excerpt – The Angel Acronym
While there is such a place as Independence, Missouri, containing various buildings that may seem familiar to the reader, any resemblance to persons, procedures, pieces of paper, policies, and plots, living or dead, is purely coincidental—especially the character of Toom Taggart. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints no longer exists, having been replaced in April 2002 by the Community of Christ.
The reader is entitled to know that the author has made substantial use of his artistic license in the preface. It is true that Abner Cole pirated portions of the Book of Mormon in his paper until forced to desist under threat of legal action by Joseph Smith, but the printing lasted from August 1829 until March 1830. The first signature of the Book of Mormon would have been printed long before December 1829, nor did Cole die that month.
* * * * *
PROLOGUE: PALMYRA, 1829
Abner’s nose was bright red, either because he’d been drinking or because of the December cold. It had been raining most of the morning, an icy driving sleet that would be snow if it got any colder. He snuffed unpleasantly. Onesimus, whom everyone called Owen, watched to see if the droplet on the end of his nose would fall. It didn’t.
Abner hunched forward across the kitchen table, staring at Owen and Samuel. His two friends sat uncomfortably waiting to see what Abner’s wife would do and were reluctant to talk in front of her. Ruth threw another log on the fire, then went into the bedroom to nurse the baby. Abner had ignored the mundane chore of tending the fire, and the drafts had crept under the door and around the window frame, making the room chilly.
As soon as Ruth was gone, Abner spoke up, addressing Sam Ruff, the elder of the two. Sam was a neighbor with a less than perfect reputation who spent a lot of time at Abner’s house.
“What’s this great idea you have?”
Abner looked over at Owen who was getting excited at the prospect of Sam’s disclosure.
Sam looked around as if he expected to find someone else in the small room. Satisfied, he responded: “Owen already knows what I’ve got in mind. In fact we’ve got it pretty well set up. But we need your help to do it.”
“So,” Abner was used to Sam beating around the bush without really answering a question, “what is it?”
“The best joke in a century.”
“”It’s about the book that’s coming out. You know, the Joseph Smith bible—the one that’s supposed to have been written by an angel on gold plates.”
“Yeah, they’re just about to set the type.”
“It’s a hoax, you know,” Sam said.
Indignant that Sam would think he needed to spell this out for him, Abner huffed: “Yeah, so what? There’s a second section of it coming out in the Dogberry papers next week.” The Dogberry Paper on Winter Hill was Abner’s publication which he printed in the same shop that was going to print the Book of Mormon.
“But, wait!” Owen gloated. “Listen to what Sam has done.”
“What is it, Sam?”
“He wrote it out for me,” Owen answered, “but I copied it so it would look like the rest of the manuscript.”
Abner was aware of Owen’s special talent. It was the reason the younger man had left Philadelphia and then New York in such a hurry. Something about being able to write signatures that looked so much like the originals that the banks thought they were on genuine letters of credit.
“Letters between Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” Sam broke back into the conversation. “Letters they wrote last spring when Joe was in Pennsylvania. They explain how they’re goin’ to work the gold bible trick on folks.”
“And a few pages of manuscript to slip into the typesetter’s copy before it’s printed.”
“And where is this stuff supposed to be coming from?”
Owen spoke up again. “It’s almost identical to what they’ve got there to print. What we need is for you to replace a few pages of the manuscript with what we’ve produced.”
“So, what you’ve done is to produce a few replacement pages. That’s brilliant! And some letters that explain the replacements. What’s the new content—or do you want to show that Joe couldn’t write the same thing twice?”
“No, better than that,” Owen broke in. “The parts we’re giving you have an acronym. Tell ’em, Sam.”
“An acronym?” Abner was lost.
“You know,” Sam proceeded again to tell Abner something he already knew, “where the first letter of each word spells out another word. But the real words make sense, so nobody notices it.”
“In the pages we have for you,” Owen couldn’t restrain himself, “we put in a pattern of letters that couldn’t be there accidentally. All we need for you to do is to substitute the pages when it’s time to typeset it. Could you do that?”
Abner nodded, not yet sure what the big picture was. “Johnny Gilbert keeps the manuscript on the shelf by the window. It wouldn’t be a problem to make a switch when no one’s looking.”
Sam added, “Then after it’s published, we’ll point out the acronym. We’ll suddenly find the pattern of letters, and you can publish them in the Dogberry papers. It’ll be hilarious.”
“It’ll be funnier than a stuck pig, that’s for sure,” Abner agreed, but was not yet sure where this was headed. “Tell me about this acronym.”
“I’ve used the angel Moroni,” Sam gloated. “Ain’t that the best part of it? Look at this.” He pulled a flat package tied with twine out of his greatcoat pocket and picked at the knots. “Lemme show it to you.”
He placed the several sheets of paper on the table. “Looks like the real thing, don’t it?”
“Yeah, it looks just the same as the one at press.”
“Well, almost. Look at the page. See the acronym? It’s upside down.” He pointed out the letter at the beginning of each paragraph and read them slowly, his finger pointing them out, beginning with the first letter of the last paragraph and moving up through the first paragraph: “A-N-G-E-L-M-O-R-O-N-I.”
“I see it!” Abner said. He was delighted. “I’d never have noticed if you hadn’t pointed it out to me.” He leaned back in his chair laughing. The chair groaned from his weight. “The Smiths will never figure it out. Could be, they’ll even find themselves in trouble with the law.”
“Can you hide the Joseph and Hyrum letters somewhere in the print shop where they’ll be found, say in a couple of weeks?”
“I’ll put them with Bert’s letters from the creditors. He doesn’t go through them all that often. They’ll just look like the rest of the letters waiting for him in the pigeon hole.”
Owen nodded energetically. “And the deacon said he wouldn’t mind mentioning to the congregation that there’d be some edifying reading in the Dogberry papers.” He winked slowly.
Abner carefully looked through the package. It contained four letters and twelve manuscript pages. They looked convincing enough that Abner would have thought they were genuine. He rewrapped the documents in the stiff, heavily waxed paper and retied the twine while Sam brought out a jug to toast the success of their endeavor. Ruth came back in, glaring her disapproval, and built up the fire again.
Abner kept the package concealed on his lap and didn’t get up as Sam and Owen discreetly evaporated.
“What did those two good-for-nothings want?” she demanded, rummaging in the cupboard for the cornmeal and setting the frying pan over the rekindled blaze.
“Nothing much,” Abner answered. “When’s dinner?”
“As soon as you get back from Susan Stoddard’s with payment for the sewing I worked on,” she said firmly. “You could have done it this morning, but you didn’t. Why don’t you do it now? It’s only half a mile away.”
“It’s raining … ” began Abner.
“And next thing you know, it’ll be dark, and then it will be snowing, and all this time, there’s good cash sitting on Susan’s bureau when it could be on ours,” she snapped. She lifted the frying pan off the fire, abandoned the cornmeal next to the mixing bowl, and marched back into the next room.
The message was clear: no delivery, no dinner. Reluctantly Abner got up. Where could he put the package? He did not want to try and explain everything to his wife. She would not approve in any case even if she did think that the Smith boys were wicked. Besides, she could never keep anything quiet.
He decided to put the package in the box behind the door to the pie cabinet. His father had given him the cabinet when he and Ruth were married and told him it was a good place to keep anything he didn’t want his wife to know about. He gingerly pried open the catch, slipped the package inside, and closed it tight. It was great workmanship. Even knowing where the pieces joined at the inner door, he couldn’t see a crack.
He pulled on his greatcoat and rammed a hat down over his hair; he could see he was going to get soaked. He put the sewing in an inside pocket and buttoned his coat carefully over it. His stomach was growling.
His horse was no more pleased than he about going out into the driving rain. Lightning flashed and thunder spat as he led the horse out of the barn. The roan shied back, jerking Abner’s rein-holding hand into the door frame. The sleet slashed down directly into their faces. It would be at their backs on the way home from the Stoddards, but that wasn’t any help now. The roan shook its head and sidestepped as Abner mounted. He slapped it hard on the neck and cursed.
He forced the horse into a trot, ducking his head to take the brunt of the sleet on the top of his hat. At the stone bridge, another bolt of lighting, another crash of thunder, and the horse reared back with a whinny of terror. Abner lost his balance, arms flailing, and he fell backward out of the saddle, cracking his skull against the parapet. The horse wheeled and galloped back toward the barn. Abner lay on his side, head twisted at an impossible angle against the parapet, body in the deep muddy rut. The water seeped under his coat, curling slowly into the package that contained Susan Stoddard’s new dress.
* * * * *
By noon on Monday, Ralph Hastings had thrust his hand through his hair, furrowed his brow, taken off his heavy glasses, polished the lenses, put them back on in various degrees of skewedness, and actually paced the floor. If he had been auditioning for the role of anxious young man, he would have won in a walk.
He was diligent and conscientious but not anxiety prone. He took his job seriously but not enough to get on people’s nerves. He had long since been transformed through his experiences in graduate school from a pleasant youth of adequate ability into a studious man dedicated to the truth, the exact truth, and not much more than the truth. Just what one needs in an archivist, if not a friend.
He loved history and would have been happy to spend his days and nights doing research instead of cataloguing. He knew that envy was a sin, but he envied James Pincer, the recently appointed church historian. Ralph had applied for the job and had taken the rejection personally, although he made up for it by being an extra-loyal employee.
Loyal, that is, except when it came to history. A staunch defender of the institutional church, he was nevertheless honest as a matter of principle. He never allowed his faith or his loyalty to prevent fearless excursions into the muddy waters of church history. After the reception for Cuidado and the meeting with Lolly on Saturday morning, he had disappeared into his office and not emerged until that evening, completely missing the raging storm that filled Apostle Emeritus Goldpinder’s waiting grave with two and a half feet of muddy water before the coffin plopped into it.
This morning he was back at his desk at 7:00 a.m., infuriating his wife, Susie, who had had just about enough of dealing with the twins on her own all weekend. Ralph had not noticed. It was not unusual for him to work overtime, even though, as the new personnel policy manual made clear, his employer could not express its gratitude in any monetary way.
He forwarded his calls to his secretary’s answering machine and hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door, two hostile gestures in the education wing where gossip was a major part of everybody’s job description. Louis T. Cannon upstairs had been apprised of the sign at 8:15 a.m. It was now 11:25 and Cannon knew that the sign was still there.
If Hastings thought that Cannon would pay attention to his sign, his anxiety would have increased. But Cannon had not crossed his mind. Hastings was pouring over the sixteen sheets in front of him looking for some evidence that what was on his desk before him was not, in fact, what it looked like. He wanted it to be something else. Anything else. He was excited but also frightened by the possibility of their authenticity. He took off his glasses and stared blankly at a poster on the wall showing a shot of the Kirtland Temple façade in moody lavender profile.
The room off the archives where he had locked himself in was too warm. It smelled of old books and drying papers. It was a smell that Ralph had come to love but no longer even noticed.
On Friday Hastings had gone to Nauvoo to pick up five interns who were helping with an archaeological dig and learning to be guides at the RLDS sites. They were awestruck and cocky all at the same time, sure that they alone understood the intricacies of the early Mormon community. They were exceedingly cordial to the studiously sweet Utah missionaries with whom they ran the cooperative project, but they secretly harbored issues, and Hastings would consider it a divine dispensation if he could get them out of town before there was trouble.
Before herding them into the van and driving to Fort Madison for some Chicken McNuggets, Hastings wanted to hear how they were doing as guides. So he blended in with a group of camera-bedecked Bountifulites from Utah. Mason Macomb, one of the regular LDS guides at the Heber C. Kimball house, was beaming avuncularly as two of the interns held forth. By mutual consent, both sets of guides avoided the dread subject of polygamy even in the very house of the much-married Kimball. Cordiality was all but oozing from the walls.
As the gushing group wafted up the stairs with Macomb to where another RLDS intern waited for them, Ralph lingered to nod approvingly to Betty Myers. She had just delivered a charming lecture on cooking in the 1840s and had unleashed a firestorm of flashbulbs from the Bountifulites. She had told them in a hushed voice that the cherrywood pie safe was an heirloom that was not from Nauvoo but from Palmyra. The pie safe could not have been more liberally photographed if it had been made with wood from the Sacred Grove.
“It’s a lovely piece,” Ralph had agreed. The tin facing was punched into an elaborate pattern of curlicued fruits and vegetables. But what was an 1830s New York piece doing in an 1840s period restoration after all? he sighed. The church probably raised the cost of an insta-chapel to purchase it because someone had thought to whisper “Palmyra.”
Betty said, “I wonder if this bowl of fruit would look nice on top?” She picked up the non-period vase of non-period wax fruit from the period sideboard and carried it to the pie safe. Ralph sighed again. It never failed. She was on the “authorized” side of the rope and could not help showing off.
As Betty reached the safe, she stumbled on a peg that had not been sanded perfectly even, dropped the bowl, and grabbed for the safe to steady herself. The fruit rolled across the floor as she squawked with dismay. She seized the handle to the safe door and the right hinged door broke loose.
“Oh my God!” Betty exclaimed uncharacteristically. Hastings wondered if this was a curse or a petition. “What will I do? I’ve broke it. I’ve broke it.”
He decided not to correct her grammar. “I’m sure it can be fixed,” he said reassuringly. “Go get Brother Macomb. Be discreet. Don’t announce what happened.”
He ducked under the rope, going in as she scrambled out, picked up the basket, gathered the fruit—turning the flattened side of the green apple down—and stared at the pie safe. He abstractedly put the basket back on the sideboard.
The safe had not broken at the hinge. A front piece about two inches wide had pulled loose from the base of the cabinet as a peg had come loose or the old glue had become brittle. He gently shifted the fine-grained cherrywood and saw an object behind the separated panel. He pulled a little on the separated piece. Surely if it is just unglued, further separation can’t hurt it.
Then he saw it. It was a brownish package, flat, carefully wrapped. He reached in and lifted it out. The paper had been waxed, and twine secured the packet.
He heard a door close upstairs, Betty’s voice, and Mason Macomb authoritatively hushing her lest any hint of unglossy reality disturb the sacred experience of the Bountifulites. In an instant, Hastings dropped the package into his large briefcase sitting on the other side of the rope and gently pushed the separated panel back partway. He was assiduously dusting the wax fruit with his snowy handkerchief when Betty fluttered in accompanied by Mason Macomb.
Brother Macomb took this disaster with the good grace of a fund-raiser missing a small gift. He was obviously pleased to show compassion to the clumsy but well-meaning sister of another faith. He struck poses of dramatic competence and forgiveness. Hastings gathered up his things and began assembling his group. After endless mutual apologies, they departed. On the drive home, they stopped only to buy some blue cheese and fudge in the Gentile part of Nauvoo. Hastings wondered if he should feel guilty about the purloined package in his briefcase.
With anticipation, he came in early Saturday morning to discover the sixteen sheets inside the package. He read through all sixteen pages, then went to the reception for Cuidado, deprived of whatever wit and charm he could usually muster for such occasions. He managed to pull himself together in time for the meeting at 10:30 with Lolly Bird and Toom Taggart. He was pretty sure that no one had noticed anything amiss.
He obviously had discovered a bombshell. Of course there would be authentication tests, but he knew documents well enough to know that the paper and ink were from the 1820s. If he was right about the period, who at that time would have had any reason to create a forgery? As he thought this through, acid exploded in his stomach. It’s real, he thought; Joseph and Hyrum and all the rest—he spared a thought for Mason Macomb—who have followed them are in deep trouble.
Now it was Monday morning and he had to tell someone. Toom? No, on Mondays Toom had to make the long drive south to Belton, two hours each way, and was seldom in a good mood when he arrived. James Pincer hardly qualified, even though he would have to know sooner or later. Ralph honestly did not think he could get through another night without talking this over with someone.
He glanced at his watch. He could catch Pincer before lunch. With sudden decision, he pushed himself back from the desk. Swiftly, he selected the first of the four letters and the first sheet of the closely written manuscript, slipping them into large, clear-plastic, acid-free sleeves. He gently bundled the rest of the pages together, carefully aligning their edges.
Where could he put them? Too many people had access to the vault. One of his many assistants would almost certainly be in the room within minutes trying to figure out what he had been working on all morning. He carefully folded the waxed sheets, rewrapped the string around them, and started to slip them into his in-basket under the week’s worth of memos when he spied the document press, used to press documents after preservation. He placed the sheets carefully onto the press and twisted the wheel gently until the single board eased down tightly enough to hold the papers firmly but not tightly enough to cause damage. Then he set the press. No one would release a press that someone else had set.
* * * * *
Ralph paused at the door of James Pincer’s office five minutes later. He had been right about Toom. The office next door was still, the lights off. Pincer was talking on the phone. His chair was swivelled toward the window, his back to the door. The computer screen on his credenza was blank.
The office was a mess. It was a startling contrast to the pristine historian himself. Tall and well-proportioned, Pincer radiated dignity, sobriety, and the ecclesiastically correct grooming of a close shave, a manicured haircut, a crisp white shirt, a discreetly patterned red tie, and an eloquently charcoal suit. Hastings realized that he had really never been in the historian’s office other than to pick something up or drop it off. Pincer was not a “come in and sit down” type. He had a habit of replying to questions from behind his desk while the visitor stood at the door.
Ralph ran a professional eye over the bookcases lining the walls. Somehow Pincer had overcome the policy of no more than three bookcases per person. The books were pushed all the way back. The untidy fringe of dust in front of the books made Hastings feel literally on edge. How could anyone stand to be in an office where the books were pushed back against the wall? On the top of the books, lying edgewise, were other books, papers, photographs, and file folders. Pincer’s desk stood in the very center of the office, stacked perilously high with documents, folders, memos, and print-outs of e-mail messages.
As church historian, Pincer was the chief administrator for the entire department—library, archives, and museum—but mostly he made appearances at ceremonial functions. He made speeches every week to some youth group or women’s group or businessmen’s service club. He had a special necktie for the clubs. He could produce, for any occasion, an appropriate historical anecdote—a vaguely risque frontier joke for a mild chuckle, a thrilling narrative of nineteenth-century derring-do, or a heart-warming vignette that might produce a lump in the throat of the particularly susceptible. He would end with a few earnest words about the Search for Truth. He often spoke of “my book”—a major tome on the history of charitable projects in the church. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon were blocked out for research; about twice a month he actually made it to the archives where he sometimes stayed as much as forty-five minutes.
Pincer was well into his forties but looked eight or ten years younger. His professional credentials included having taught American history at Longview Community College. His ecclesiastical background was more important. As the saying goes, he had paid his rent. He had been everything from deacon and pastor to a job or two as a counselor to a district president. He had done one stint as a camp director during an incredibly long August summer in 1983.
When the brethren noticed that the old historian was dead, they organized a search committee to find a new one. Pincer had the one characteristic that made him stand out from the vast number of qualified professionals who applied. He had been a member of President Olympia’s Sunday school class of 1963. He hurriedly finished his Ph.D. in only three years after being appointed and modestly, though approvingly, beamed at staff members who began calling him Dr. Pincer.
He had no intention of ending his telephone conversation, so Hastings walked in, closed the door decisively, and moved toward the desk. Pincer swung back around surprised, receiver still to his ear, to see Hastings pick up a pile of papers from one of the two chairs in front of the desk and add it to the already high stack on the other chair. There was a box of books under the second chair and another box filled with miscellaneous items between the chair and the desk.
“I’ll call you back,” Pincer was saying. He glared at Hastings and hung up. Hastings hitched the chair closer to the desk in an ungainly series of bumps, ignoring Pincer’s arctic stare. In a whisper, he said: “I have something really important. I mean, really important.” He looked around the room as if the historian might be hiding someone in the corner. “I need to share it with you.”
Pincer, still looking annoyed, suggested: “Well, you know what they say, confession is good for the oblation.”
“We may be in some real difficulty,” Hastings was stern.
“What do you mean we?” the historian asked, genuinely puzzled. He had never yet seen a limb he could not refuse to climb out on.
“You’re the church historian!” Hastings exclaimed, his tone rising above the capacity of the thin office walls.
“Yes, of course. I am the historian.” Shades of Richard Nixon in the disclosure. “So, tell me,” Pincer grudgingly invited, “what has you so upset?”
“Listen and I’ll tell you.”
Ralph Hastings proceeded to describe what he had found, omitting the detail about how he had stolen it from the site. He described the package wrapped and sealed in waxed paper, the sixteen sheets, four of them letters, one of the hands familiar. Very familiar. Then followed a long pregnant pause. When Hastings could tell that Pincer seemed on the point of giving birth to a conclusion, he hissed: “Do you understand, Brother Pincer? Joseph and Hyrum Smith, during the spring of 1829 while Emma Smith and Alva Hale and Oliver Cowdery and God knows who else were acting as scribes for the Book of Mormon, are writing letters to each other about how they’re going to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and show them all up by revealing the angel acronym.”
“But the text isn’t the same as the Book of Mormon,” Pincer said.
“No. It’s almost the same, just a few words different, but not the same.”
“Hmmm,” said Pincer, eyes mellowing. “Do you suppose that Brigham Young made some changes in the 1840 Kirtland edition … ”
Hastings groaned. “That was the 1837 edition. No he didn’t. We’ve got the printer’s copy, they don’t. Remember?”
Pincer obviously didn’t. “Oh, yes.” He straightened and looked accusingly at Hastings. “So, what does this mean?”
“It means one of three things.” Hastings had said this twice already. “Either it’s a forgery by somebody pretending to be Joseph and Hyrum or it’s part of the original 116 pages that survived Dolly Harris’s destruction, and the Smith brothers were planning some kind of joke with it. Or else,” he paused, “there really is more than one version of the first part of the Book of Mormon because … ”
Pincer immediately made the appropriate response. “That can’t be true,” he assured the archivist authoritatively. “In fact, none of it is true.” He looked appraisingly at Hastings, and Hastings could see diagnoses forming behind Pincer’s eyes: was Hastings suffering from sunstroke? paranoid schizophrenia? too many hours in a fast-moving van with five interns?
Hastings was prepared. He took the two sheets in plastic folders from the art folder he was carrying and put them on Pincer’s desk, turning them so that they faced the historian. He glared at Pincer until the historian reluctantly dropped his eyes and began reading.
He read both sheets twice before he pushed back his chair and laid his arms on the desk. Meticulously he folded his fingers together in the opening position of “here is the church-house, here is the steeple.” Then he cleared his throat and announced firmly, “No, it’s too much like the Mark Hofmann case.”
There was a long pause. Hastings savored the moment. He admired Pincer’s ability to avoid controversy, but there was no way out of this one. Pincer’s job—in fact, his life—had become one armpit from hell. It consoled Ralph for not having gotten the job.
Finally the historian spoke. “I have no intention of going down in history for making the same mistake twice. That’s the trouble here, Ralph. This is too good to be true. That is the assumption we have to make here.”
“Too good to be true! Brother Pincer, do you realize what this means?”
“I didn’t mean ‘good’ in the sense of good for the church. Calm down, Ralph. You know what I mean. All I mean is that it’s too simple. It’s too extraordinarily perfect.”
“Well, we have it in black and white.”
“But is it real?”
“Of course it’s real. That’s not the question. The question is, does it represent what we both see? I have some serious doubts about that.”
Pincer pondered for a minute, and Hastings helped him. The silence was long and loud. “I mean there is some question about it being authentic,” Pincer said with obvious relief. “Authenticity—I mean, lack of authenticity—is the thing. If it’s not authentic, then it’s going to upset folks a little bit just because someone has gone to the trouble of faking this.”
Hastings interrupted. “But if it’s what I think it is—and you think so too … ” he stopped to assure himself that the blank-eyed visage was listening, ” … if Joseph and Hyrum wrote these letters, then there is a very serious question about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”
“Ralph, no! That’s not true. Even to announce that we have it, and even if we did not believe it, would raise all kinds of havoc. And we don’t believe it. We have no reason to.”
The thought of the public relations damage made Pincer’s voice change to a firm, authoritative tone. “There is no possibility that it is what you think it is,” he said weightily. “I’ve only read a bit of it, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. There is no need for a complicated explanation when a simple one fits the facts, and the fact is that the brethren upstairs are not going to like this one little bit.” He drew in his breath sharply. “You haven’t shown this to anyone, have you?”
“Ralph, I mean anyone–or told anyone about it?”
Hastings grinned. “Nope. You’re the only one.”
“Or left a memo or written it in a letter or sent off a fax or phoned your wife?”
“Give me a break, Jim! No. You and I are the only ones on the face of the earth who know this document exists. Everybody else who knows about it is dead.
“Well, it has to stay that way,” Pincer announced somberly.
“Come on, Jim. If it’s what we think it is, we have to tell the folks upstairs. In fact, we’ll have to tell the whole world.”
“Ralph, be serious,” Pincer leaned back in his chair, his hands clasped on his chest, fingertips touching in the steeple gesture. “Ralph, we have an obligation. This thing—whatever it is—is putting us to the test.”
“How we deal with it will identify what sort of men we are. It will force us to consider the responsibility placed on us. We are obligated to keep our dedicated promise to safeguard the church from harm.” His voice had acquired a sonorous hum like a distant bagpipe.
“I didn’t make a promise to keep the church from harm.”
“Sure you did. It’s the Oath and covenant of the priesthood. You assumed this responsibility when you accepted the priesthood.”
Hastings could barely control his exasperation. “What does that have to do with this?”
“We’re in the key position here. We are the ones who are counted on to keep the church from harm.”
“From harm? Don’t we have a larger obligation to tell the truth?”
“In some cases, yes.”
“Wait a minute!” Ralph said. His voice was sharp. “You’re saying we should cover this up?”
“What exactly are you saying? We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.”
“Well, for lack of any well-considered reason, because we’re historians.”
“But we don’t know if the document is authentic,” Pincer reported. He seemed to have wrapped his conceptual hands unflinchingly around that fact.
“If we don’t know it’s authentic, why all the premature talk about protecting anyone from what it says, if it says anything at all?”
“Because we need to be careful. We need to know what we have before we say anything. This is one of those things that the church depends on us to think through and not go off half-cocked.”
“Certainly, we have to be careful.”
“So, you have no objections if we continue testing it? Just to see what it is.”
“None. But keep it to yourself. We need to be very clear about that, Ralph. This is a direct order from your supervisor. Do not discuss this with anyone but me. Do you understand?”
“Sure.” Ralph was having trouble holding his temper. “But you and I both know it is going to come out.”
“Why?” Pincer asked. The sonorous note had disappeared. He was leaning forward across the desk. “Why should it come out? Who would let it out?”
“Because it’s history!” Hastings erupted. His eyes softened. “If it’s true, it’s amazing. This document will take us back into the past. It will give us insight into things we have wondered about for more than a century. People need to know this.”
“Even if it damages the church?”
“Sure. In fact, most certainly if it is going to damage the church. Maybe a political party can survive on public relations, but a religion can’t. Don’t you think that the truth will always help the church?”
“Well, yes, of course,” Pincer agreed hastily. “I just don’t want anybody’s faith to be harmed.”
“Of course, neither do I,” Ralph agreed in principle. “That’s why we owe it to members to tell them the truth as we know it.”
Pincer’s eyes were wary. “But we must be sure. We can’t go off half-cocked.”
They agreed. There was a need for more tests for authenticity. They also agreed that the resources of the church’s small lab would not give them the answers they needed but would probably be good enough to spot an obvious fake. Determining genuineness was something else. They’d have to go to an outside lab, and in that case, the information was going to leak. There was nothing Pincer could do about it.
The two men talked about the possibilities. Pincer’s voice sank lower and lower as he spoke. He suspected that the length of time they were spending with the door closed would make his staff curious. Was someone trying to listen through the wall?
Pincer rehearsed the litany of things they had agreed on while Hastings shifted impatiently, knocking a stack of papers off the chair next to him. The stack slid into one of the cardboard boxes on the floor. Scooping the papers back up out of the box, Hastings noticed that the box was the kind that held cans of motor oil, not the usual acid-free records management box. In fact, the cardboard was stained. A flap had been torn off and one of the corners drooped. Ralph could see that the boxes held a World War I helmet painted dull khaki, a web cartridge belt, the rusted bolt from what looked like an old 1903 Al rifle, a canvas sack containing a gas mask, a small package with a red cross on it, four or five little boxes which looked like YMCA sewing kits, and some well-used service manuals. He slammed the papers back onto the pile, shoving the whole stack toward the back of the chair. The clutter irritated him beyond endurance.
“What’s in these boxes?” he demanded.
“Books. A good Saint brought them in thinking we could use them. I don’t think there’s anything of much value there.”
“No, the ones with the helmet and gas mask.”
“Oh, same person. He thought the museum might like some of what he inherited from his grandfather. It’s easier to accept it than to explain why we don’t need it.” It was just like Pincer to pass the buck so he wouldn’t have to say no. He took everything that came along.
“Why don’t you send these people to Baccarat at the museum? Shouldn’t the museum curator be the one to say yes or no?” Hastings wondered why he was having this inane conversation.
“He won’t take anything,” said Pincer in an abstracted way. But Pincer would forward the items to the museum curator, Jerry Baccarat, who would then have to try and figure out what to do with them. Once the church took something, it was impossible to give it away. It was going to end up in some corner of the archives storage space.
Pincer drummed his fingers on the desk and raised his voice. “What kind of tests can you do here at our own lab?” he asked. He had already asked this twice. Hastings had answered it three times.
He repeated himself. “Provenance rules out a twentieth-century fake before the 1950s. The tests we can do here will determine whether the paper and ink are from the right period. It will take some outside experts to get more refined.”
“Have you done any internal checking? I mean, does it hold together in what it says?”
“I haven’t spent a lot of time with it. But let me say again, it seems to be from the period.”
“Maybe carbon-14 and what-have-you to test the ink?”
Hastings sighed. He was going to hyperventilate if this didn’t stop. “Jim, carbon-14 is for artifacts that are thousands of years old. I can run the basic fiber and ink tests here, but we’re going to have to trust it to one of the big preservation labs.”
“We can’t do that until we know for sure what it is.”
“We know what it is, James.” Hastings was very clear. “I’ve already thought about this. It’s a golden opportunity. When the time comes to release it, I think it should be done in connection with my dissertation.”
“Your dissertation!” James Pincer almost yelled, this time totally unconcerned about anyone hearing them. “Why in blazes would we want to announce it in your dissertation?”
“In conjunction with, not in. Anyway, there are a couple of good reasons. If we have the critique and analysis ready at the same time as the announcement, then it will tend to make it more academic. The second reason is,” Hastings smiled, “it will get me a degree.”
“Ralph, that’s stupid.”
“Not necessarily. I’ve been working in the New York years, and I could swing the thesis around and integrate an annotated version of this. It wouldn’t take more than six months. At that point, the ball would be in our hands. We’ll be able to say that we’ve known about this for some time but wanted to prepare it for the world—all that stuff.”
“There is and will be no disclosure. I repeat, no disclosure—that is, until we’ve verified this and talked it over with our superiors. It will be their call.”
“Superiors?” Hastings bristled automatically at the word. “You mean our supervisors?”
Pincer ignored him. “Until then you must do everything you can—but you understand, only what you can do—to get a better reading on this thing.”
Hastings knew that Pincer would not think twice about firing him if he called the Library of Congress. “Baccarat can test the fiber. He’s got an ultraviolet machine.”
“Not Baccarat. For heaven sake, don’t tell Baccarat about this. You haven’t told him, have you?”
“No, why not? Baccarat is better informed than either one of us on this sort of thing.”
“Because Baccarat isn’t a team player. He’d turn this into the biggest mess you can imagine.” Pincer sounded panicky at the thought. “Do it yourself. You can do it, can’t you?”
“Yes, but I’ll have to get into the lab sometime when Baccarat isn’t around.” Hastings reflected. “I don’t have a key. There’s no way I can go in there and use the equipment without telling him something.”
“But can you do it?”
“You mean the fiber and ink tests?”
“Well, please do.” Pincer pulled a set of keys from his pocket and started to peel one off, then stopped and opened his desk drawer. Inside was a single unmarked key. He passed it over. “Here, take my key and get it done as quickly as you can.” He paused, lowered his voice even further, and pronounced the words very carefully as if speaking to someone for whom English was a second language: “Understand these two things: First, you tell me what you find as quickly as you find it. Second, you tell no one else about this. Okay?”
“I take it you’re not going to say anything to Taggart?”
“Well, okay.” Hastings had little faith that he would learn anything at all. The tests he was going to perform were so basic that a good forger would have anticipated and offset them. But he would deal with that later.
He stood up and leaned over to pick up the two plastic covers. Pincer dropped his hand on top of them. “I’ll—uh— keep them for the moment so I can study them more.”
Hastings flinched at the man’s paw on the manuscript even though the plastic shielded it. “All right. Be careful with them.”
“You can be assured of that.”
Hastings left. Pincer got up, walked around the desk, closed the door, and sat down sweating. He rubbed his hands across his face again and again. When his phone rang, he jumped up and punched the button to activate his voice-mail. He didn’t want to talk to anybody. He couldn’t.
He read the contents of the two pieces of aging paper again—once quickly, then another time more slowly. He read them through a third time. What were those three options again? That Joseph was a fraud, that Joseph was a practical joker, and that some unknown person at some unknown point in time had carefully forged the correspondence and the first part of the Book of Mormon. Only the last alternative was acceptable.
He felt the skin up his back prickling. His hand scrubbed vigorously across his face as he stared at the telephone. Who could he call? President Olympia? “Er, good morning, sir. I just found out that the church is a fraud.” Elizabeth Mindy Comupin in Public Relations? No, this was out of her league.
Marie Burke in the legal department? No. What legal issue was there? Maybe he should talk with Taggart. No, Taggart was too liberal. You could never tell what in the world he was thinking. If Ralph Hastings struck noble poses about “the truth,” what on earth might Taggart come up with?
Suddenly he grabbed the phone. Louis T. Cannon—the brethren’s fix-it man. He fumbled through the building directory. He’d never called Cannon before. His office was somewhere on the brethren’s floor, but he wasn’t exactly sure what he did. Cannon’s title was executive assistant, but he never did secretarial work. Pincer misdialed and started over. What exactly did he want Cannon to do—make the document go away? Make Ralph Hastings forget he’d ever seen a pie safe? His finger stopped before he punched in the last number. Slowly he hung up the phone and stared at it for a long moment.
At the sound of a discreet tap at his door, he jumped, yanked a pile of folders over the two manuscript sheets, and barked “Come in!” as he flipped open the first one. His secretary, Dave Hodge, walked in, eyes sweeping the office. Hodge was not only a snoop but a blabbermouth. Pincer would have fired him long ago if his mother hadn’t been the sister of the Presiding Bishop.
“You’ve got that luncheon at 12:30 with the Three Trails Museum group, Jim,” Dave announced. “Aren’t you giving your Dynamic Developments during the 1920s lecture?” He came forward and perched primly on the edge of the chair Hastings had vacated. “Ralph certainly looked distracted when he left. A big project?” His voice invited a cozy chat and his eyes lingered on the desk blotter.
Pincer froze. Was a corner of the plastic folder showing? He knew Hodge had every item in his untidy office memorized. He picked the top three sheets out of the folder and thrust them at him. “Make me five copies of each right away, will you, Dave?”
Hodge looked at them. Correspondence from Marietta Walker about Autumn Leaves. “Poetry, Jim? What’s this about?”
“Just do it, Dave!” snapped Pincer. “A high school outreach program.”
Dave gracefully collected his feet and slithered out, leaving the door open. Pincer jumped up and closed the door again. He looked desperately around the room. He might have about four minutes before Dave would be back, and this time he wouldn’t knock. In an unmarked folder? At the back of a marked folder? No, the plastic sleeves were too large. Under his blotter? Taped to the bottom of a desk drawer? His eye fell on the motor oil box wedged between the second chair and the desk. Perfect! He rolled the pages into a tube and fitted them inside the carrying bag for an old gas mask. Nothing poked through the fabric to show that it contained anything unauthorized.
By the time Dave Hodge had sailed back in—yes, without knocking—Pincer was on the phone double-checking the location of the luncheon with the Three Trails director. Hodge handed over the photocopies and swept the desk with another photographic glance. The top folder was exactly where it had been on the precarious pile. Something was different, but what? Pincer waved him off and Hodge disappointedly obeyed.
* * * * *
Ralph’s palms were sweating. He obviously wasn’t cut out for sneaking about, even if he knew there was no other way. Susie had gone to bed early with the twins because she had a full day scheduled at the Abundant Life Center. He had not told her that he was going to stay up much, much later. He would be back anyway before she missed him. He still gulped nervously. If she woke up when he was leaving or coming back, she was going to want to know exactly where he had been, with whom, and why. Especially with whom. It was unlikely she would believe that he had felt a sudden impulse to look at some old documents under ultraviolet light. He felt convicted already.
He let his car roll into the street without starting it in the driveway, positive that somebody must be watching from somewhere on the street. He drove jerkily through the midnight streets and parked his battered Nova in the shade cast by the facade over the Employee of the Month parking spot. Dave Hodge would have been in hysterics if he knew.
Ralph had timed his arrival for 11:30. He was about to slide out of the car when a female custodian came out of the shipping entrance and crossed the parking lot to the Auditorium carrying a box of light bulbs. He froze, his mind racing. Had he turned off his engine before she came outside? He was sure he had. How long would it take for her to change a light bulb? If she looked back, would she see his car? Would she see the dome light flash as he got out?
As soon as the Auditorium door closed behind her, he opened the car door quietly, leaped out, and closed the door as quickly as he dared. Using his key card, he entered the temple through the employee entrance. He paused inside next to the photo display, his heart pounding, listening for the security guard’s footsteps. There was only one guard in the building, but he made regular rounds. Everything was dead quiet.
He went to the archives, following the back hall and turning at the garden exit. He took the manuscript from the press using just the illumination from the exit sign over the door. He slipped the manuscript into his leather folder and cracked the door open to scan the hall again. Nothing. He had his Keds on, so he made little noise crossing over to the museum. If he encountered anyone, he had a story ready about picking up papers for an off-site meeting the next morning. At the museum door, he fumbled with the key Pincer had given him, panicking when it refused to go in. He took a deep breath, turned it over, and tried again. It worked.
He opened the door and stepped inside, smacking the door frame with his flat leather folder. The thump made him break out all over in perspiration. He dropped the case and barely grabbed the doorknob before the automatic closer pulled it closed. He eased it shut, then leaned against the door, panting. A second-story man with a conscience, that’s what he was.
By the dim night light, he headed into the lab at the far end of the museum workspace. It had no windows. With the door closed, no light would seep out.
He glanced at the equipment. He’d used it all before, but not since everything had been moved from the Auditorium to the Temple. The ultraviolet light fixture stood by itself on a long, narrow table. It looked somewhat battered from use. It was sheathed in white enamel and built like a kitchen mixer, its focus lens suspended over a small tray made of the same material. It was about three inches deep and topped with a stainless steel grill. The paper or cloth slid into a groove on one side and clamps on the top and bottom held it in place. He adjusted the clamps to the size he thought would work.
He felt calmer now that the actual job was in front of him. Sitting on a high-backed stool, he rolled a few inches sideways so that there was room to open his folder. He put on some white archival gloves and flexed his fingers for a good fit. He carefully slid the manuscript out of his bag, laid it neatly on the center of the table within reach, and gently eased up the first page, positioning it carefully in the grove and adjusting the clamps. The UV goggles were lying to the left of the light. He fitted them over his glasses and tried not to let his fingers touch his hair as he slid the elastic band over the back of his head. He didn’t want any body oil to touch this sheet of paper.
Bent over the built-in magnifying lens, Hastings flipped the toggle to produce the characteristic harsh light with its strange cast to its color–almost fluorescent but not quite. He could see the pattern of the paper’s fibers and the absorption imprint of the ink. Was that a watermark? He bent closer. His stomach churned. Too much excitement. He straightened up, took a breath, and then bent to his work again.
The writing on the paper moved, then settled, then wavered again. Hastings thought he could see a cloud rising from around the paper, a dark cloud with an odor that was somehow familiar. His eyes hurt and he felt a constriction in his throat. He tried to stand, but his legs had lost their strength. He wanted to reach out, but his arms did not work. Slowly the room began to turn dark, closing in from the edges of his vision like the phase-out at the end of a cheap movie. The last thing he saw was the paper lying on the metal grate.
Everything was silent for nearly half an hour. Then a tall figure silently opened the door to the museum, closed it without a whisper of sound, and moved noiselessly to the lab. The shadow jumped and bobbed in the mixture of lights as the person casting it leaned over the table and looked straight at Ralph. The archivist’s head had dropped to the table beside the light, the side of his head resting on the edge of the stack of papers, his eyes open but sightless. The intruder pulled on a pair of rubber gloves from the box next to the stand, reached overhead to turn on the exhaust fan situated in the hood, and reached around Hastings’s shoulder to undo the clamps and gently remove the single sheet from the metal grill.
Holding the sheet between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand, the intruder gingerly slid three fingers of the right hand under the back of Hastings’s head, tipping it forward a little and flicking the stack of papers out from under it with the other two fingers. The single sheet joined the rest of the slim stack. The gloved hand picked it up, slid it into a flat, plastic Kinko’s sack, then dropped it into an attache case. From the accordion pocket on the lid, a single piece of heavy paper covered with amateur typing slid onto the grate.
Without turning off either the light or the fan, the figure quickly stepped out and let the door ease silently shut. The shadow headed toward the back of the building to the dock at the beginning of the tunnel to the Auditorium. It was the working area of the building on the opposite side of the public entrances. The self-locking door opened gently, the red security light blinking on, then off, then on again. Avoiding the heavy pools of light in the parking lot, the figure walked quickly down Walnut Street, now deserted. The spotlights illuminating the temple shone blandly upward, reflecting from the walls.
In a few minutes a dark car pulled out of the lot across the street at the LDS Visitors Center and drove sedately toward the center of town.