Tom Moody was working at the far end of the basement, kneeling on a plastic tarpaulin, when he first spied a corner of the box in the wall. It was nestled in a small depression, immediately beside the joist. It was made out of wood. Moody worked his trowel around the edges, and the dense compacted dirt, trapped for two hundred years, came undone, tumbled down. He wiggled the box from the hole.
In the bright glow of the work light, he could just make out a series of engravings on the top, scarred and covered in dirt: a Mason’s square and a pyramid; some kind of seal. There was a latch on one side. Moody pulled the box into his lap. He opened the latch, lifted the lid. Inside was a book of some sort, a kind of notebook or journal. He put the box on the floor. Then he removed his work gloves. He turned the cover of the notebook over and his heart skipped a beat as he picked out the signature: B. Franklin.
The fact of the matter is, Tom Moody shouldn’t have gone to work that day at all. He’d been up late the night before at that Thai joint on Bainbridge, in Center City, on a blind date with a girl he’d met on the Net. After his most recent string of failures, Moody hadn’t been expecting much. But the date had gone great. The girl’s name was Miranda. She had long brown curly hair and a big rack, and when he spotted her in the restaurant wearing that leotard—the way she was leaning with her hip out and her hand on the bar, the way she smiled at him when he called out her name—he knew that his luck had just turned. She was Catholic, too. They had stayed for Pad Thai and green tea, then gone dancing, and everything had somehow just clicked, in that weird freaky way that it does. At least sometimes. He had awakened beside her at dawn, still excited. His cell phone was ringing. It was Tony, his buddy from the union. There was a freelance gig, it turned out, at Franklin Court. If he was interested.
A tall bundle of muscle, with teal-colored eyes, a shiny shaved head and a nose ring, Tom Moody found a ten-dollar bill at the bus stop on his way to the hall. It was just lying there. He bent down, half expecting it to fly away or be pulled back by some invisible thread, but it just sat there, and he picked it up and stuffed it into the pocket of his leather jacket.
By the time he got to Franklin Court, he’d already bought two tickets for that night’s drawing of the Powerball Jackpot.
The job was pretty straightforward. The Independence National Historic Park had authorized some structural engineering work under Franklin Court, at the former home and print shop of Benjamin Franklin, off Market Street. Over the centuries, the buildings surrounding Franklin Court had shifted. Recent excavations had shown less-than-optimal support structures beside the new museum. They had to go in through the basement of the old house, excavate and shore up the supports.
Moody flipped through the pages of the journal in his hand. It was all nonsense, he decided. The sentences were blocked together in distinctive rows of three, but the letters didn’t link to form words. They seemed random, a jumble. Then he noticed a few words he recognized: The Gospel of Judas. And besides the familiar English alphabet, two foreign languages. Greek, Moody speculated. He’d seen it before at Greek diners. Plus some alien script.
“I found something,” said Moody, as he settled the box on Ian Wilson’s desk.
Short and round, with thinning hair combed adroitly across his bald spot, Wilson was the general contractor on the Park job, and the guy responsible for interfacing with the Independence Park Service officials. He generally worked over by Rittenhouse Square, but had set up a temporary office on Third Street and Chestnut. The space was Spartan: a desk and a chair; a PC; a secondhand file cabinet and a coffee machine.
Wilson wore a light brown windbreaker, with the name of the Little League baseball team he sponsored—The Thunders—stenciled on the front, and a blue button-down shirt. He glanced up from his paperwork. “What is it?” He glared at the dirt-covered box on his desk.
“In the north wall,” Moody said. “Just under the basement joist. Some kind of hiding spot, I guess. Go ahead. Open it.”
Wilson frowned. He reached over, unlatched the top and opened the box. “A book?” He looked up at Moody.
“A journal,” said Moody. “Or diary. And look at the front cover, on the inside.”
Wilson did so. He gasped as he saw the signature. There was no mistaking that florid horizontal double helix underneath the stolid script. B. Franklin. He turned a few more pages with care.
“It’s in some kind of foreign language,” Moody said. “But I don’t recognize it.”
“No,” Wilson said. “Not a language. A code, I’d guess.”
“I found a phrase,” countered Moody, feeling suddenly disheartened. It was as though, through Wilson’s single observation, the title to his remarkable discovery had been unceremoniously transferred. “Look, here,” Moody said. He stepped around the desk. He leaned across the surface and began to flip through the pages.
Wilson pushed him away. “Your hands are still dirty. Just show me.”
“Keep going. More,” said Moody. “More. There. Right there. See? On the bottom right.”
“The Gospel of Judas,” said Wilson. “In Greek and in Hebrew. The Gospel of Judas!” He whistled. “That’s a Gnostic text. The Gnostics were an early Christian sect, considered heretical by the organized Church.”
“Is that what that writing is? Looks different from the Jewish I’ve seen.”
“Right,” said Moody with a nod. “That’s what I meant.” This was not going as visualized, as manifested, he thought. That’s what Miranda had called it the previous evening at that Thai place. She had leaned in to him at the bar, all of a sudden, before they’d been seated, leaned in with her long brown curly hair. And she had told him that things only happened when you visualized them first, and when you were in harmony, in tune with the laws of attraction. Something like that. “Hey, Mr. Wilson. Do you think there might be some sort of finder’s fee . . . you know, for digging up the box?” Moody asked. “Not that I’m trying to take no advantage. Just wonderin’.”
“I doubt it,” said Wilson. “It’s a National Park. It belongs to the Feds. To the people, Moody,” he added and laughed. “You and me.”
“What are you going to do, give it to Thompson?” Larry Thompson was the curator of Independence Park. Moody had met him before, on another project three years earlier.
Wilson closed the journal, slipped the lid into place. He pulled the box toward his chest. “On the other hand, there might just be a reward,” he continued. “I could find out for you. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Play your cards right and this freelance gig might turn into something permanent. You never know, Moody. And you’re right, of course—Larry Thompson should see it. Right away.”
Wilson stood up. He reached into his pants and took out his wallet. It was stuffed full of papers, on a chain attached to his khakis. “Do me a favor, will ya?” He flipped open the wallet and pulled out a ticket. “Swing over to the garage by Christ Church and pick up my car. It’s a black Continental. Level three. I have to make a call before I leave. Then you can break early for lunch.” He pulled out a hundred-dollar bill. “On me.” There was a charm on the chain by his wallet, shaped like a small Mason’s square. “Meantime, until I hear what Thompson has to say, might as well forget about this box here. Probably not real, anyway. And you don’t want to go spoiling your chances of earning some reward now, do you?”
Moody took the ticket from Wilson. Then he took the hundred-dollar bill. The wheel of life had just turned. He was in harmony, in tune. What should he manifest next?
Benjamin Franklin sat at the table by the entrance to Tun Tavern, watching the late afternoon crowd amble by, waiting upon Henry Price. Located on the waterfront at the corner of Water Street and Tun Alley, the three-story beer tavern had been built in 1685 by Samuel Carpenter, whose apparent lack of imagination had resulted in his failure to come up with anything more interesting than Tun, the old English word for cask or barrel. Franklin took another sip of his pale ale and belched. Carpenter should have called it the Dun Tavern, he thought, based on the color of the patrons’ clothes, or simply Dung Tavern. After all, the tavern’s proximity to the river cast a malodorous pall across the establishment during these hot days of summer. That’s when he first spotted Price down the street. He was walking with two other gentlemen. Franklin stood up, downed his beer and wiped his lips on the back of his hand. This was it, he thought. The great day had finally arrived.
Henry Price was a thin man with a ferretlike face, bright chestnut brown eyes flecked with green and long straight black hair. He wore a simple dark frock coat and tricorne hat with a low crown, without trimming, that did little to reveal his profession. Born in London in 1697, Price had been admitted to the Freedom of the Company of Merchant Tailors by Patrimony on the first of July, 1719, but had emigrated soon thereafter, in 1723, to the port city of Boston. Only the year before, Franklin had learned, Price had opened his own shop between Water and State streets, and the business was doing quite well. More important—though not yet officially recognized by Viscount Montagu, Grand Master of the Moderns’ Grand Lodge in London—Price played the role of Provincial Grand Master to the Freemasons of the colonies, and had agreed, after some urging, to usher the twenty-five-year-old Franklin into the mysteries of the Craft.
Price entered the tavern. Franklin rose to greet him and noticed, for the first time, that the Grand Master was carrying a box under his left arm. “Brother Price,” he said. “How was your voyage?” Franklin examined the other two men. One was short and rather fat, wearing a wig of inferior quality. The other was tall with bad teeth.
Franklin and Price exchanged a quick handshake. “Fair sailing,” said Price. Then he turned toward his friends. “Fellow travelers from Boston,” he said. “Robert Tomlinson.”
The fat man made a slight bow.
“And Thomas Oxnard,” said Price, with a tilt of the head.
The tall man with bad teeth nodded almost imperceptibly. “You’ve started to make quite a name for yourself, Mr. Franklin. Some say you’ll be Postmaster General in no time.”
Franklin felt himself blushing. He had been dreaming of little else for the past year or more, and yet he had never considered his ambition to be so readily apparent as far north as Boston. Franklin had started to answer when Price interrupted him, saying, “Is the room ready?”
“It is,” replied Franklin. “Follow me.”
They made their way past the patrons to the rear of Tun Tavern. At the end of a long corridor, Franklin knocked on a door, and a small man with a bald head and crooked nose peered through the crack as it opened. He nodded at Franklin and let the men in.
The room was small, barely large enough to accommodate a dining table and four chairs. One window faced out onto Tun Alley. But it had been covered by curtains, Franklin noticed. Only the glow of a candle on the table revealed the men’s faces.
“This is the proprietor of the Tun, David Carpenter,” Franklin said.
“I know your father,” said Price. “How is Sam?”
David Carpenter beamed. “Fine, fine,” he said with an excess of zeal. “He sends you his best, Brother Price. And may I add that you’re looking particularly well.”
Franklin smiled to himself. Carpenter was no fool. He knew that if things progressed smoothly, the Tun would soon see more rituals and, with them, more customers, too.
“Oxnard and Tomlinson will set up the temple,” said Price. “You stay here with me, Ben, and I’ll dress you.”
Carpenter, Oxnard and Tomlinson slipped out of the room through a side door. When they had gone, Price turned and dropped the box he’d been carrying onto the table. He lifted the cover and Franklin took a step closer. There it was. Franklin could scarcely contain himself. His Freemason’s apron! And below it, a book.
Price reached into the box and removed the two objects. “Practice,” he said, as he poked at the book.
Franklin picked up the volume. He opened the cover and flipped through the pages.
“I’ve marked it,” said Price. He pointed at a long piece of ribbon which dangled down from the volume.
Franklin turned the pages, scanning the curious illustrations and diagrams within. He had almost reached the page in question when his eyes fell upon a symbol he recognized; it was the Greek letter phi. And below it, a picture of the Ark of the Covenant, with light shooting out of the sides just like lightning, transfixing the enemies of Israel who crowded about it. To the side, he noticed another strange diagram, with the words “The Gospel of Judas” in script just above it. “What’s this?” Franklin said, pointing down at the page.
Price looked over. He pinched his lips and replied, “Further back, Ben. By the ribbon.”
Franklin stared at the page. He could not tear his eyes away from that curious diagram, the circles and squares. The pattern was hypnotizing. With an effort, he glanced up from the volume, an expression of helplessness pinned to his face.
Price smiled. “I know. It’s the pattern. The God machine, Ben. Though it’s still incomplete.”
Price shook his head. “Further back, by the ribbon. Turn away, Ben. Or you’ll waste your whole life on a dream.”
“What’s the God machine?”
“Of that, we’ll talk later, if you’re up to it. But first, do you know all your lines?”
Franklin sighed. He flipped back to the page in the volume that was marked with the ribbon. He glanced at the text for a moment, then nodded and said, “I’m prepared, Brother Price. I’ve been practicing.”
“Very good.” Price picked up the apron. He flared it and the material wafted down to the surface like a tablecloth. Franklin stared at the intricate stitching.
The apron featured a black-and-white checkerboard pattern representing the floor of the Temple of Solomon—good and evil. It was framed by four pillars: In the rear were the pillars of Boaz; in the front, the two pillars of Enoch. Each was crowned by a globe. At the rear of the checkerboard pattern rose an altar, fixed with a compass and square. And above it, the six-pointed stars of the liberal arts—all seven of them; the all-seeing eye of the Grand Architect; and a rainbow, the great arch of heaven. The whole thing was bordered by a ribbon of red, white and blue. “It’s beautiful,” Franklin said. He drew in his breath. “It’s . . .” But he could not quite finish. The diagram from the book still swam in his head. He felt it imprinted within him, like the memory of the sun on his retina after closing his eyes.
Excerpted from The God Machine by J. G. Sandom. Copyright © 2009 by J.G. Sandom. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.