Union operative J.B. Carver fails his mission, causing the Union army to suffer a terrible defeat at Bull Run. This failure costs Carver his job, his rank, and his love. As the war enters its second year, Carver is given the chance to redeem himself if he can capture an elusive con man who is wanted for swindling the War Department. His nickname is the Lizard.
Carver travels to volatile Kentucky track the Lizard down. Along the way he must avoid hostile locals, a rival agent, and deadly assassins of a ruthless tycoon who will stop at nothing to see the Lizard dead. What begins as a routine investigation soon becomes a treacherous struggle for survival and redemption.
Carver blinked and squinted and rubbed his eyes until his vision returned. The shrill screech of the cannonball pierced his eardrums and left him temporarily deaf. All around he saw the moving mouths of desperate men, but no sound came from those mouths. Gradually his hearing returned, and two soldiers helped him to his feet. Carver slapped dirt from his coat and noticed the shocked glare on the men’s faces as they stared at the ground behind him. Carver turned.
Lying on his stomach was Colonel Everett West, his head turned Carver’s way. There were no visible wounds, but the eyes were open and blank, and the tongue was clamped in the teeth until it was nearly bitten in half. No further examination was needed to see that the colonel was dead. Across the road was the colonel’s dead horse. Just two more corpses among the makeshift graveyard along the Warrenton Turnpike.
Panicked Union soldiers paid no attention to the bodies as they rushed from the fight. Looking down toward Young’s Branch, Carver saw the remaining Michigan boys withdrawing. They headed Carver’s way, like it seemed the rest of the Union Army was doing. The turnpike was clogged with human traffic. There would be no rallying these men now.
Carver found himself wrapped in the frenzy as the soldiers’ momentum carried him north up the road whether he wanted to go or not. Carver tried to glimpse Colonel West one last time, but he couldn’t see the colonel’s body past the throngs of fleeing men. Had he met West under different circumstances, he might have respected him more. But as things were now, there was no room for sympathy in Carver’s heart. He could only move north with the rest of the general retreat.
The remnants of the Union Army filled the dirt road. Had the Confederates not been too exhausted to pursue, they could have captured the entire force. But the rebel command chose to stay back and lob random artillery shells into the retreating masses. Up ahead, Carver saw civilians and their wagons getting caught in the pandemonium. Carver saw their fancy clothes, their picnic baskets and their champagne bottles, and he knew they were spectators who had come from Washington to see a Union victory. Now they were in danger of being killed just like everybody else. Maybe that’ll teach them that war is no place for rich fools who lack the fortitude to fight, Carver thought.
The fleeing masses fought their way across the bridge spanning Bull Run. A Confederate cannonball overturned a wagon on the bridge, blocking the general path of the Union retreat and precipitating a panic. The retreat quickly became a rout as desperate men fought their way through the wreckage, fell off the bridge, and swam across the stream. Carver waded through in water to his knees, and he could hear the triumphant yip and shout of the Confederates as they stood victorious on the battlefield of Bull Run.
The frenzied race north did not stop at Centreville. It continued all the way to Washington, nearly twenty miles away. And the race included J.B. Carver. His mission, like the Union’s mission, had ended in dismal failure. But what weighed heaviest upon his aching shoulders was the dreadful notion that all of this had been his fault.
Carver’s heart raced. How marvelous it was to be getting a field assignment after half a year of torturous desk duty! He felt as if he was stepping out of a damp dreary place into the warm healing sun. He rubbed his hands and waited for Eastwick to provide the details.
“A man has defrauded the War Department out of twenty-five thousand dollars. He sold a forged contract to supply weapons that did not exist. No one is certain why Secretary Cameron did not pursue this swindler; many think it’s because it would have exposed the deeper corruption within his administration. But Mr. Stanton sees it differently, and he wants this man to be made an example of. This miscreant is to be apprehended and brought to Washington to stand trial for his duplicity.”
Carver stroked his square chin. He was feeling like a detective again. “Do you know who this man might be?”
“He is known by many names, and he is often in transit. Through various contacts, we believe he’s currently hiding somewhere in southern Ohio. Cincinnati or thereabouts. The man is a known thief, a swindler, a mountebank. According to government files, his most notorious alias is ‘The Lizard.’”
“Where will you be taking me?” Guiguerre asked as Carver shoved him forward. Carver squeezed Guiguerre’s arm above the elbow.
“To a place I’m sure you’re familiar with… a nice cool prison cell.”
“Hmmm…” Guiguerre seemed to be contemplating the option, as if he had a choice. “I may have to escape before we get there.”
Carver saw a ridiculous smirk on Guiguerre’s face. It was a half-smile that said Guiguerre knew something he wasn’t telling. Carver frowned. How could a man be so vain when he’s being shackled and dragged through the brush?
“We’ll get there,” Carver said as he stopped in the woods. Guiguerre kept walking until Carver yanked him back. “You stop when I stop. Pay close attention to what I do, or your next move may be your last.”
Guiguerre sighed and leaned against a tree, as if this was just another ordinary day for him. Carver rubbed his chin and looked around. Guiguerre said, “Having trouble finding your way?”
“If you hadn’t run off from that tavern last night, there would be no trouble. I’m not sure if Louisville is west of here… or south or north… I know it’s not east because the town’s up against a river.”
“Why would we be going back to Louisville?”
“Don’t you mind,” Carver snapped. Then he softened a bit. “I figure we can catch a train heading north from there.”
Carver stepped forward, then hesitated. Then he stepped in another direction, then hesitated. Then again. Each time he moved he glanced at Guiguerre, hoping for some signal that he was heading in the right direction. But Guiguerre was too clever to offer any assistance. If Carver was going to get them back to Louisville, he would have to do it on his own.
While Carver continued thinking, Guiguerre broke the silence. “You would not have caught me had it not been for that rash farmer. That man actually accused me of trying to make time with his daughter.”
“And why would he accuse you of such a thing?” Carver asked, still scanning the woods.
“Because he saw me in her bed.”
The figure sat atop a large, graceful horse with the right hand tight upon the reins. The horse, accustomed to its efficient rider, stopped right alongside the men on the road. The rider’s left hand was concealed in the black cloaks that draped over the fine leather saddle. Bell and Cecil watched the horse standing beside them and kept their hands near the holsters outside their dirty coats. Bell squinted to get a better look at the rider, but the hooded cloak concealed everything but piercing brown eyes.
“Looking for a man with a French accent,” said the figure in a low voice muffled by the hood. “Or maybe he’s disguising his accent. Poses as a Frenchman, goes by many names. Stands six feet, wavy hair, handsome to the look. Seen anyone like that around here?”
Cecil nodded and began to speak but Bell reached over and stopped him. They exchanged stern glances and silently agreed that the stranger was looking for Devereaux. But who was this stranger in black? Another accomplice left behind in Devereaux’s haste to flee the county? Another irritant here to defame the Union? Before allowing Cecil to divulge any information, Bell decided to get some of his own first.
“Sounds like a stranger to these parts,” Bell said to Cecil as he rubbed his wiry beard. He looked up at the figure, who sat perfectly composed upon the big horse, even though the beast jostled a bit. “We’re mighty leery of strangers ‘round here, ‘specially now there’s a war on. So who might you be?”
The black figure ignored the question and asked, “Any strangers pass through here lately?”
“Looks like one’s tryin’ to pass through right now,” said Cecil, catching on to the captain’s suspicions. He stepped closer, ready to reach out with his long arm and seize the horse’s reins.
Bell tapped one of his pistols with a thick finger and set his jaw. “I asked you a question, sir. What’s yer name and what’s yer business in these parts?”
A small rustle was heard in the thicket behind the horse as a gray squirrel darted past. The horse jerked, rattling the birds in the branches overhead. Cecil stepped closer; the reins were almost within reach. Bell slid his hand over his pistol and said in a steady voice, “We don’t take kindly to strangers. Show me yer hands or we’ll pour lead into you as sure as the day is long.”
Two explosions rattled the woods and scattered the nearby wildlife. From the bright gleam beneath the cloak came a cloud of powdered smoke, and Bell and Cecil saw blood streaming from their chests. Moans and gurgles echoed in the brush as they sank to the ground.
A small flame flickered on the cloak from the igniting gunpowder of the rider’s pistol, but it was quickly extinguished with a gloved hand. Ahead was a road veering to the left, or northwest. Thus far the Frenchman’s trail had indicated he was heading toward the river. If he had passed LaGrange, as the dead men seemed to indicate by their strange behavior, he would surely take this road to get there. The figure tugged the reins, and the obedient horse shook off the noise of the gunshots and turned onto the road to Westport.