The archivist craned his neck back, taking in the full height of the President, who was so close the archivist could see the golden eagle and the presidential seal on Wallace's cuff links. We have a set of LBJ's cuff links in our collection , the archivist reminded himself for no reason whatsoever. And as he looked up at the most powerful man on the planet -- as he studied the leader of the free world -- it took far less than seventeen seconds to give his answer.
"I'm sorry, Mr. President. But those Lincoln documents aren't yours."
For a moment, the President didn't move. Didn't blink. Like he was frozen in time.
There was a deep thunk from behind the archivist. The metal door to the room clicked open.
"I toldja, right, Mr. President?" a familiar midwestern voice called out as the door clanged into the wall. The archivist turned just in time to see his boss, Ronnie Cobb, hobble inside, faster than usual. "I told you he'd come through. No reason to bother with Beecher."
The President smiled -- a real smile -- at his old friend and put a hand on the archivist's shoulder. "Good for you," he announced.
"I-I don't understand," the archivist said, still focused on Cobb. "I thought your chemo . . ." He looked at Cobb, then the President, then back to Cobb, who was beaming like a new father. "What the heck's going on?"
"Didn't you ever see Willy Wonka?" Cobb asked as he limped a few steps closer. "The big prize goes to the one who tells the truth."
The archivist paused a moment, looking at the two men.
"What're you talking about? Why'd you mention Beecher?"
"Relax -- we've got something a lot better than a spooky chocolate factory," President Orson Wallace said as he closed the door to the Vault, once again keeping his Secret Service agents outside. "Welcome to the Culper Ring."
There are stories no one knows. Hidden stories.
I love those stories.
And since I work in the National Archives, I find those stories for a living. They're almost always about other people. Not today. Today, I'm finally in the story -- a bit player in a story about . . .
"Clementine. Today's the day, right?" Orlando asks through the phone from his guardpost at the sign-in desk. "Good for you, brother. I'm proud of you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I ask suspiciously.
"It means, Good. I'm proud ," he says. "I know what you've been through, Beecher. And I know how hard it is to get back in the race."
Orlando thinks he knows me. And he does. For the past year of my life, I was engaged to be married. He knows what happened to Iris. And what it did to my life -- or what's left of it.
"So Clementine's your first dip back in the pool, huh?" he asks.
"She's not a pool."
"Ooh, she's a hot tub?"
"Orlando. Please. Stop," I say, lifting the phone cord so it doesn't touch the two neat piles I allow on my desk, or the prize of my memorabilia collection: a brass perpetual calendar where the paper scrolls inside are permanently dialed to June 19. The calendar used to belong to Henry Kissinger. June 19 is supposedly the last day he used it, which is why I taped a note across the base of it that says, Do Not Use/Do Not Change.
"So whattya gonna say to her?"
"You mean, besides Hello?" I ask.
"That's it? Hello?" Orlando asks. "Hello's what you say to your sister. I thought you wanted to impress her."
"I don't need to impress her."
"Beecher, you haven't seen this girl in what -- fifteen years? You need to impress her."