Dr. Lewis Tunney, a brilliant historian who had stumbled onto an international art scandal, was brutally murdered in front of two hundred guests at an elegant party at the Smithsonian.
Taking the case, DC police Cpt. Mac Hanrahan begins to uncover a web of secrets, lies, and revenge surrounding the historian’s killing. From the deceased Tunney’s strong-willed fiancée, Heather McBean, to the congressmen with secrets to hide, Hanrahan finds himself unsure who to believe. Soon after, two more murders add to the intrigue.
Murder in the Smithsonian is the fourth volume in Margaret Truman’s beloved Capital Crimes series, in which Truman enlivens history with her first-hand knowledge as the daughter of US President Harry S. Truman. Each of the novels revolve around Washington, DC, and its landmarks. The Smithsonian’s museums, with their quirky staff, forensic scientists, and sometimes-spooky exhibits are the perfect setting for a thrilling political crime novel.
“Truman’s novels of Washington will continue to entertain both mystery and Washington buffs.” —The Washington Post
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Lewis Tunney stopped in front of a small shop on Davies Street, in London's fashionable Mayfair district. A brass plate set into the door read: Antiques. Peter S. Peckham, Prop. By Appointment Only. An elaborate coat of arms over the door assured potential customers that the shop had provided goods to at least one royal household.
Tunney tried to peer through the window but saw only a reflection of himself and of vehicles passing behind him. The shop was dark. Big Ben's leaden chimes sounded noon from 320 feet atop Westminster Palace's clock tower.
He pushed a button and heard a musical triplet, tuned in thirds, from inside. A shaft of light cut through the interior darkness as a door at the rear of the shop opened, a man stepped through it, glanced at his watch, then came to the front door, unlocked it and said pleasantly, "Lewis, how are you, besides being your usual punctual self?"
They could have been brothers, both tall and slender, and with soft, brown wavy hair. Peter Peckham was dressed in gray flannel slacks, a turtleneck the color of port wine, a camel's-hair sport jacket and brown loafers. Tunney wore a three-piece blue suit, blue-and-white striped shirt with a solid white collar, narrow dark blue tie and highly polished black wing-tip shoes. Tunney was forty-three years old, Peckham forty-one. Both had brown eyes, with Peckham's just a shade darker. Tunney was American, Peckham British.
They proceeded through the shop to Peckham's office at the rear. The office, like the shop, was cluttered with artifacts of antique value.
"Tea? Gin?" Peckham asked.
"Tea. Do you have time for lunch, Peter?"
"Afraid not, but let's plan for it straightaway. It's been a while."
"Yes, it has, my fault. This project has turned me into a virtual recluse. I'm happy to be breaking out of it."
As Peckham swished hot water inside a china cup to warm it, poured the water into a small sink and put tea leaves in a silver tea infuser, Tunney perused the contents of his desk. There were journals of interest to collectors, the latest copy of Smithsonian, the monthly magazine sent to members of the Smithsonian Institution, a wooden box filled with precious and semiprecious stones, two rare, leatherbound books, invoices, correspondence and other items common to any office. In the center of the mess was a solid gold, ten-inch-tall pendulum suspended from a pyramid of three gold sticks. The ball of the pendulum was a large, deep green emerald.
Peckham turned and saw Tunney flick the pendulum with his finger. "An unattractive piece," he said, pouring hot water over the infuser, "but not without value. The stone is chockablock with flaws. My best estimate is that it might have come out of a Turkish sultan's collection, late eighteenth century. What do you think?"
"You're probably right, but it might be older, early eighteenth century. It is Turkish. The gold is finely worked."
Peckham placed the cup in front of Tunney, and they watched the gentle sway of the pendulum. Tunney looked across the desk and said, "Well, Peter, here's to seeing you again." He tasted his tea. "Good, Peter, very good."
"Thank you. Tell me, Lewis, what's new in your life?"
"Personally or professionally?"
"Personally. I keep up with you professionally through gossip. Your personal life is a little harder to track that way."
Tunney smiled. He pulled out a large, thin brown Dunhill cigar, lighted it and directed a stream of blue smoke at the pendulum. "Interesting things have been happening, Peter, professionally and personally, especially personally."
Peckham leaned back and raised his eyebrows. "Anyone I know?"
"Probably, but before I go into true confessions, Peter, tell me why you were so anxious to see me today."
"We are friends, aren't we?"
"Of course, but friends could have made a luncheon date, drinks at the end of the day. You sounded anxious when you called. Is there a problem?"
"Probably not, but you can help me on that. Give me a half hour, Lewis, and I think you'll be able to judge whether or not there's a problem."
* * *
Big Ben chimed once as Lewis Tunney got up from his chair. His youthful, smooth face was now creased. He chewed on his upper lip and hunched his shoulders, as though to force comprehension of what had been said.
"I'm sorry you're reacting this way," Peckham said.
"How else could I feel, Peter? I'd better be going."
Peckham picked up a small chamois sack the color of burnt ocher from the desk top and put it in a drawer, came around the desk and offered his hand. "When are we having lunch?" he asked. "My treat at the Audley."
"As soon as I clean up a few things. I'll call."
Peckham slapped Tunney on the back. "Call soon. I might even spring for the Connaught."
"Spring? You've become too Americanized, Peter." Tunney stood and looked down at the pendulum. It had slowed considerably and was nearing the point where friction would win out.
"Nothing is forever," Peckham said. "No perpetual motion."
"How true," Tunney said. "And too bad ... Well, good-by, Peter."
Tunney leaned forward and extended his index finger into the pendulum's field of motion. The emerald stopped against it. He glanced up at Peckham, forced a smile and left the shop.CHAPTER 2
"I'm always fascinated by it," William Oxenhauer, vice president of the United States, said over the sounds of the party taking place around him. "Visitors think it's supposed to demonstrate perpetual motion, but it's not."
His wife Joline said, "I find it hypnotic."
The Oxenhauers and a small group of guests focused their attention on the 240-pound hollow brass bob of the National Museum of American History's famed Foucault pendulum. The brass bob, suspended from the building's fourth floor through large circular holes cut in floors below, moved gracefully, quietly and ceaselessly across an inlaid compass rose on the main floor. Red markers that looked like stubby candles were positioned every five degrees around the compass's 360-degree circumference and, one by one, over the course of the day, the pendulum toppled them. It was close to hitting one now.
"What does it prove?" a guest standing next to Oxenhauer asked.
"That the earth rotates. The pendulum's plane remains the same, but the markers, like us, are turning with the earth."
"Interesting," said the guest, his eyes watching the marker next in line to be struck.
Oxenhauer was joined at the railing by Alfred Throckly, the museum's new director. "Wonderful turnout," the vice president said.
"Yes, sir, delightful. You should be very gratified. The exhibit was, after all, your idea."
Oxenhauer smiled, said, "I won't pretend modesty, Mr. Throckly. I gave that up the first time I asked people to vote for me."
Joline Oxenhauer looked out over the sprawling main floor where Washington's social and arts hierarchy had gathered. Most of the men wore tuxedoes, and the women were adorned in a variety of formal styles and colors. Three tuxedoed musicians performed contrapuntal fugues on a seventeenth-century harpsichord and recorders, all belonging to the Smithsonian's collection of antique musical instruments. As the strains of Vivaldi blended with the tinkling of ice in glasses and the buzz of two hundred guests talking at once, Mrs. Oxenhauer touched her husband's arm and said, "I wonder when Lewis will be arriving."
Oxenhauer glanced at his watch. "Maybe his flight was delayed." He turned to Throckly, who'd just asked a uniformed waiter to refill his bourbon and soda. "Quite a surprise, wasn't it, having Lewis Tunney accept the invitation at the last minute?"
Throckly raised his eyebrows and nodded. "It certainly upset a lot of plans, Mr. Vice President. I have hostesses upstairs right now inserting Dr. Tunney's introduction and bio into programs." Then, as though he'd suddenly been reminded by an unseen voice that the vice president and Tunney were best of friends, he added, "But it's worth any inconvenience to have him keynote the exhibit. As far as I know, this is the first public event he's attended since going to England two years ago."
Joline Oxenhauer laughed. "Just like Lewis, packing up everything and hibernating ... I wish he'd get here." She knew how excited her husband was at seeing Lewis Tunney again. They were old, good friends, and had spent considerable time together when Oxenhauer was teaching American history at the University of Chicago, which was before he decided to enter politics. Joline had resisted his decision to run for state office in Illinois because it meant giving up the relaxed academic life-style she enjoyed so much. Of course, neither of them imagined that he would rise quickly from a one-term Illinois state assemblyman to lieutenant governor, then win election to the United States Congress, from which he was selected to run for vice president on the Democratic ticket.
Bill Oxenhauer was chosen for two reasons: he hadn't been in Congress long enough to have many political enemies, and he'd developed a national public recognition by spinning entertaining tales on leading television talk shows about the man in history he most admired, Abraham Lincoln. No one in Congress told a better, funnier story than Bill Oxenhauer, nor had any teacher of American history been as successful in bringing it alive.
The sudden emergence of a vice president whose consuming passion was American history delighted the Smithsonian's leadership. The vice president was, by congressional "enactment," the head of the Smithsonian's board of regents. Until Bill Oxenhauer, other vice presidents had ignored that titular position. Oxenhauer had made time to take an active role in moving the Smithsonian Institution, and its myriad museums and programs, into a golden age, of sorts, onto center stage. When the National Museum of American History's previous director, Roger Kennedy, resigned for personal reasons, he told his staff at a going-away party, "My biggest regret is leaving now that we have a vice president who cares, and who considers a museum to be something special. My timing, as usual, is terrible."
The waiter returned carrying a silver tray with Throckly's drink, a plate of crab balls and a small dish of horseradish sauce. Throckly picked up a crab ball on a toothpick, dipped it into the horseradish and raised it to his mouth. A dollop of sauce fell on one of his black velvet loafers. "Oh, my," he said, squatting and wiping at the stain with a cocktail napkin that bore the Smithsonian seal.
Oxenhauer looked down and smiled. He'd approved the hiring of Alfred Throckly to replace Roger Kennedy, but not without reservations. There was a foppishness to the new director which, although not alien to museum professionals, was a little too precious for a vice president who'd once been described as a lumberjack with a Ph.D. Oxenhauer was as ruddy and beefy as Throckly was pale and delicate, his wooly, matted salt-and-pepper hair as natural as Throckly's helmet of soft gray curls was coiffured. Oxenhauer, who preferred tweeds and corduroy and who detested formal wear, was sure Throckly was content to spend every waking moment in a tux, maybe sleeping moments, too.
But the vice president could not deny Throckly's professional credentials and stature. His background included curatorships with leading museums in San Francisco, New York and Europe. He'd been published extensively in professional journals and sat on advisory boards around the nation. Equally important, he was known as a superb fund raiser.
They moved from the pendulum to where an old-fashioned ice cream factory and parlor had been faithfully recreated, the four Secret Servicemen assigned to them never breaking their protective box as they walked.
Oxenhauer greeted Congressman Jubel Watson, who also sat on the Smithsonian's board of regents along with two other members of the House of Representatives, three U.S. senators, the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court and six private citizens. Watson was the only other member of that board besides Oxenhauer who took an interest in Smithsonian activities. He was an avid collector of art and rare books, and many of his millions were tied up in collections. Short, slender with black hair looking like patent leather, he was on the opposite end of the political and philosophical spectrum from Oxenhauer. Watson was an arch- conservative, to the right of John Birch, and proud of it. "Lovely gown, Mrs. Oxenhauer," he told Joline.
"Thank you, Mr. Watson. Actually it's quite old —"
"Like me," her husband said.
"Bill you're not old," his wife said, squeezing his arm. "Bill loves playing the role of the grizzled old man, but underneath that exterior is —"
"Hold it," Watson said, raising his hands. "No lurid tales out of the house of the vice president. There's press around."
Alfred Throckly turned to a tall young man whose way into the vice president's elite circle was discreetly blocked by the Secret Servicemen. "Ford," Throckly said, extending his hand past the V.P.'s protection, "say hello to the vice president."
The young man was considerably taller than Throckly but looked like a younger version of the director. "Mr. Vice President," Throckly said, "this is Ford Saunders, administrative assistant to Chloe Prentwhistle."
Oxenhauer extended a large, calloused hand and was met with Saunders's startlingly cold, limp one. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Saunders. I've been a fan of Miss Prentwhistle for years."
"She's said it's a mutual admiration society, Mr. Vice President."
"Chloe and I go back a long way together. She put together the first really good Lincoln exhibition in the state of Illinois."
"Especially noteworthy since she's not from Illinois," said Throckly.
"Where is she?" Oxenhauer asked. "I haven't seen her."
Saunders looked at Throckly before answering. "Busy, Mr. Vice President, last minute details. She'll be down shortly."
Congressman Watson now asked Oxenhauer, "Anything new on the Smithson nut?"
Oxenhauer shrugged. "I understand he's still leaving notes around, claiming to be a relation to James Smithson and threatening to blow up every museum in the Smithsonian unless he's 'recognized.'"
"The frightening thing is that he might do something drastic some day," Joline Oxenhauer said. "It's so easy to dismiss people as crazy, but then sometimes they act out."
"Let's hope he doesn't," her husband said.
One floor above, where two hundred folding chairs formed a horseshoe around a lectern, women in gowns moved through the aisles and placed an insert into programs that had been placed on the seats. The women were volunteer members of the Friends of the Smithsonian, a fund-raising group dedicated to obtaining rare items for the Smithsonian's museums.
The insert had been written and reproduced at the last minute after Lewis Tunney changed his mind about attending the event and delivering the welcoming address.
DR. LEWIS TUNNEY
We are indeed honored that Dr. Lewis Tunney will personally introduce this very special and exciting exhibition of the Harsa and Cincinnati societies. Dr. Tunney, as many of you know, has established himself as the preeminent scholar of post- Revolutionary exclusive societies. His writings on the American Revolution have earned him not one but two Pulitzer Prizes in history.
Originally, Dr. Tunney's busy schedule abroad prevented him from accepting our invitation to speak, but a sudden change in his schedule has benefitted us.
We all express our appreciation for his presence here tonight, and for his willingness to share his knowledge of the subject of our exhibition.
Welcome, Dr. Lewis Tunney.
"I can't wait to meet him," one of the volunteer women said. "He's so handsome in his pictures. Looks like Alan Alda."
Another woman laughed. "You're giving away your age. Alan Alda appeals to ... well, to more mature women who appreciate sensitivity in men."
"Sensitivity in men? What's that?"
They both laughed.
Sounds from the party downstairs drifted up through the Foucault pendulum's opening in the floor. One of the women leaned close to another. "I've never seen Mr. Throckly so wound up. I can't decide whether he's excited about having Dr. Tunney here or annoyed."
"Well, it did upset Mr. Throckly's plans ... Come on, let's go downstairs and enjoy the party."
* * *
A long, black limousine turned off Constitution Avenue into a circular drive in front of the National Museum of American History. The chauffeur came around to open the door for his passenger but Lewis Tunney had already gotten out. He thanked the driver for a safe and pleasant ride, looked up at the building he'd once said had all the architectural charm of a stone shoe box, drew a deep breath and went to the main doors, where two uniformed guards and a Secret Serviceman stood. He identified himself, was checked off a long list and entered the building. "Hello, I'm Lewis Tunney," he said to the first person he met, an attractive middle-aged woman wearing a maroon gown.
"Oh, Dr. Tunney, welcome," she said, shaking his hand, "let me find Mr. Throckly for you. He's been worried that your flight might be delayed."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder in the Smithsonian"
Copyright © 2015 Margaret Truman.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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