This story takes place approximately 100 years ago in NYC.
The warm air of the room she walks into is cozy and relaxing. Sturdy brick walls make her feel safe from the soaking wet cold outside. The sound of heavy rain cascading against windows help add to this effect. Across from her a metal chimney vines down the wall, avoiding sentimental hangings next to the chalkboard displaying today’s special and other menu items.
Devee Sanjen steps down the small stairs into the basement of the now famous 21 Club. Mellow jazz and dark atmosphere, it feels like the right place for her appointment.
Relinquishing her Fall coat, she allows her eyes to adjust. She had been told to meet her host in the cellar, but she is not exactly sure what that means since the whole place looks to be that. She admires the wall art and simple, wrought iron furnishings. She spies delicious plates with forbidden drinks on the table of the new America.
At the back of the room, she wanders into a kind of kitchen area, and asks one of the staff where Mr. Harper can be found, and is directed down another flight of stairs at an odd angle. “Oh, thank you.”
Careful to grasp the bar along the wall, she sidesteps a couple taking advantage of the seclusion. “Oh, excuse me”, Devee says jokingly.
Now in a storage area, she looks around confused. A blond man preparing meat catches her attention, and guides her over to a recessed enclosure while wiping his hands. Seeming unable to speak English himself, he says only “Harper?” with a half upturn of his face. Almost like a universal question mark.
“Yes,” Devee simply replies. “Sanjen”, she adds as a second thought, like playing a game of password or more likely role-playing a visit to the royal palace.
He smiles and nods at the meat hook hanging from the wall, holding up his sanguinary hands. Again, seeming to wipe them on his apron, and also hide them from the well-dressed lady. Not afraid at all, Devee reaches for the long utensil and holds it up for him like the lady of the lake sharing Excalibur. The man smiles and points at one of the holes in the wall, to which she complies. Ah, a key hole of sorts, she thinks to herself. Genius.
Turning the hook, a mechanism in the heavy wall unlocks. The helpful man body slams his shoulder into the wall and nudges it open just a bit for her, and mumbles to the guard inside. Devee hears “Sanjen” and “Harper”, to which the guard nods.
The guard offers a hand for her to climb down yet another set of stairs, before he pulls a lever to release the door spring. It closes securely behind her as she peers this way and that.
Alcoves along a short divider topped by wood lattice greet her eyes. The area beyond the partition, though poorly lit, has many fine imports. Her eyes drift to the corner where Mr. Harper is seen peering out from the far enclosure with happy eyes. “You made it”, he says over the sound of a sudden buzz. Along the wall near her trap doors open and close in the ceiling, sending a multitude of glassware to rain down into the depths below the floor.
Devee looks uncertainly at Mr. Harper, who rises from the upholstered bench and offers his hand as she also reaches out to his.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he simply says gesturing at the partitions. “We’re being raided apparently”.
Devee’s blood surges into her ears, leaving her heart to labor the sudden rush of adrenaline.
“No. Don’t worry”, he assures her. Guiding her to their table.
“It happens all the time, it will be fine,” another guest offers.
“You’re safe here, sweetie”, his female companion says in a soft voice.
“I’m just having a salad”, Devee says in reply.
“Of course, sweetie. Me too, it’s very fresh.”
Now seated, Devee glances around again to be sure she is not being hunted. No eyes in the grass. No shadow people in the corner. Harper offers her a drink.
“No thank you,” Devee responds. “Is there water, or a juice perhaps?”
“It’s all juice, silly”, Harper says with an amused smile.
“Nevertheless.” Devee says with a tone of finality, turning her head the way she sees movie stars do it.
Mr. Harper chortles and waves a waiter over, and asks her again what she would like for a beverage. “A a juice, if you will please”, Devee says to the man.
“We have orange juice, and a cherry phosphate from our own pharmacy,” the man offers with his eyebrows raised in a friendly way.
“Oh, the cherry sounds delightful,” Devee says back to him. He simply smiles and goes to fetch her drink. He quickly returns and offers her a tall glass with a straw and sets it carefully before her like an offering. Devee smiles at the man, Harper smiles, the man smiles. Everyone is smiling, and the footsteps overhead are not so heavy as before.
Trying not to let her eyes water as the sensation of carbonation goes up her sinuses, Devee sits back and crosses her legs, feeling the luxurious material with her hands. “You have asked me here to find something for you.”
John Harper, who’d just been delivered a decorated cup and saucer filled with steaming hot chocolate, looks up with his amused smile again. “Yes, Ms. Sanjen. I’m so glad to see you tonight.” He leans back to recover from a satchel a small book. It looks heavy on the miles, with yellowing paper and a disintegrated binding. Nothing but love keeps the rest together and in order. “I have with me a journal that is very important to me. I secured it at great cost.”
“I see,” Devee can only think to say.
The staff appears again asking if she wants to enjoy a healthy steak, to which she winces, but politely declines. “I actually had dinner, already,” Devee responds. She looks over to see Harper’s withered expression for the first time ever. “Well, you can enjoy your food, John.”
“You don’t have to eat meat, Devee,” Harper replies, arms extended over the table, turning the pages slowly for her, his gaze upon the content while speaking in a hypnotic way. “There’s a salad if you like. They have excellent fruit salad, here. Waldorf if you’re into that sort of thing.”
“Isn’t that like a desert, though?” she replies.
“It can be breakfast, if you like,” Harper says in a quirky way.
Devee briefly imagines him to be the sort of man who drinks Yoo-hoo when no one is looking. “Okay, I’ll do it!” she declares, suddenly grabbing his wrist in a faux excited gesture.
Though he also feigns surprise, they both smile at the waiter who writes Waldorf and Harper’s plate selection before again disappearing to the station near the dumbwaiter.
Devee draws the sometimes logbook sometimes accounting ledger closer to take a look, and Mr. Harper watches the waiter to make sure he puts the order in right away. He’d skipped food all day so he would be hungry to eat with Devee. The man walks to a horn on the wall behind the wait station, and talks into it. John Harper’s imagination follows the order up the wall and into the kitchen, where he envisions a frumpy chef with a tired expression nodding.
“This is pretty unbelievable,” Devee speaks over his reverie.
Harper glances back at the diary in her hands, and up into Devee’s face before taking a sip of his hot cocoa. “Oh? How so?” He blinks as causally as possible, despite the scalding hot cocoa going down his throat a little, too fast.
“Well. I mean…” she flicks a hand to the side, as though trying to get rid of a crumb.
“It’s the private daybook, allegedly of John Wilkes Booth,” Harper says with gleeful eyes.
“Well, it says,” Devee begins while flipping to the front. “I mean it’s an interesting find, but isn’t this supposed to be with the Feds?”
“They believe perhaps his doings were in concert with the CSA.”
“Yes, of course. His plot to kidnap changing after a bullet wound of his own are well known. No thanks to a fortune teller absolutely freaking him out. Nothing like a sense of urgency to ‘do something’, even just manifesting a family quarrel.” Devee pauses to turn away and bite her lip, closing her eyes. “So, this is actually with their blessing.”
“I did say perhaps.”
They sit in silence for a moment, listening to the clatter of dishes. Devee peers over her shoulder to see where the staff are. The only visible person listening to a telephone call and fiddling with the contents of a nearby shelf. Burlap sacks with crude lettering. Basic, ceramic jars and painted metal containers.
Beside the clatter and hushed conversations Devee can no longer hear the music overhead. Likely patrons are playing it safe and minding their dinner over polite conversation. An uneasy feeling begins to rise.
Before her Harper produces a narrow piece of paper and heavily scribbles his name on a line before turning it round for her to see it.
“What’s this?” Devee asks while picking it up to narrow her eyes in the dark as though to see better. All those zeros! “What!” she stops to lower her excited tone. She leans forward to hiss the words at a contently smirking Harper. “This is so much more than you’ve ever compensated me. What’s going on!?”
The food appears in front of her, gingerly sliding just vertical to her eyes. Waldorf salad in a pristine, crystal dish. Then John’s burned sacrifice on bone china. If his smile got any bigger, he’d look the cat about to eat a mouse.
He snaps a napkin in the air while pulling at his tie and collar. “Twenty thousand was Mr. Boothe’s salary. I find it quite appropriate.”
Devee leans back to snatch a gleaming dessert spoon from her collection and dip it into her treat, mushing it about in the bowl like stirring oatmeal, a concerned look on her face. “It would be twice that now. Not counting his substantial loss in oil.”
“Yes,” Harper agrees while chewing happily and using a meat square frosted with sauce to point at her. “And if you find what I’m looking for, that is to say, the rest of the little diary of our American cousin ….,” he stops chewing to look sadly into the corner of his mind; searching for a less macabre play on words. Suddenly his bright eyes return to hers as he tilts his head forward, “… villain” he articulates slowly. “Then I will double the fee.”
Devee instinctively lowers her face down to nearly table level, darting her eyes about. “What the … what?”
“This mystery my Devee, is conveniently ignored for too long. After Mr. Lincoln’s untimely departure, the nature of the republic changed in its entirety.”
“You think the conspiracy goes deeper.”
Harper turns his head just slightly while chewing.
“Okay. So yes.” Devee plays with her salad a bit more before chewing some of it. “The blamed party even disavowed the criminal act. The media washed its hands. No one wants a US President gone.”
“Most in the former CSA even mourned his passing.”
“So then,” Harper cuts her short. “Did he act alone, or was it even JWB?”
Devee chews slowly, lost completely down a dark hole in the ground. “Lincoln’s war primed America’s military with advanced technology. There was a push for Imperialism. Vague references to Caesar and Mars before his murder.”
“Yes!” Harper says.
“But who?” Devee asks.
“I cannot tell you, because I don’t know Ms. Sanjen. That is why I need your vast intelligence.”
“But this. Is so… not political. Dangerous.”
Harper smiles big before chewing more.
Devee sits there in silence. She is going to need a note book of her own.
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