Authors: Kate Messner
They never should have unlocked the door.
They never should have let them in.
The party had already gone late in a blur of red, white, and blue bunting and orchestra music and fancy gowns and thin, crispy crackers with caviar.
The tour wasn't on the schedule.
But Erma Emma Jones, the director of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, made curator Jeff Brodie unlock the chamber one last time. “We have a dignitary who's requested a private viewing,” she said.
“But we've already secured the area.” Brodie's brow wrinkled as if he felt personally responsible for each of the museum's 355,000 treasures of American history. “The key is way down in the lockbox.”
dignitary made a
large donation. He would like a tour for his group.” The director looked over her glasses and handed Brodie a clipboard.
Brodie sighed. He was tired of dignitaries. He never watched the news and couldn't have cared less about all the politicians and visiting heads of state who came through the museum. But he nodded and set off toward the escalator, weaving through women in ball gowns and waiters balancing trays of tiny cream puffs.
“Excuse me.” The gala was so crowded he nearly had to climb over the three kids sitting on a bench next to the bronze statue of George Washington. The freckly-faced girl hovered over a purple notebook, her pen flying back and forth across the page. The skinny boy with the messy black hair held a thick paperback and nibbled on cookies from a napkin in his lap. Next to him, a sturdier boy with short-cropped hair poked his thumbs furiously at a handheld video game. None of them looked up.
Brodie took the escalator to the basement security suite, buzzed the officer at the main desk, and entered to get the key.
“One more,” he said. The officer grunted, took a bite of his meatball sub, and looked up at the bank of monitors that showed every corner of the museum. Brodie punched in his code, opened the safe, and pulled out the key card. On one monitor, he could see the final tour group, already gathered near the exhibit.
“Be back soon.”
Upstairs, five men waited, all in black tuxedos. Two were stocky bodybuilder types. There was a skinny one who kept rubbing his bald head as if he'd forgotten to put on his hair, a younger one who wore sneakers with his tux, and a tall one who seemed to be in charge. His perfectly sculpted, wavy brown hair made him look as if he'd stepped out of a shampoo commercial.
“Good evening,” the tall man said when Brodie arrived, “and thank you. We are so looking forward to this tour.”
Brodie's eyes dropped to his clipboard. “Wait â I have four on the clearance list. Not five.”
“Is that so? Because my good friend â your boss, I believe â assured me that whatever my group wanted, there would be no problem.” The tall man nodded across the room, where Erma Emma Jones was hugging the orchestra director. Over his shoulder, she nodded at Brodie and flicked her hand toward the exhibit, motioning for him to get moving.
So he did.
He led the men past the charred piece of timber left behind when British troops burned the White House in 1814.
Past wall panels that told the story of the siege of Baltimore just days later.
Past a real British bombshell â one of hundreds that fell that night, blasting shrapnel into Fort McHenry.
And right up to the polished silver punch bowl molded in the shape of a bombshell and engraved with the name of Fort McHenry commander George Armistead. To the right of the punch bowl hung a portrait of Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill. She had eyes that followed you wherever you went in the exhibit, right into the far, shadowy corners.
Brodie lifted the lanyard with the key card from around his neck, reached over the top of the portrait's frame, and inserted the thin rectangle of plastic into a hidden card reader.
When he pulled it out, a navy blue panel on the opposite wall slid to the side with a quiet hum, revealing a smooth steel door that looked as if it had never been touched. Not a single fingerprint smudged its cool surface.
“One moment.” Brodie punched a code into a numeric keypad at the side of the door, then stepped forward and looked into an eyepiece. There was a series of high-pitched beeps, then a click from deep within the steel door's lock mechanism.
Brodie pushed it forward and stepped into a short hallway with another steel door at the opposite end. He motioned for the men to follow. “That first door has to close.” It thunked shut behind them, and immediately, one of the bodybuilders began shifting back and forth on his shiny black shoes.
“Claustrophobic?” Brodie asked, smiling a little. “If we were attempting to break into the chamber, both doors would remain sealed now. The double doors form a mantrap; we'd be locked in this passageway until the police arrived.” He paused. “But of course, security is well aware of our tour.” Brodie punched in the code, stepped up to have his retina scanned again, and waited for the second door to open.
“In we go.” He led the men into a cool, dark room. “Your eyes will adjust in a moment.”
The tall man stepped toward the table, his dress shoes clacking on the concrete floor. “There she is,” he whispered, and breathed in a long, deep breath, as if he could still smell the smoke from the battle drifting through the stars and stripes. “So this is the actual flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write âThe Star-Spangled Banner.'”
“What a treasure. Is the preservation work complete?”
“It is, sir,” Brodie said. He wished the man would step back a bit. He was breathing all over the stars.
“They won't be patching the rest?” The man gestured toward a gaping hole where one of the flag's original fifteen stars was missing.
“No, sir. At this point, the flaws are part of her history. The bits of stripes were cut away over the years and tucked into caskets by the widows of Fort McHenry's heroes. The star there” â Brodie gestured toward the hole â “was supposedly given to an important person, according to old letters. Some say it's buried with Lincoln, but we've found no evidence to support that.” He took a deep breath of the room's cool, quiet air. “At any rate, it's all part of her story now. We won't be fixing anything more â just trying to prevent further damage.”
One of the bodybuilders stepped forward and whispered something in the tall man's ear, just as Brodie's cell phone buzzed. The curator cringed as if the noise alone could pollute the pristine air of the room. He looked down to read a message and let out a sharp sigh. “If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I'm being summoned to deal with an issue in our First Ladies exhibit. Officer Lahue is on his way to escort you out.”
The steel door whooshed open once more, and a Smithsonian guard entered the room. “She told me to get you there, pronto,” he told Brodie, reaching out for the clipboard. “I'll finish up here.”
“Thanks, Paul.” Brodie gave a hurried wave and left the chamber.
“All right, gentlemen. Have a last look if you will. We need to lock down for the night.” Paul looked down at the clipboard. “Let's see â¦ checking out a final tour group of four, correct?”
“Correct, sir,” the tall man said, and turned briskly toward the door. “And thank you. It has been a rare gift to see the flag up close.”
“My pleasure. All set, then?”
Four men followed Paul out of the chamber, past the silver punch bowl and the portrait of Mary Pickersgill, and she watched as they walked by the charred timber and the British bombshell and spilled back out into the reception hall, where the crowd was clapping for the orchestra's final piece, and the champagne flutes were almost empty.
The fifth man â the one whose name was never on the clipboard â had disappeared.
The three kids on the bench near Washington's statue weren't friends. If they had introduced themselves, they might have learned they were all in seventh grade, and their schools shared the same February break. They might have learned that they were all only children with busy parents and were used to entertaining themselves.
If they had talked a little longer, they may have discovered they had something even more unusual in common.
Ancestors who had crafted some of the most stunning artwork and conceived of some of the greatest inventions in history.
Relatives who had taken a secret oath, made a promise to protect the world's artifacts, and passed that promise down through generations.
Close family members who wore silver jewelry in the shape of an ancient jaguar goddess, took urgent, whispered phone calls in the middle of the night, and traveled across continents to keep those promises, no matter what.
But the kids didn't talk about any of that as they sat together at the museum, even though the night seemed to go on forever while the adults blabbed on and on.
Anna Revere-Hobbs had been too busy scribbling notes for the story about the museum reception she was going to write for her school newspaper back in Vermont. It wasn't the story she'd planned; she'd wanted to get an interview with the man her dad hoped would be the next president, but the presidential primary election season had begun, so he was too busy shaking hands all night to notice her with her notebook. Anna's mom was a TV news anchor back home, and nobody ever ignored
questions. What was the use being a senator's daughter if it didn't even get you the good interviews? Anna sighed. She had plenty of notes from the reception and was more than ready to go when her father said good-bye to his staffers and took her back to his Washington, DC, apartment to pack for the flight home the next day.
JosÃ© McGilligan had been disappointed in the night, too. He hadn't seen his mother in three weeks. Sure, it was fantastic that she was one of the textile scientists selected for the Star-Spangled Banner restoration project. But he thought tonight they'd be just regular McGilligans again, he and his mom and dad goofing around and enjoying dinner and maybe some cake. He'd never imagined this big, elaborate thing with fish eggs and desserts that looked too fancy to eat. There wasn't a cupcake to be found. His mom was busy being congratulated, fluttering around in her evening gown and black-and-silver shoes and her favorite dangly earrings with the silver jaguars. His dad was busy being proud. JosÃ© was proud, too, but after a while, he got bored and slipped his tattered paperback copy of
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
from his backpack in the coatroom. He found some halfway normal cookies, wrapped them in a napkin, and parked himself on the bench, where he read all the way to the part in the graveyard before it was time to return to the hotel.
Henry Thorn didn't want to come in the first place. But his father had to go on a stupid cruise for his stupid honeymoon with stupid Bethany. So he was stuck staying with his aunt Lucinda, who was not stupid but so smart it was painful to be around her. She'd inflicted every museum, library, memorial, and monument in the nation's capital upon Henry this past week.
“Look, Henry! The original Declaration of Independence!”
“Look, Henry! The original Bill of Rights!”
“Look, Henry! An original Vermeer portrait!”
“Look, Henry! The original Wright Brothers' plane!”
This fancy-fest at the museum was the icing on the cake. Aunt Lucinda made Henry wear a tie, and she was all dressed up in a sparkly green gown, pointy high-heeled shoes, and a silver bracelet with some big leaping cat charm jingling all over the place. She was in serious Look-Henry mode, too.
“Look, Henry! The original ruby slippers from
The Wizard of Oz
“Look, Henry! One of Abraham Lincoln's original black top hats!”
Henry liked Aunt Lucinda; he really did. And he knew she was just keeping him busy to get his mind off his dad's stupid wedding and his mom, who had died of stupid cancer three years ago. But after a week, all the “Look, Henrys” were driving Henry crazy. All he wanted to see was an original cheeseburger and his video game screen. At least the girl and the skinny kid on the bench left him alone until Aunt Lucinda came to get him to go back to her apartment.
“Look, Henry!” she said on the way out. “An original gunboat from Lake Champlain! Not far from your house in Vermont.”
That last “Look, Henry” bugged him more than all the rest because his house in Vermont wasn't going to be his house much longer. At the end of the school year, they were leaving Burlington's Old North End and the house where his mom used to make corn muffins on Sundays. They were leaving his middle school and the park by the lake where he took his little neighbor, Will, when he was babysitting, and they were moving to stupid Boston with stupid Bethany because â what great luck! â Boston University had hired his dad for a stupid teaching position.
“Look, Henry!” Aunt Lucinda said. “One of the cannonballs that sunk the boat is still lodged in the side of it!”
Henry looked at the cannonball and then looked at his watch. Tomorrow, he'd be on a plane going back to where he had
planned to spend his February break. Home.
By midnight, Anna was asleep on her dad's pull-out sofa.
JosÃ© was asleep in his hotel room.
Henry was under his blanket in the guest bedroom of Aunt Lucinda's apartment, determined to make it to Level 9 before he slept.
And in the hermetically sealed chamber, behind two steel doors, guarded by a nineteenth-century flag maker's portrait, the bald man from the tour group crawled out from behind a large table.
He shook out his legs, careful not to move too quickly. He didn't want to raise the temperature in the room. If a spike set off the alarm at Central Security, he'd have trouble.
He stepped up to the table, hands shaking as he reached out to feel the rough woolen fabric, so threadbare and tender. He'd have to work carefully. Delicately.
Just as he was about to reach under the edge of the flag table, there was a muffled click from the direction of the entrance.
The man froze.
He slipped back into the shadows just as the second steel door opened and a woman stepped into the room.
“Well, you've had a long day now, haven't you?” Her voice was quiet, but it filled the chamber, echoing off the walls. No one answered her. “Humidity levels look good, a touch high maybe, but I think we're okay. Well, this is it, my friend. Time for me to say good-bye.” Her feet â the man could see black pumps with silver bows under the table â were still. The woman sighed, her breath a whisper in the quiet room, until finally her heels clicked back to the door, and it slid shut behind her.
The man counted to one thousand. One thousand shallow breaths from behind the table. His knees creaked when he finally stood.
He stepped forward and slipped one hand under the edge of the table until he felt the first cold metal clamp that secured the flag, on its protective backing, to the display table.
Slowly, he turned the clamp until he felt its cool weight drop into his palm. He slipped it into his pocket and slid his hand along the smooth underside of the table to the next clamp.
One by one, he removed them. When his pockets were almost full, he began setting the clamps carefully on the floor instead.
When he was halfway around the table, the man looked at his watch.
He needed to go faster. The shift changed at one, and the guard they had bribed would soon be gone, replaced by another who hadn't been paid to look the other way.
With seven minutes to spare, as he was reaching for the final clamp, he sneezed. Darn allergies. Who knew what kind of old dust he'd stirred up just touching the flag.
The man sniffled. Another sneeze tickled his nose.
, he thought. The noise and the moisture could set off alarms.
And he was so close.
He wrinkled his itchy nose and puckered his twitching lips.
The sneeze went away, and he unscrewed the final clamp.
Then, as if he were folding up a beach blanket, the man took a corner of the flag in his hands and pulled it across the table until it rested on the opposite corner. He folded the flag over and over on itself until it was piled up on an edge of the table, the size of an extra-large garbage bag, stuffed full.
He heaved the fragile bundle over his shoulder â he could smell its dusty age â and calmly walked out of the room.
There was no problem.
No retina scan.
The security system was designed to keep people out. Not in.
His path to the freight elevator was clear, as he knew it would be at this hour. He punched in the code he'd memorized. The metal cage opened, and waiting, as promised, was the black case on wheels, plenty big enough for the flag.
It was almost done. With trembling fingers, he flipped the latches and lifted the lid. He eased the flag inside, tucked in the frayed, yellowing edges, and closed the lid.
The man took a deep breath and pressed the elevator's
button. It was clear sailing now. He looked like just another museum employee at this event, helping with cleanup. All he had to do was stay calm, avoid suspicion.
When the freight elevator sank to the bottom level, he wheeled the case onto the smooth concrete floor of the hallway, past caterers clinking along with carts of dirty dessert plates, past the loading dock attendant drinking coffee in his glassed-in booth.
“Have a good night, now.” The guard nodded and waved.
Whistling “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the man pushed the black case up to the silver van that waited, swung open the back door, and loaded it inside.
He looked back at the loading dock and scratched his itchy nose. Had it really been that simple? A few fat snowflakes parachuted down in the floodlights as the man climbed into the passenger seat.
He slammed the door, and the van disappeared into the night.