The small, decrepit office on the top floor of the government building was from another era, which was to say nobody but the present occupant had used it in sixty-four years and eight months. It was not that there were dark secrets in its walls or malevolent ghosts from the past hovering below the shabby ceiling; quite simply, nobody wanted to use it. And another point should be made clear. It was not actually on the top floor, it was above the top floor, reached by a narrow wooden staircase, the kind the wives of New Bedford whalers climbed to prowl the balconies, hoping—most of the time—for familiar ships that signaled the return of their own particular Ahabs from the angry ocean.
In summer months the office was suffocating, as there was only one small window. During the winter it was freezing, as its wooden shell had no insulation and the window rattled incessantly, impervious to caulking, permitting the cold winds to whip inside as though invited. In essence, this room, this antiquated upper chamber with its sparse furniture purchased around the turn of the century, was the Siberia of the government agency in which it was housed. The last formal employee who toiled there was a discredited American Indian who had the temerity to learn to read English and suggested to his superiors, who themselves could barely read English, that certain restrictions placed on a reservation of the Navajo nation were too severe. It is said the man died in that upper office in the cold January of 1927 and was not discovered until the following May, when the weather was warm and the air suddenly scented. The government agency was, of course, the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs.
For the current occupant, however, the foregoing was not a deterrent but rather an incentive. The lone figure in the nondescript gray suit huddled over the rolltop desk, which wasn’t much of a desk, as all its little drawers had been removed and the rolling top was stuck at half-mast, was General MacKenzie Hawkins, military legend, hero in three wars and twice winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. This giant of a man, his lean muscular figure belying his elderly years, his steely eyes and tanned leather-lined face perhaps confirming a number of them, had once again gone into combat. However, for the first time in his life, he was not at war with the enemies of his beloved United States of America but with the government of the United States itself. Over something that took place a hundred and twelve years ago.
It didn’t much matter when, he thought, as he squeaked around in his ancient swivel chair and propelled himself to an adjacent table piled high with old leather-bound ledgers and maps. They were the same pricky-shits who had screwed him, stripped him of his uniform, and put him out to military pasture! They were all the goddamned same, whether in their frilly frock coats of a hundred years ago or their piss-elegant, tight-assed pinstripes of today. They were all pricky-shits. Time did not matter, nailing them did!
The general pulled down the chain of a green-shaded, goosenecked lamp—circa early twenties—and studied a map, in his right hand a large magnifying glass. He then spun around to his dilapidated desk and reread the paragraph he had underlined in the ledger whose binding had split with age. His perpetually squinting eyes suddenly were wide and bright with excitement. He reached for the only instrument of communication he had at his disposal, since the installation of a telephone might reveal his more than scholarly presence at the Bureau. It was a small cone attached to a tube; he blew into it twice, the signal of emergency. He waited for a reply; it came over the primitive instrument thirty-eight seconds later.
“Mac?” said the rasping voice over the antediluvian connection.
“Heseltine, I’ve got it!”
“For Christ’s sake, blow into this thing a little easier, will you? My secretary was here and I think she thought my dentures were whistling.”
“She’s out,” confirmed Heseltine Brokemichael, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “What is it?”
“I just told you, I’ve got it!”
“The biggest con job the pricky-shits ever pulled, the same pricky-shits who made us wear civvies, old buddy!”
“Oh, I’d love to get those bastards. Where did it happen and when?”
“In Nebraska. A hundred and twelve years ago.”
“Mac, we weren’t around then! Not even you!”
“It doesn’t matter, Heseltine. It’s the same horseshit. The same bastards who did it to them did it to you and me a hundred years later.”
“An offshoot of the Mohawks called the Wopotami tribe. They migrated to the Nebraska territories in the middle 1800s.”
“It’s time for the sealed archives, General Brokemichael.”
“Don’t say that! Nobody can do that!”
“You can, General. I need final confirmation, just a few loose ends to clear up.”
“For what? Why?”
“Because the Wopotamis may still legally own all the land and air rights in and around Omaha, Nebraska.”
“You’re crazy, Mac! That’s the Strategic Air Command!”
“Only a couple of missing items, buried fragments, and the facts are there. . . . I’ll meet you in the cellars, at the vault to the archives, General Brokemichael. . . . Or should I call you co-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with me, Heseltine? If I’m right, and I know damn well I am, we’ve got the White House-Pentagon axis in such a bind, their collective tails won’t be able to evacuate until we tell ’em to.”
“I’ll let you in, Mac, but then I fade until you tell me I’ve got my uniform back.”
“Fair enough. Incidentally, I’m packing everything I’ve got here and taking it back to my place in Arlington. That poor son of a bitch who died up in this rat’s nest and wasn’t found until the perfume drifted down didn’t die in vain!”
The two generals stalked through the metal shelves of the musty sealed archives, the dull, webbed lights so dim they relied on their flashlights. In the seventh aisle, MacKenzie Hawkins stopped, his beam on an ancient volume whose leather binding was cracked. “I think this is it, Heseltine.”
“Good, and you can’t take it out of here!”
“I understand that, General, so I’ll merely take a few photographs and return it.” Hawkins removed a tiny spy camera with 110 film from his gray suit.
“How many rolls have you got?” asked former General Heseltine Brokemichael as MacKenzie carried the huge book to a steel table at the end of the aisle.
“Eight,” replied Hawkins, opening the yellow-paged volume to the pages he needed.
“I have a couple of others, if you need them,” said Heseltine. “Not that I’m so all fired-up by what you think you may have found, but if there’s any way to get back at Ethelred, I’ll take it!”
“I thought you two had made up,” broke in MacKenzie, while turning pages and snapping pictures.
“It wasn’t Ethelred’s fault, it was that rotten lawyer in the Inspector General’s office, a half-assed kid from Harvard named Devereaux, Sam Devereaux. He made the mistake, not Brokey the Deuce. Two Brokemichaels; he got ’em mixed up, that’s all.”
“Horseshit! Brokey-Two put the finger on me!”
“I think you’re wrong, but that’s not what I’m here for and neither are you. . . . Brokey, I need the volume next to or near this one. It should say CXII on the binding. Get it for me, will you?” As the head of Indian Affairs walked back into the metal stacks, the Hawk took a single-edged razor out of his pocket and sliced out fifteen successive pages of the archival ledger. Without folding the precious papers, he slipped them under his suit coat.
“I can’t find it,” said Brokemichael.
“Never mind, I’ve got what I need.”
“What now, Mac?”
“A long time, Heseltine, maybe a long, long time, perhaps a year or so, but I’ve got to make it right—so right there’s no holes, no holes at all.”
“In a suit I’m going to file against the government of the United States,” replied Hawkins, pulling a mutilated cigar out of his pocket and lighting it with a World War II Zippo. “You wait, Brokey-One, and you watch.”
“Good God, for what? . . . Don’t smoke! You’re not supposed to smoke in here!”
“Oh, Brokey, you and your cousin, Ethelred, always went too much by the book, and when the book didn’t match the action, you looked for more books. It’s not in the books, Heseltine, not the ones you can read. It’s in your stomach, in your gut. Some things are right and some things are wrong, it’s as simple as that. The gut tells you.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Your gut tells you to look for books you’re not supposed to read. In places where they keep secrets, like right in here.”
“Mac, you’re not making sense!”
“Give me a year, maybe two, Brokey, and then you’ll understand. I’ve got to do it right. Real right.” General MacKenzie Hawkins strode out between the metal racks of the archives to the exit. “Goddamn,” he said to himself. “Now I really go to work. Get ready for me, you magnificent Wopotamis. I’m yours!”
Twenty-one months passed, and nobody was ready for Thunder Head, chief of the Wopotamis.
The President of the United States, his jaw firm, his angry eyes steady and penetrating, accelerated his pace along the steel-gray corridor in the underground complex of the White House. In seconds, he had outdistanced his entourage, his tall, lean frame angled forward as if bucking a torrential wind, an impatient figure wanting only to reach the storm-tossed battlements and survey the bloody costs of war so as to devise a strategy and repel the invading hordes assaulting his realm. He was John of Arc, his racing mind building a counterattack at Orleans, a Harry Five who knew the decisive Agincourt was in the immediate picture.
At the moment, however, his immediate objective was the anxiety-prone Situation Room, buried in the lowest levels of the White House. He reached a door, yanked it open, and strode inside as his subordinates, now trotting and breathless, followed in unison.
“All right, fellas!” he roared. “Let’s skull!”
A brief silence ensued, broken by the tremulous, high- pitched voice of a female aide. “I don’t think in here, Mr. President.”
“This is the men’s room, sir.”
“Oh? . . . What are you doing here?”
“Following you, sir.”
“Golly gee. Wrong turn. Sorry about that. Let’s go. Out!”
The large round table in the Situation Room glistened under the wash of the indirect lighting, reflecting the shadows of the bodies seated around it. These blocks of shadow on the polished wood, like the bodies themselves, remained immobile as the stunned faces attached to those bodies stared in astonishment at the gaunt, bespectacled man who stood behind the President in front of a portable blackboard, on which he had drawn numerous diagrams in four different colors of chalk. The visual aids were somewhat less than effective as two of the crisis management team were color-blind. The bewildered expression on the youthful Vice-President’s face was nothing new and therefore dismissible, but the growing agitation on the part of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was not so easily dismissed.
“Goddamn it, Washbum, I don’t—”
“That’s Washburn, General.”
“That’s nice. I don’t follow the legal line.”
“It’s the orange one, sir.”
“Which one is that?”
“I just explained, the orange chalk.”
“Point it out.”
Heads turned; the President spoke. “Gee whiz, Zack, can’t you tell?”
“It’s dark in here, Mr. President.”
“Not that dark, Zack. I can see it clearly.”
“Well, I’ve got a minor visual problem,” said the general, abruptly lowering his voice, “. . . distinguishing certain colors.”
“I heard him,” exclaimed the towheaded Vice-President, seated next to the J.C. chairman. “He’s color-blind.”
“Golly, Zack, but you’re a soldier!”
“Came on late, Mr. President.”
“It came on early with me,” continued the excitable heir to the Oval Office. “Actually, it’s what kept me out of the real army. I would have given anything to correct the problem!”
“Close it up, gumball,” said the swarthy-skinned director of the Central Intelligence Agency, his voice low but his half-lidded, dark eyes ominous. “The friggin’ campaign’s over.”
“Now, really, Vincent, there’s no cause for that language,” intruded the President. “There’s a lady present.”
“That judgment’s up for grabs, Prez. The lady in question is not unfamiliar with the lingua franca, as it were.” The DCI smiled grimly at the glaring female aide and returned to the man named Washburn at the portable blackboard. “You, our legal expert here, what kind of . . . creek are we up?”
“That’s better, Vinnie,” added the President. “I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome. . . . Go on, Mr. Lawyer. What kind of deep ca-ca are we really into?”
“Very nice, Vinnie.”
“Please, Big Man, we’re all a little stressed here.” The director leaned forward, his apprehensive eyes on the White House legal aide. “You,” he continued, “put away the chalk and let’s have the news. And do me a favor, don’t spend a week getting there, okay?”
“As you wish, Mr. Mangecavallo,” said the White House attorney, placing the colored chalk on the blackboard ledge. “I was merely trying to diagram the historical precedents relative to the altered laws where the Indian nations were concerned.”
“What nations?” asked the Vice-President, in his voice a trace of arrogance. “They’re tribes, not countries.”
“Go on,” interrupted the director. “He’s not here.”
“Well, I’m sure you all recall the information our mole at the Supreme Court gave us about an obscure, impoverished Indian tribe petitioning the Court over a supposed treaty with the federal government that was allegedly lost or stolen by federal agents. A treaty that if ever found would restore their rights to certain territories currently housing vital military installations.”
“Oh, yes,” said the President. “We had quite a laugh over that. They even sent an extremely long brief to the Court that nobody wanted to read.”
“Some poor people will do anything but get a job!” joined in the Veep. “That is a laugh.”
“Our lawyer isn’t laughing,” observed the director.
“No, I’m not, sir. Our mole sends word that there’ve been some quiet rumors which may mean absolutely nothing, of course, but apparently five or six justices of the Court were so impressed by the brief that they’ve actually debated its merits in chambers. Several feel that the lost Treaty of 1878, negotiated with the Wopotami tribe and the Forty-ninth Congress, may ultimately be legally binding upon the government of the United States.”
“You gotta be outta your lemon tree!” roared Mangecavallo. “They can’t do that!”
“Totally unacceptable,” snapped the pinstriped, acerbic Secretary of State. “Those judicial fruitcakes will never survive the polls!”
“I don’t think they have to, Warren.” The President shook his head slowly. “But I see what you mean. As the great communicator frequently told me, ‘Those mothers couldn’t get parts as extras in Ben-Hur, not even in the Colosseum scenes.’ ”
“Profound,” said the Vice-President, nodding his head. “That really says it. Who’s Benjamin Hurr?”
“Forget it,” replied the balding, portly Attorney General, still breathing heavily from the swift journey through the underground corridors. “The point is they don’t need outside employment. They’re set for life, and there’s nothing we can do about it!”
“Unless they’re all impeached,” offered the nasal-toned Secretary of State, Warren Pease, his thin-lipped smile devoid of bonhomie.
“Forget that, too,” rebutted the Attorney General. “They’re pristine white and immaculate black, even the skirt. I checked the whole spectrum when those pointy-heads shoved that negative poll tax decision down our throats.”
“That was simply grotesque!” cried the Vice-President, his wide eyes searching for approval. “What’s five hundred dollars for the right to vote?”
Excerpted from The Road to Omaha by Robert Ludlum. Copyright © 2014 by Robert Ludlum. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.