First Chapter 2017-03-28T22:29:43+00:00

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A Necessary End

A Necessary End

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene II

PROLOGUE

The White House, September 1, 1864

John Wilkes Booth dropped to his knees and looked up into Abraham Lincoln’s weary eyes. “Please, sir, I beg you.” He clasped the president’s hands. “I’m desperate.”

The president leaned forward and expelled a sigh. The gaslight cast a glow over his gangly form, backlighting him like a ghost. “Several officials have asked me the same thing. I know it’s a tragedy for all of us, son, on both sides.”

All dignity and poise forgotten, Wilkes entwined his fingers with the president’s. “We’ve suffered enough heartbreak with this war, Mr. President. You’ve seen our cities in ruins and our people starving. Just this one favor, on behalf of the South, and so many of us will be forever grateful.”

“I would like to,” Lincoln said.“But I’ve already spoken to your future father-in-law, Senator Hale.”

“Sir, those other men were here for political reasons, including Senator Hale. I’m appealing to you on a personal level.”

Regarding Lincoln at close range for the first time, Wilkes saw all the strife and turmoil of the war condensed in those tired gray eyes. Wisdom and fatigue creased his weatherbeaten face.

“I wish I could help you, son, but I can’t grant every favor that I’m asked for. It wouldn’t be fair.”

As an actor, Wilkes knew how to keep his emotions under control. But he saw no reason to put up a facade of composure. This tragedy was real, and more painful than his breaking heart.

“But, sir, what’s fairer than sparing an innocent life?” I understand how you feel, John, but…”

“Please, Mr. President,” he sobbed, his shoulders shaking. “Think of how you’d feel if this were your Robert sentenced to die.”

Something must have struck a chord in Lincoln, because the president’s hands tightened around his. Tears filled Lincoln’s eyes and spilled onto his sunken cheeks.

“All right. I will pardon your friend.” He closed his eyes, his bearded chin almost resting on his chest. “This will cause many repercussions. But at times like this I have to follow my heart.”

Wilkes slowly got to his feet, their hands still clasped, their eyes locked. “Thank you, sir. Some people say you’re two-faced. But I know you follow your conscience and are true to your word.”

“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” The hint of a smile came to his thin lips.

Wilkes squeezed the president’s hand again, this time in farewell. “You won’t regret it. So many people will be forever grateful to you, I promise. And, again, I’m sorry to have intruded at such a late hour. Good night, Mr. President.”

Lincoln merely nodded.

Wilkes backed out of the office and shut the door. Then he turned around and slumped against the fading, peeling wallpaper, thanking God the president had spared John Beall’s life.

As Wilkes walked the dark halls over the threadbare carpet, he shivered as a cold draft chilled him. How dare the government let this house, the most iconic symbol of American pride, fall into such disrepair. What a disgrace. A pang of sorrow tore at his heart with painful memories of the four-room log home of his birth, his mother’s struggle to feed ten children at the mercy of his father, the brilliant drunkard actor who died penniless. He made a mental note to donate a tidy sum so poor Mrs. Lincoln could purchase some pretty flub-dubs.

Stepping out into the night, he felt the urge to turn back and ask President Lincoln’s forgiveness for the slanderous things he’d said since the war had started. But that was before he saw Lincoln as a man, standing there in a nightshirt, war-torn and exhausted. A father who’d lost thousands of sons.

Before leaving the White House grounds and climbing into his carriage, Wilkes looked over his shoulder at the pale square of light, a lone beacon glowing in that cavernous mansion. He would find a way to repay the president. Somehow, some way, he would repay him.

 

September 15, 1864

Wilkes flipped through the mail his dresser had brought from Ford’s Theater and sorted it: business mail in one pile, letters of praise in the other. But he saw no letter from his closest friend, John Beall.

Wilkes didn’t really expect one. They’d get together for a saloon crawl soon enough. He chuckled, remembering some of the antics they’d pulled together. They’d been playmates, schoolmates, closer than most brothers.

When Beall was accused of spying for the Confederates and sentenced to hang, Wilkes knew his only chance to save his friend was to beg President Lincoln, to pour out his heart. Beall was a loyal citizen who loved his country, but like some patriots, he just went to extremes. Lincoln’s sparing him the gallows gave Wilkes a new respect for the president. For the first time in four years, his heart lightened. Maybe this was a sign that the horror and bloodshed would soon end.

Nothing else in the mail interested him, so he grabbed the Washington Times and skimmed the front page. An article snagged his eye. He froze, paralyzed. He read it over and over, not believing what he saw. His eyes blurred. Feeling like he’d been punched in the stomach, he doubled over. Dread filled him as if he’d just read his own death sentence.

“I’ve been double-crossed,” he growled through clenched teeth.

John Beall was hanged yesterday at one p.m. on Governors Island, New York.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Washington City, November 1864

I don’t believe in ghosts, Wilkes assured himself as he listened to the high keening of the medium. He shivered as a draft wafted over him. Smoky incense intensified the gloom. He wasn’t at this séance to seek omens or cryptic guidance from beyond the grave. He was attending this charade to learn of Abraham Lincoln’s actions in this world.

He still ached with grief over his boyhood friend’s death. A part of his soul had died along with John Beall, who was everything the South stood for. Rage seized his heart and boiled his blood. How could Lincoln do this to another human being? How could the president look him in the eye and promise he’d let John live, then murder him?

Wilkes fought to subdue these emotions. No phantom held the answers he sought on this bone-chilling night, but the bird-like matron entranced before him, Nettie Colburn Maynard, did. The medium was Mrs. Lincoln’s spiritualist, famed for her evenings at the White House spent “bringing back” their dead boys, Eddie and Willie.

Wilkes had to admit she put on a good show. One thing he appreciated was fine acting. But he was wary. The parlor felt haunted as shadows crept up the walls. The hairs at the back of his neck already stood on end, and a chill slithered through his body. Although his hands were icy, his palms sweated, making them even colder. The room stood silent and musty as a tomb. The dank staleness assaulted him. His throat aching for a trickle of brandy, he coughed.

Mrs. Maynard’s eyes were shut tight, but his own gaze darted about, unable to settle. Candles flickered jagged shadows around the room. Wallpaper patterns swirled into an impenetrable fog. And the curtains…did they flutter, even though the windows were closed?

“A spirit is present, Mr. Booth.” Her voice, almost a whisper, barely reached his ears. She exhaled feathery tendrils of steam in the eerie half-light. “It watches over you, seeks to guide you.” He saw her shoulders shake with violent tremors. “He was powerful in life, but more powerful in death, released of mortal frailty.”

Wilkes felt the dread of approaching harm, but was too spellbound to get up and quit the whole thing. Or was it raw fear that kept him frozen in his seat? His voice, trained in delivery of lines, was suddenly struck silent.

He had to admit she was gifted, the perfect witch for Macbeth. The funereal black dress draped her gaunt figure like a shroud. Shadowed by the pale flames, Mrs. Maynard played her role to perfection. Once again, he convinced himself it was all an act. But if it was real and some being from beyond really did hover over him…

Just then he realized his jaw was tightly clenched. He struggled to slacken it.

“He lived many centuries ago, Mr. Booth, and knew you by another name. He revisits you now, drawn close by your pain and grief.” She shuddered again. Her grip crushed his hand, her knuckles white as bleached bone. “I feel his essence very forcefully, right there…” Her hands turned to ice. “Behind you…”

He nearly ripped a tendon snapping his neck around, but saw neither phantom nor flesh, just movement at the edge of his vision flickering up the wall. Threads of fear tickled at his nerves. Nothing was as it seemed.

Turning to face her again, he felt foolish for succumbing to her trickery. An embarrassed blush heated his cheeks, though the room temperature was plummeting. He breathed deeply to calm his pounding heart.

He will thrust you toward your true destiny, young man.”

Those words triggered a childhood memory that now returned in full color. In his mind he pictured the old gypsy he’d met at age twelve when he wandered into her wagon at a carnival. “Ah, you’ve a bad hand. The lines all criss-crass!” Her raspy voice had trembled with doom. “It’s full of sorrow. Full of trouble, everywhere I look. You’ll die young, and leave many to mourn you, many to love you, too. You’re born under an unlucky star. You’ll make a bad end. You’ll have a fast life—short, but a grand one. I’ve never seen a worse hand. But a guiding spirit is watching you. He will thrust you toward your true destiny, young man.”

A spirit would guide him toward his destiny, to die for his country. His life’s mission was to avenge John Beall’s murder and repay Lincoln for that heartless act.

A clock’s muffled chime sliced through the silence. Numbness spread over his hands, and a deathly chill crept over his skin. His actor’s brain clutched for the reality he knew best, turning fright to nervous amusement. He scanned the room with professional eyes, but saw no obvious stagecraft. How the devil did she do it?

Ever the leading man, now struggling for control, he summoned his loftiest tone.

“There is nothing behind me, Mrs. Maynard. I don’t see the slightest glimmer of a ghost, and all I heard was your clock chiming.” He breathed a sigh of relief that his voice hadn’t trembled

“That’s odd.” She cocked her head as a pigeon would. “I don’t have a clock that chimes.”

He felt the cold air vibrate as if in answer. Dread flooded him. Once more he gulped the dank air, and then a harsh, rattling moan filled the room. He clapped his hands over his ears to shut out the wail, but the noise seemed to burst from inside his head as well as out. The cacophony subsided to an unworldly voice, part beast, part man. The first utterings were low groans, snarls and a strange whimpering. Was this really a long-silent entity calling from beyond the grave?

“I watch you always,” he heard in an almost human growl. He glanced at Nettie, and was astonished to realize that the discordant voice came from her lips.

“Your love of country is most honorable, and will be your legacy to history.”

The voice was clearer now, though it still sounded parched from the dust of centuries of disuse. It was a vibrant, powerful man’s voice.

“This payment is yours now, as it was once before. It is my token. My bane on tyranny,” the voice cajoled. “I offer you my part in your noble deed to come. Take it. Use it well, my brother.” Then a metallic chittering broke the spell.

Every muscle painfully taut, he felt ready to flee in all directions at once. Unaware he’d stopped breathing until now, he exhaled a cloud of icy mist. He’d had enough. It was time the curtain came down on this production.

“Mrs. Maynard?” His tone was uncharacteristically timid.

But she sat deeply entranced, motionless. Stretching across the table between them, he grasped her bony shoulders and shook her. “Stop this.” His voice regained full volume. “Right now.”

She swayed to and fro before finally opening her eyes. Her unfocused pupils gazed dreamlike, then settled sharply on him. She finally awoke with a small, sharp gasp. The room itself appeared to wake with her. Though its blanket of oppression lingered, the air warmed. His breath was no longer visible. As the flood of color and awareness brightened her features, he silently admitted grudging appreciation of her art.

“I heard a strange noise,” he said. “It came across the table, right at me.” He realized how childlike he sounded.

Then he spotted a dull gray coin on the table. He blanched, stupefied. It appeared to pulsate in the shifting shadows. As he picked it up and examined it, his fingers tingled. The ice-cold coin sucked every vestige of warmth from his fingertips. He forgot his embarrassment.

“May I, Mr. Booth?” She held out her hand.

He gave it to her.

“It looks primitive, worn around the edges. It’s not even round. There’s a woman and some kind of bird. I see lettering, too, but I can’t make it out in this light.” She tilted a candle beside it, the wax dripping onto her scarred table. She turned it over and studied the other side.

“A man with a long neck and a Roman nose, wearing a strange hat. And what’s this? Caesar? It must have been minted to commemorate the Roman Empire.”

Her nonchalance at money dropping out of thin air aroused his suspicions further. He stared hard at the ceiling. It had to be a trick; there was a trap door up there.

“Let me see that again.” He plucked it from her skeletal fingers. “Coins don’t just drop out of the ether. Where did this come from, Mrs. Maynard?”

“I’m afraid you will have to tell me that. It seems you’ve had quite a foray into the spirit world. I can always tell. I’m quite spent. The spirits drain me to exhaustion in the most productive sessions. Did I say anything of interest while I was entranced?” Her eyes glittered with expectation.

He stared her down.

“You don’t remember?” He ran his finger over the coin’s surface. The features were worn with the ravages of time, yet still discernible. The word caesar looked as sharp as if struck yesterday.

“After giving my body over to spirit, I do not remember what is said, Mr. Booth. My essence leaves this earthly plane and I have no knowledge of what transpires here. The spirits use my body as they will. They speak, not I. When I return, I have no recollection of their time here. I simply feel a flush come and go in my face, and a prickly sensation passing through my limbs.”

Shivering, she hugged herself. He half expected her bones to rattle.

“What did the spirits say when they possessed me?” she asked.

He bit into the coin. Its solidity was real, all right.

“There was only one,” Wilkes replied. “He’s watching me, and this is his payment for some future deed he wants to help me with. To meet my destiny.”

He decided not to tell her how the exact words of his ominous gypsy prediction rattled him.

“Then, if you’re sensible, you’ll leave the coin with me. It is very unwise to accept it. It might even be dangerous.”

So she didn’t want him to take the coin. Well, he’d teach her to play pantomime to an accomplished actor. She was about to relinquish her little prop, like it or not.

“Sensibleness seldom prevails in the Booth family, Mrs. Maynard, and it would be rude to refuse a gift from the otherworld.”

Her eyes grew dark and troubled. Her pale lips trembled.

“I implore you, Mr. Booth.” Her voice wavered. “Do not keep this coin. It betokens payment to you from the spirit world. Contracts with the other side cannot be made lightly. Nor can they be broken. To accept this coin is to invite the spirit into your life until you fulfill the part he expects from you. Once invited, the spirit cannot be made to leave.”

She took a few paces toward the window, glanced out, and turned to him, pleading. “You must not take this coin.” Her hoarse voice cracked. “I cannot protect you if you do.”

So the coin was valuable. She’d made that obvious. Well, he wouldn’t be denied his fun. She’d already had hers, trying to scare the wits out of him. He would keep it a while, find out more about it, have it valued, and then return it. Perhaps.

Besides, as long as he kept the coin she would grant him further sessions in hopes of its return. He judged it would take several visits to charm his way into her confidence. Then he’d learn what he needed to know.

Displaying an enigmatic and well-practiced King Richard the Third slice of a smile, he remained silent for effect. Let the tension build; let her discomfort grow, just as his had a few minutes ago. Silence, not action, spoke loudest of all.

“May we have another private sitting tomorrow night, after my performance, Mrs. Maynard? I’m Richard the Third at Grover’s.”

His change of subject clearly flustered her. She fumbled behind her and raised the lamp’s wick. The last dark shapes and shadows fled the brightening room. She regained her composure with a shaky smile and cleared her props from the table.

“Come by again at midnight tomorrow. The atmosphere is most conducive to spiritual contact then.”

So she couldn’t let the coin out of her sight for twenty-four hours. If he played this right, it could be worth the vital information he sought.

“We’ll have another séance like this?” He almost hoped there was another way.

“I’d like to contact the entity through spirit-rapping next time,” came her reply.

This woman certainly had a way of spooking him. He needed a good stiff drink to settle his nerves.

“And what is spirit-rapping?” He stood and patted himself down for a cigar, then remembered he’d smoked his last one earlier.

“I fully expected it to happen at this sitting. Spirits usually communicate by a series of raps on the table, or above us. That’s how I first came to realize I possess my gift. When I was ten years old, I saw my dead grandfather. His lips moved but I couldn’t hear him. Then I discovered he could rap out responses to questions. I don’t need to be entranced for that.” Her eyes took on a faraway look and her lips formed a genuine little girl’s smile. “It scared my parents to death. Oh, not literally. Rather, it confounded them. They had a daughter who was” —she wiggled her fingers in the air— “odd. To be honest, it scared me too, at first.”

Barely able to keep a straight face after hearing this fable, he replied, “I can see why it would frighten some people. How do the Lincolns feel about it all?”

They exited her parlor, pausing as she lit lamps along the way. “Mrs. Lincoln is a strong believer in the afterlife. It gives her great comfort when her sons part the veil and speak to her through me.”

“And the president?” he pried casually, lifting his coat and hat from the tree in the entry hall. He had to start somewhere, get her used to his curiosity about Lincoln.

“He’s neither a believer nor religious. He’s more the grounded sort. He attends our sessions when pressed by Mrs. Lincoln, and then only to humor her.”

Wilkes slid into his coat. “How often do you visit the White House?”

She unlatched the front door and held it open.

“At least once a week. If Mrs. Lincoln doesn’t hear from her boys she gets very distraught.”

“Does Mrs. Lincoln still throw her famous fits and temper tantrums?”

She lowered her lids. “Yes, I’m afraid so,” she replied sadly. “She’s never been the same since Willie died.”

Booth understood the grief Mrs. Lincoln was suffering. His own mother had lost three babies. He could still hear her heart-wrenching sobs late at night when the rest of them were tucked in bed, their pillows over their ears to muffle the cries.

“Well, then, Mrs. Maynard, I shall look forward to some spirit-rapping tomorrow.” He grabbed the gold end of his riding crop and twirled it.

“Mr. Booth, about that coin…”

“The coin?” Jauntily he cut her off. “Ah, yes, I got my money’s worth there.” He flipped the ancient disc and it landed solidly in his palm. “And then some, I must say.” He touched the brim of his hat. “I bid you good evening, my lady.”

Taking a swift bow, he closed his fingers around the coin. Was it his imagination, or was the relic warming up?

Hurrying down the steps before she could protest, he thrust it into his trouser pocket. As it clinked against his other change, he tried to put it out of his mind, though he remained agitated by the evening’s high-keyed events.

As he strode down Pennsylvania Avenue to his hotel, one thing struck him as strange: It was warmer out here than in her house.

* * *

Alice Grey stood in the stage wings of Ford’s Theater, her heart hammering. With the evening off from her role as Cleopatra at nearby Grover’s Theater, she had stopped by just to witness this spectacle.

John Wilkes Booth as Richard the Third was fighting an arduous duel in the final scene with E. L. Tilton as the Earl of Richmond. She admired how far Booth had come since his early minor roles, when he’d flub his lines and lose his voice in mid-performance. She’d cringed in embarrassment as the audience booed him off the stage.

But in the last ten years, he’d mastered his craft, taking on lead roles performed so intensely, he’d stay in character long afterward. Many a theater gabfest centered around how he’d inspired his fellow players to achieve his level of perfection during rehearsals. His thrilling and bloody duel scenes always captivated her, especially one unforgettable performance last year. Suffering a deep gash from his opponent’s sword, he fought on, hurling droplets of blood and sweat into the cheering audience. She’d beheld him shirtless on stage, and marveled at the scars crossing his chest and arms from fiery duels.

All this dedication catapulted him to the stardom of his older brothers, the top Shakespearian actors of American theater. Now that her star was on the rise, she hoped to share billing with him someday.

She held her breath as Booth chased Tilton downstage, dazzling the audience with his agile footwork. Tilton fumbled, parried, and then regained his timing, only to falter again.

Booth milked it for all it was worth. The cheering crowd was on its feet now, as if viewing a real-life duel rather than a staged play.

Their swords clashed. They slid. They clashed again. Booth drove Tilton to the very edge of the stage, his gleaming rapier slashing the air inches from his opponent’s throat.

Tilton lost his balance, slipped backward, and crashed into the orchestra pit. The conductor gaped as musicians leapt from their seats. The audience roared. Deafening applause filled the entire house as Booth let out a cry of victory.

The star stood center stage in the blazing lights and gave a modest bow. Then he reached down to help his defeated adversary regain the stage and his dignity.

Alice shook her head in wonder. “Someday I’ll star with him,” she vowed.

It was as lofty a dream as any. First she had to let him know she existed.

 

* * *

 

Wilkes rode back to his hotel in full regalia: purple velvet doublet, hose shot with gold threads, jeweled sword, cloth-of-gold robe. Encircling his bewigged head was the crown his enemies had snatched from his corpse at the end. He enjoyed staying in character after the curtain fell. He could be John Wilkes Booth any time, but now he felt like King Richard—one who hadn’t gotten bludgeoned to death in battle. Seated regally upon his mount, he greeted passersby with Richard’s wave and detached half-smile. Those who didn’t know the actor simply gawked.

Sometimes he even rode home in full battle gear. He stunned onlookers, a knight in plate armor galloping through the streets of Washington City complete with lance—especially when blue or gray jackets and Springfield rifles were the uniform of the day. Similar spectacles had amused past generations, when his father had pranced around town decked out as an Indian chief streaked with war paint, a feathered headdress streaming behind him.

Wilkes dismounted at Pumphrey’s stable across from the deluxe National Hotel, turned in his horse for the night, and limped across the street, his gait exactly as the deformed king’s was said to have been. He flipped the doorman a coin, making sure it wasn’t his mysterious relic.

“Home early tonight, Mr. Booth,” the doorman commented.

“I’m spent,” was all he had the strength to say. No carousing or salooning tonight. He hoped a good night’s sleep would ease his lingering jitters over that ghastly séance.

Once inside his lavish suite, his fiancée fawned over him as usual.

“Thank you, Lucy dear.” He returned her ardent embrace and accepted the snifter of brandy she pressed into his hand.

“You look splendid, Your Highness.” She bobbed a curtsey as he took that first delicious sip and rolled it around his tongue.

“How did the performance go, darling?”

“Exhausting as it was, your king brought the house down, my lady.” As he limped down the hall, his robe swirled around him like liquid gold. “In the final duel scene, I drove Tilton straight down into the orchestra pit. The audience were on their feet cheering and clapping so hard, I think they wanted me to run him through for real. The very roof rattled.”

“Oh, no!” She followed him into the bedroom where he gazed upon the satin sheets of the king-size bed. Ah, blessed sleep!

“You didn’t get hurt again, did you?” she chided. “You have enough battle scars. One would look at you and think you’d actually served.”

He ignored her jibe. “No. He didn’t get near me. This time I made Richmond quake in his boots.”

He shook a fist in the air. “My kingdom returneth to mine capable Yorkist hands and she liveth yet!” Tired as he was, he had a spark left in him.

“Oh, did you rewrite Shakespeare?” she quipped.

“Good King Dickon always rises from the dead for his curtain calls. But he wears me out, fighting to the death.”

He plucked off the crown and unbuckled his sword, placing these most treasured props on a velvet cushion. They were gifts from his father, who’d used them for years in his own role as Richard.

“Johnny, must you bring Richard the Third back to the room with you? I don’t mind Romeo, or even Brutus, but Richard isn’t my idea of a romantic hero.”

He slid out of his doublet and retrieved the pillow that created Richard’s humpback. “Then who would you like me to be?” He pulled off his shoes.

“Why, John Wilkes Booth, of course!”

“My most challenging role of all.” He knelt at the trash bin and retrieved the remnants of the morning newspaper proclaiming Lincoln’s re-election, which earlier in the day he’d torn in fury. As he wiped his shoes on the shredded paper, he tried not to let the dispiriting news ruin the entire evening.

“Come here, Lucy. I’ll show you what John Wilkes Booth is famous for.” He drained his brandy without tasting it. As he slipped naked between the sheets, Lucy extinguished the bedside lamp. Moonlight streamed through the French doors. She stroked him lovingly, but his fatigue won out.

Flopping onto his back, he folded his hands behind his head. “It’s not going to happen tonight, sweet pea,” he murmured. “I’m just too done in.”

“If you’d rather, I can just help you relax.” Her hands slid up his body and massaged his neck muscles. “It’s that play, but don’t worry, we’ll try again in the morning.”

But his portrayal of the maligned King Richard wasn’t what had done him in.

“No, it’s the damn election. Old Abe’s mocked me all day long, adding insult to injury. My nerves are shattered. How voters could keep that murdering rail-splitter on the throne is beyond me.”

The thought of how Lincoln murdered poor Beall made his jaw clench and his teeth grind painfully until his temples ached. As he forced himself to relax, tiredness took over, draining his soul of all emotion. He gave a half-yawn, half-sigh.

“Please, Johnny, calm down. You can’t do anything about it now.”

Oh, I will do something about it, he silently vowed as he reached for a cheroot and lit it. The orange glow swelled in the darkness as he took a long drag.

“Even your magic fingers won’t help, Lucy. Just go to sleep.”

“The war can’t last much longer.” She was always quick to assure him when he teetered toward melancholy, going off to brood alone, which was happening more and more often. Beall’s hanging had driven him over the edge. He’d never gotten past the grief or his rage at the murderer.

How long will the saintly Lucy put up with me? he wondered. Until I completely lose my mind?

“Thank you, Lucy. But I don’t know how long I can last.”

“When the play ends its run, we should go on a trip—just the two of us, somewhere peaceful. Vienna is lovely this time of year. We could go to the Schonbrunn Palace, see an opera at the new Wiener Staatsoper…”

“I can’t leave,” he snapped. “They need me here.”

“You can afford to take a hiatus from acting, Johnny.”

He blew out a stream of smoke.“It’s not just the acting. The soldiers need me to ease their suffering. When I visit the hospitals and give readings, their faces light up. They have something to live for. You should see the spark of hope. And you want me to go on some slaphappy junket to Vienna?”

He took another drag of the cheroot and forcefully expelled the smoke. He couldn’t tell her, a loyal Yankee daughter of a Yankee senator, what else he did for the dying soldiers: smuggling medicines through the blockade and into the pitifully depleted field hospitals.

“Can’t you get another actor to do these readings?” she probed.

Too tired to argue, he waited a few moments before replying. “There’s more to it than acting, Lucy.”

His only answer was her deep, even breathing. He stared wide-eyed into the darkness and savored the serenity. In the far corner, the grandfather clock’s Westminster chimes rang out the quarter hour. But when he glanced at his pocket watch on the nightstand, it was only ten minutes after. Well, that old clock never worked properly anyway.

He counted the seconds along with the ticking clock. It chimed the half-hour, again too early.

He ground out the cheroot, slid out of bed, and fished the mystery coin from his pouch. Rubbing it between his fingers, he went into the lounge and lit his reading lamp, raising the wick high.

Wanting to study the coin in detail, he turned it to the obverse. But the embossed image looked different than before. The Roman profile was more sharply defined, the Adam’s apple more prominent. He held it closely and stared. Was that a beard along the pronounced jaw line? His eyes widened as his heart lurched in disbelief.

No, it couldn’t be—but by God, the face on the coin was a dead ringer for Abraham Lincoln.