River as well. It was a sign to all that war had truly come to the quiet Maryland countryside on this August night.
Cockburn nodded with satisfaction as he watched the city burn and patted the document in his pocket, pleased that the war would not end anytime soon.
Franklin Scott Keane, distant descendant of the man who had written The Star-Spangled Banner, gripped the edges of the podium like it was a ship’s wheel in a storm. Keane could be forgiven for being nervous, considering that this was going to be his first public talk in more than two years.
Although he felt anxious, his movements were measured and graceful, not at all the gawky gestures of a quirky academic. A magazine profile had once described him as a tidewater gentleman, and he looked the part. Tall and lean, he had dark eyes and hair, which tended to become wavy when he went too long between haircuts. That had been happening a lot lately without Amanda there to remind him. He had discovered that it was just one of the many ways that he had come to miss his wife. More than one person had noted that with his curling dark hair and fine-featured face, that he bore an uncanny resemblance to his famous ancestor.
He was about to deliver a paper entitled, “Renovation Under Fire: The Impact of the British Amphibious Raids of 1813 on Tidewater Architecture.” The National War of 1812 Symposium was in the town of Easton this year, which made it an easy drive from Keane’s home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The room was crowded to the point that every seat was taken and several people stood along the back wall. The audience was a mix of scholars, preservationists, and graduate students. Tweed jackets, argyle sweaters, and a myriad of eyeglasses were on full display.
It was almost unheard of for a concurrent session to be full at the symposium, which had been held now up and down the East Coast and even in Canada, for more than twenty years. He knew, because he had attended several of them. Keane also knew that the people in the meeting room had not turned out to hear the topic of his paper.
Although he held a Ph.D. in history, Keane was not a professor like many in the room, but was a senior field officer for the Great American Preservation Society. Commonly known as GAPS, it was a heavily endowed organization that advocated for preserving America’s endangered historic places, from buildings to battlefields.
Unfortunately, to Keane’s chagrin, GAPS had taken on a more political tone of late, standing firm in the wave of political correctness that wanted to rub out the uglier aspects of American history. Their new director, Charnell Dearborn, had shown by her resolve for preserving the past, scars and all, that she wasn’t one to back away from a fight. There had been some controversial news coverage as a result, some of it unfavorable. Keane was all in favor of standing up for history, but he worried that their stance could undermine other projects.
Dearborn didn’t see it that way. She liked to invoke Churchill in defense of GAPS, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Keane didn’t always agree lately with his boss about what GAPS should be defending.
However, the controversy involving GAPS did not explain this packed meeting room at the stylish Easton Hotel and Conference Center.
No, the people in this room hadn’t come to hear his talk, but to catch a glimpse of a man that many thought of as a murderer.
“There are still two seats in the front row,” Keane said into the microphone. “If anyone is brave.”
A couple of people moved forward, although there now seemed to be even more people squeezing in through the door at the last minute before it closed. If his talk was this crowded, it must surely mean that the other concurrent sessions were not. That wasn’t going to win him any new friends.
The session chair, Walter Howell, glanced at his watch, then cleared his throat. As Walter stood and introduced the session, Keane looked out at the audience, seeming to take them in one by one. He recognized more than a few faces—the community of historians was a small one.
He spotted Ted Shelmire, chief ranger at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, sitting with his arms crossed and a sour expression on his face. It was a little strange to see him wearing a navy blazer and gray slacks, rather than his usual U.S. Park Service uniform. At the back of the room stood a few older men and women, one of whom actually used a cane, but Chief Ranger Shelmire wasn’t about to offer up his seat.
He noticed an attractive, platinum-blonde woman watching him frankly, a coy smile playing across her lips. Keane’s gaze flicked away, embarrassed. A young woman in a rather frumpy, pilled skirt got up and went to the woman with the cane, then pointed at the chair she had just vacated. The older woman accepted with a grateful smile.
“Contrary to the rumors, we won’t be handing out free drink tickets after the talk,” he began, taking a weak stab at humor. He heard a few polite chuckles, but he noticed several pairs of eyes boring into him with a range of emotions, from curiosity to skepticism to even flat-out dislike. Keane moved his gaze above their heads to a blank space on the back wall, took a deep breath, and began: “In May 1813, with the Chesapeake Bay firmly in the control of Royal Navy forces commanded by Rear Admiral Cockburn …”
The crux of the talk was that the destruction wrought by marauding British forces had prompted a new wave of building across several waterfront towns and plantations. The knowledge was useful for dating buildings and identifying building styles.
Forty minutes later, Keane wrapped up and took a few questions. The session broke up quietly. Keane sensed an air of disappointment in the room, as if the attendees had been expecting something more exciting than a presentation on early nineteenth-century home remodeling. Keane was at a loss as to what fireworks they might have expected.
What he did know was that he was relieved the talk was over. He was looking forward to a glass of wine in the exquisite hotel bar. He turned to the session chair and said, “Walter, thank you again for hosting this lecture. Let me buy you a drink. I know I could use one!”
The session chair stammered, “Thank you, but I have other plans.”
Walter put his head down and hurried away. Keane was somewhat put off by what was obviously an effort to avoid his company. He had hoped that delivering this public lecture would begin a new chapter and help him put the past behind him. Perhaps he’d been wrong about that.
He heard a voice at his elbow. “Did someone mention a drink?”
He turned to find himself face to face with the attractive blonde woman who had been eyeing him so intently throughout the lecture.
Keane forced a polite smile. He’d been more interested in a little collegial conversation with Walter, but he didn’t see any way of avoiding this woman without seeming rude. “Shall we?” he said.
A few minutes later, Liz Graham entered the hotel bar feeling worn thin. She found conferences physically exhausting. It wasn’t the information itself, which was exciting and energizing, but the endless swirl of people that necessitated small talk. This was no easy task for an introvert.
She felt the need to be “on,” considering that she was eager to start making a name for herself. The result was that each exchange felt like a potential job interview or networking opportunity. She had recently landed a part-time job, but would be needing something better down the road to put a dent in her student loans.
Although she would gladly retreat to her room to curl up with a good book on her Kindle—or better yet, an hour or two of HGTV—she had some unfinished business first. She had one or two contacts whom she needed to sidle up to. She hoped that she could hold out for another half hour or so. And then … HGTV bliss.
She was passing one of the elegant raised tables with high stools rather than chairs, when she happened to notice the previous speaker there, Franklin Keane, apparently deep in conversation with an elegant blonde woman a little older than him. Liz found Keane attractive and interesting, but the fact that he was talking to this stylish woman—a cougar with makeup if truth be told—underscored the fact that he was out of her league.
At that instant, Keane happened to look up and catch her eye. Liz forced a smile. As if by reflex, Keane reached out and touched her elbow. Liz had no choice but to stop.
“That was very kind of you to offer your seat to Dr. Hough.”
“Dr. Hough is the older woman to whom you gave your seat.”
“It was my pleasure.”
“Won’t you join us?”
Ordinarily, Liz would have created some excuse to decline. A pressing dinner engagement with an old friend. A sick cat at home. But Keane’s kind eyes gave her pause. She had heard the rumors, but could this man really be a murderer? Across the table, the blonde woman pursed her lips sourly, not very eager to have Liz join their table. Some perverse emotion gripped Liz.
“Why, thank you.”
Keane stood politely as she took the empty stool, and waited until she was seating before sitting down again.
“You have me at a disadvantage, I’m afraid,” he said.
“Oh? How’s that?”
“You attended the lecture, so you know who I am.”
“Oh! I’m Liz Graham.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Elizabeth.”
“If you say so, but I would say that you are selling yourself short. Don’t forget that there was once an Elizabeth who was the greatest woman of her age.”
Keane smiled. Somehow, he also smiled with his eyes. She saw nothing lascivious in the look, but only warmth. Liz had scoffed at friends who claimed how a single look from the right man could make their panties melt. She’d thought the description was both outlandish and crude—until that moment. She half expected to look down and see her Hanes Constant Comforts in a puddle on the floor.
Keane introduced the blonde as Helena Montague, and explained that she was on the board at the Belmont Mansion in Philadelphia. Still dazzled, Liz had a hard time keeping up.
When the waitress came by, Liz was about to order when Keane turned to her and asked, “What would you like?”
Ordering for her was a bit old school, like standing when she came to the table, but she found that she liked the attention. His manners were impeccable. How old was this guy? She noted the beginnings of crow’s feet showing at the corners of his eyes. He also had a scar resembling a cursive letter r along one cheek that gave yet more character to his face. But Franklin Keane was hardly careworn. Liz decided that he was just a few years older than she was.
She decided on a tonic and lime. She had found that she just didn’t sleep right after so much as a drop of alcohol. This hadn’t exactly done wonders for her social life in graduate school.
Turning back to her new companions, she was horrified to hear herself blurt out to Keane, “I’ve heard so much about you!”
Keane winced. “I’m sure it all has to do with my work for GAPS,” he said with just a hint of sarcasm. He sipped from a glass of wine.
Helena was also drinking red wine, with a glass that was rather close to the edge of the table. “What brings you to the conference, Liz?” she asked.
“Well, I’ve just recently taken a job as interim director of the Cannonball House in St. Michaels.”
Keane jumped in. “Ah, so you’re the new director! Congratulations. You know, that’s one of the properties that GAPS has been consulting on.”
“So I’ve heard.”
From across the table, Helena looked Liz up and down with the sort of appraising eye that a cheetah uses on a gazelle. Liz had seen that look before, in the disdainful eyes of cheerleaders, popular girls, and more recently, HR directors. Liz could see that this chick was intending to shake her like a shih tzu with a chew toy. Helena asked, ”Where did you work before?”
“I was finishing up my master’s degree,” she said. She did not add, at Towson State University, which had about as much panache as reproduction furniture made out of particle board. But a degree was a degree, and it had been enough to land her a job in the field, at a time when paying jobs in history were scarce as hen’s teeth, as the expression went. Liz could explain that the idiomatic expression came from the mid-1800s and reflected the fact that chicken don’t have teeth, so something as scarce as hen’s teeth would be rare, indeed. Such knowledge wasn’t much in demand in the job market.
“You seem a little old for a graduate student,” Helena remarked.
Ouch. Was this chick for real?
Keane cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I thought that the talk this morning on Commodore Barney’s flotilla was fascinating,” he said in an effort to change the subject.
“I’ll have another glass of merlot,” Helena announced. She looked at Keane. “What about you?”
“I’m fine,” Keane said
“Please, Franklin, don’t make me drink alone,” she said. Not waiting for Keane to do his thing and order for her, she caught the attention of the server, and raised two fingers like a victory sign. Refilling Liz’s tonic water did not seem to be a priority.
The wine came. These were not stingy pours and the glasses were large. Helena drank and absently set her glass down even closer to the edge of the table.
“So, you’re on the board of an historic property? Belmont Mansion?” Liz prompted the blonde woman. She admitted, “I’m not familiar with the Belmont.”
“Well, it is a lovely example of Palladian architecture in Fairmount Park, just outside Philadelphia city limits,” Helena said, sounding suspiciously as if she was repeating a visitor’s brochure by rote. “The Belmont played an important role in the Underground Railroad.”
Keane and Liz waited expectantly, but Helena did not elaborate.
“It sounds like a wonderful place,” Liz said politely.
In her limited experience, what Liz had learned about board members of historic properties was that they were seldom real historians, although that did not mean they were uninterested in history. Instead, most board members were boosters for historical properties, lending their community connections and either donating time or money to the cause. Boards were vital to historic preservation, although, oddly enough, they sometimes got in the way of the real work of historians. Many board members seemed to prefer schmoozing, or simply being associated with a well-known property.
“Before you came along, Franklin and I were just discussing his work on the Star-Spangled Banner House in Baltimore. It’s simply marvelous.” She reached across the table and touched Keane’s hand.
Wow, Liz thought, impressed in spite of herself. This woman knew how to get a man’s motor running.
Liz knew that Keane was famous for three things. One was being a descendant of Francis Scott Key, who had so famously written the poem that became the National Anthem, after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. He was also supposed to be rich, which might explain why Helena had latched onto him. The third item of fame—or perhaps infamy— was that Keane was widely believed to have murdered his wife.
Liz felt sidelined by Helena’s conversation. Every time that Keane politely tried to include her, the blonde chick ignored Liz and kept her eyes on Keane. She kept touching his hand, and letting it linger. She could see Keane being drawn in by her attention, and who could blame him? Helena was an attractive and sophisticated woman. She was also an extraordinary flirt. Liz could see that Helena was all wrong for someone like Franklin Scott Keane. However, another glass of wine, another barrage of flattery, and he wouldn’t have a prayer. Then, Helena was going to devour him whole just like a female praying mantis eats her mate.
It was time for action.
Her eyes fell upon Helena’s wine glass, which was still quite close to the edge of the table. Quickly, a plan took shape.
Was she really going to do this? It was so unlike her.
“I really should be going soon,” Liz announced. “Let me give you my card.”
She’d had them made especially for the conference, in hopes of making new connections, and with not a little pride in the newly minted “MA” after her name. She flipped one down in front of Keane with a little snap learned from her poker-playing days in grad school, then reached across with a card for Helena.
The back of her hand hit the wine glass and knocked it into Helena’s lap.
Helena gave a shriek, but somehow managed to catch the glass before it shattered on the floor.
Cougar-like reflexes, Liz thought.
The liquid, however, sloshed from the glass. The lovely dress was immediately drenched in red wine.
For a split second, Helena Montague glared at Liz as if she might attack with her claws.
Then Keane was rushing over, offering a handful of cocktail napkins. Helena was busy dabbing at the dress with the napkins, which came away soaked in red. Keane stood by helplessly because he couldn’t exactly help blot the front of the woman’s dress.
“I am so sorry!” Liz cried. “That was so clumsy of me!”
“Accidents happen,” Helena said icily.
“You have my card. Please send me the cleaning bill, or I can replace the dress.”
“However would you make your student loan payments if you did that?”
Keane cleared his throat. “Here, take my coat,” he said. “Use it as a cover-up.”
“Thank you, Franklin, that’s very kind. I will see you tomorrow.” At that, Helena left abruptly. She did not bid Liz a good evening.
Keane watched her go, then turned to Liz and said, “That had to be one of the clumsiest fake mishaps that I’ve ever seen.”
Liz felt her face turn redder than the spilled wine. “Oh!”
Keane was studying her. “You are an interesting person, Elizabeth Graham.”
“You must think I’m a horrible person.”
“No, you are a study in contradictions. You went from giving up your seat for someone who needed it, to spilling wine on a socialite. I would not say that one action entirely negates the other, although ruining what was probably an expensive dress was a bit extreme. Kate Spade, if I’m not mistaken.”
“I don’t know what to say for myself.”
“This just proves that historians are more daring than people give them credit for,” he said. He put some bills on the table to cover the tab. “Have a good evening, Miss Graham.”
Just ten miles to the west, Bob Lindermann squinted into the dark interior of the Cannonball House in St. Michaels. The house had gone through some rocky management at the hands of the tiny nonprofit that owned it and was temporarily closed to the public. He knew that the Great American Preservation Society had recently stepped in with some funding and guidance, and that the house was awaiting a new part-time director to take the reins.
He clicked the light switch, but nothing happened. The electricity appeared to have been turned off. The historic house definitely needed some new management.
The Cannonball House’s claim to fame dated back to the War of 1812, when during the British bombardment of the town, a cannonball plunged through the roof, rolled across the attic floor, and then came bounding down the staircase to the first floor, terrifying the young mother downstairs. Fortunately, the cannonball had been solid shot rather than an exploding shell. Her husband was off with the local militia, defying the British. The story of the cannonball had been repeated so many times, and in so many versions, that it had simply become part of town lore.
Displayed on the mantle of the house was a six-pound cannonball, somewhat larger than a baseball. It was hard to say if this was the actual cannonball fired by the British. Lindermann paused for a moment to admire the burnished iron sphere. Some claimed that he despised history, but quite the opposite was true. He had made an avocation out of debunking historical legends and myths because he found the research delightful. Most of the fondest legends were built on a house of cards, teetering, and did not withstand the slightest breath of truth. Wrecking those beloved houses of cards had not won him many fans, and more than a few enemies.
What had brought him to the Cannonball House was a rather mysterious email promising him information about the truth behind the St. Michaels legend. Intrigued, he had skipped the evening sessions at the nearby War of 1812 symposium he was attending to drive down to the Cannonball House. But no one, it appeared, was there.
His limp ponytail was gathered from strands of gray, thinning hair, making it more of an homage to youth than a going concern. It had been cool back in the seventies and eighties, but now it seemed a little sad, like those people who insisted on wearing cowboy boots when they lived in New Jersey. Lindermann had added one of those dating apps to his phone since his divorce, but he wasn’t getting many swipes. In fact, he wasn’t getting any—in all senses of the word.
He sighed. No matter. He had his history to keep him company. He had managed to anger a few town councils and tourism directors, but seldom had he felt any sense of physical danger. Still, this empty house spooked him. The whole business of meeting his source in this eerie old house was all starting to seem a bit too cloak and dagger for him. Lindermann decided that it was time to go.
He passed the stairs that the famous British cannonball had come bounding down on August 10, 1813. It was easy enough to imagine the terrified young mother that summer night more than two centuries ago.
A voice from the darkness caused him to jump, and snapped him back to the present.
“Oh! You’re here,” Lindermann said.
“I didn’t think you’d show,” said the man. He had a deep voice, at once both gruff and cultured. Something about the voice sounded familiar. In the dim light, his source seemed to be wearing a navy blue suit, which put Lindermann more at ease. He doubted that someone who meant him harm would have worn a suit.
“When you said you had some information for me, I couldn’t resist,” Lindermann said.
“You have made quite a reputation for yourself,” the man said. “What historical bubble are you looking to burst this time?”
“Well, we’re in St. Michaels, aren’t we? ‘The town that fooled the British.’ At least that’s what the sign says on the outskirts of town. But did the townspeople really fool the British? Ha! We’ll see about that.”
“That won’t make you very popular here,” the man said.
“I’m not interested in popularity,” Lindermann said. “I’m interested in truth.”
“Good. In that case, you and I have some shared interests,” the man said. “You see, I am looking into some rumors about the Star-Spangled Banner.”
“Oh?” Lindermann’s mind raced. This was far beyond what he had expected. Anything to do with the Star-Spangled Banner was far bigger than the legend of St. Michaels. The Star-Spangled Banner was also of current interest to him, considering the project that he was working on. How could this man possibly have known that?
The man stepped closer. Lindermann noted that the man was smaller than him, but looked far more fit. There was something vaguely familiar about his face.
“Wait a minute,” Lindermann said. “Aren’t you that guy on TV? Is that you?“
“Never mind that,” the man snapped. ”Recently, you had a meeting with a colleague of mine. Esteban Galarza from the Smithsonian. You two were discussing the Star-Spangled Banner. What did you two talk about?”
“Wait, I don’t understand. I thought we were going to discuss the attack on St. Michaels?”
“I think we just did. And now we’re moving on. What I’m really curious about is the conversation you had with my friend Esteban about the Star-Spangled Banner.”
How on earth did this man know about that? Galarza had been a fabrics historian at the Smithsonian, and he had been helping Lindermann with some research. Some very big research. So big, in fact, that Lindermann hadn’t even shared all of the details with Galarza.
Lindermann thought of Galarza in the past tense, because, rather shockingly, he had been killed in a mugging just two weeks ago.
“Hold on. I thought that you had information for me, but it seems that’s not the case,” Lindermann said. “In fact, it seems like you are looking for information from me. I don’t appreciate being lured here on false pretenses.”
He turned to go.
“Lock the door,” the man said.
Confused, Lindermann wondered just who this idiot thought he was ordering around. Then he heard the floor creak behind him and a large man emerged from the shadows where he had somehow managed to go unseen. He went to the door and there soon followed the sound of a lock clicking.
Up until that moment, Lindermann had felt intrigued, then annoyed; now, he felt frightened. “What’s going on?”
“That is what we are here to ask you,” the man in the suit said. ”Tell me again what you met with my colleague about.”
Just a few questions, he thought, and then these guys will let me go. ”Nothing in particular. He just shared some facts about the flag.”
This wasn’t exactly true, but the last thing that Lindermann planned to tell this man was anything about what he had found, or what Esteban had been helping him with.
“Did Esteban say anything about Anacreon?”
“Anacreon?” Lindermann’s mind raced, looking for some connection. What in the world? He knew that The Star-Spangled Banner—the National Anthem—was set to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven, an old English drinking song. It was a rather ignominious origin of the National Anthem; it seemed ludicrous that this is what the man wanted to know about.
“Anacreon,” the man repeated.
Lindermann barked out a laugh. “You mean, the song?”
“Did Esteban say anything about the Star-Spangled Banner being in any danger?”
“No.” Lindermann took a step back and bumped right into the man behind him.
“Hold him, Blister.”
Lindermann felt his arms being pinned by the big man. What kind of a nickname was Blister, anyhow? Not a good one.
He struggled, but it was useless. The big guy had one hell of a grip. He watched the other man go over to the mantle and pick up the iron cannonball.
“Look, if you’re from the St. Michaels Chamber of Commerce or something, I’ll drop this whole ‘Town that Fooled the British’ business! You can hang onto your local legend. Just let me go!”
“You’re not going anywhere, Mr. Lindermann, at least not until you tell me what I want to know. I really don’t care about the St. Michaels legend, but this other question is very important to me. What else did you and Esteban discuss about the Star-Spangled Banner?”
“I’ve told you already! Nothing important. I swear!”
“Put his hand on the table.”
He struggled, but the man behind him had a grip like a vise. This wasn’t like in the movies, where you gave the guy an elbow in the ribs and broke free. Lindermann found himself looking down at his fingers, splayed across the tabletop. The wood itself was old and scarred, somehow making his own fingers seem that much frailer.
“Last chance, Mr. Lindermann. Anacreon?”
His interrogator raised the cannonball.
“I told you—”
The cannonball smashed down on his hand. Lindermann howled in pain and struggled even harder, but it was no use. His interrogator smashed the cannonball down again. And again. Lindermann writhed in agony.
Through tear-filled eyes, he looked down at his broken hand. One of the fingers skewed away from the others at an unnatural angle. The pain was awful. He whimpered.
“Anacreon, Mr. Lindermann.”
“I’ve told you all that I know!”
“I need to make sure of that. It’s very important to me.” The man nodded at Blister, who pinned his hand to the table once more.
This time, quite unexpectedly, the cannonball smashed down on his right knee. He actually felt something crack. The pain was excruciating. He struggled, but those strong arms held him.
“Remarkable, isn’t it, to think about this thing coming through the roof,” his interrogator said, tossing the cannonball in his hand to test its heft. “It’s no wonder that the lady of the house was terrified.”
Lindermann whimpered. He was having trouble standing up straight. “Don’t do this—”
“You have another hand, Mr. Lindermann. Think about that for a moment, before you answer my next question.”
He sobbed and his body convulsed with pain.
“Stop, please stop.”
“Have you had enough? I wonder. Now, what did Esteban tell you about Anacreon? Why did he meet with you, anyway?”
“We talked about the flag!” Lindermann was babbling now, but even the pain wasn’t enough for him to reveal the true nature of his discovery. So far, the man hadn’t asked about that, which meant it was likely that he didn’t know. ”The fabric. The density of the weave. That’s all! Nothing about goddamned Anacreon! Are you crazy?”
His interrogator raised the cannonball and held it poised over Lindermann’s broken hand. The man sighed. “I believe you.”
He lowered the cannonball.
“Thank God. Look what you’ve done to me! I need a doctor.”
The man returned the cannonball to the mantle.
When he turned around to face Lindermann again, he held a gun. It seemed to have a long barrel, which Lindermann’s muddled brain recognized as a silencer.
“Don’t do this! I’ll tell you anything you want to know!”
“The Q&A is over,” Lindermann’s interrogator said. He nodded at the big man holding Lindermann. “You’d better step away, Blister.”
Finally, the grip on him relented as the big man let go. The gun came up and shot Lindermann through the heart.