Excerpt for THE ANCIENT NINE by Ian K. Smith
Who doesn’t love a chance to get to read a book before they one-click it. I know I do. Today, I have an excerpt of the book Harlan Coben says "Pulls you into the depths of a secret world from the first page. Ian Smith’s novel is unmissable." Are you ready?
EVERYTHING ABOUT ELIOT House was so goddamn superior. It wasn’t just one of the river houses; it was the river house, prominently located at one of Harvard’s busiest intersections, the corner of Memorial Drive and John F. Kennedy Street. Eliot’s exalted position in the Harvard housing system was cemented when the architects positioned it so that it’s the first house seen when taking the eastern approach to campus over the famed Anderson Memorial Bridge. College brochures proudly displayed the splendid brick mansion with its shiny white tower and the sun lifting softly in the distance.
Like everything else at Harvard, Eliot had its own story. One of the seven original houses at the college, it was named in honor of Charles William Eliot, Harvard’s twenty-first and longest-serving president, and modeled after the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. This particular house had always been shrouded in an air of self-importance, mostly because those who run the house affairs have gone to great lengths to preserve its aura of privilege and exclusivity. According to an underground student survey—one that the administration would never confirm nor deny—Eliot housed the largest percentage of trust fund millionaires and by far the greatest number of prep school graduates. In effect, it had become an extension of Harvard’s feeder boarding schools, places like Phillips Exeter, Andover, St. Paul’s, and Deerfield Academy.
I flashed my ID to the security guard stationed in front of the main entrance of tall French doors and polished brass. The short foyer then opened into the majestic dining hall. It was one of those typical Harvard affairs, dark expensive wood, sweeping chandeliers, and bigger-than-life portraits of stonyfaced white men, deep creases carved into their foreheads and a smattering of rose coloring the paleness of their gaunt cheeks. Every Harvard house had its own dining hall, not to be called a cafeteria. I had made that mistake once, in my public school ignorance, never to do it again.
I ate at Eliot only once every other week, as Dalton’s guest, and as far as I was concerned, that was more than enough. Most of the residents looked like clones, with their heavily starched oxfords, suede bucks, and that unmistakable air of superiority. The women always seemed to be dressed for a garden tea party, their makeup perfectly applied and their hair coiffed and sprayed into helmets. The guys always looked like they were heading to a polo match on some country estate.
I spotted Dalton sitting alone at one of the tables nearest the window. He acknowledged me with a short wave and went back to reading something he was holding in his hand. I ducked into the serving line just inside the kitchen.
One of the good things about eating in Eliot House was that the line always moved faster. It was an open secret that thanks to a deep-pocketed alumnus, Eliot had been afforded a larger kitchen staff than the other dining halls and a more spacious kitchen. After grabbing my tray and silverware and joining the line, I instantly froze.
The most beautiful girl I had ever seen was standing a few feet away from me on the other side of the serving station. Tall, golden-honey complexion, eyes the color of warm caramel, she had tied her long, curly black hair underneath a crimson baseball cap required of all kitchen personnel. She robotically scooped mashed potatoes and dumped them onto plates as students walked by in assembly-line fashion. She was on autopilot, accepting the plates with her left hand, scooping and dumping the mashed potatoes with her right. She never made eye contact with the students, her blank facial expression that of someone who had a million other places they’d rather be.
I asked the first server for a helping of beef and gravy, and while I normally would have had french fries instead of mashed potatoes, I quickly decided there was no better time than the present for a healthy change in eating habits. I could feel my throat tighten as I neared her station, and I prayed like hell I wouldn’t let out a squeaker.
“How’s it going?” I managed.
She didn’t respond. Instead, she held out her left hand for my plate and looked annoyed.
I held the plate far enough away that she couldn’t reach it; then I stood on my toes and looked over the food hood and read her name badge—ashley. Her skin was as smooth as a pebble weathered by the sand, her cheekbones high and angular. “How’s everything going, Ashley?” I said.
“Do you want potatoes or not?” she answered, icing me with a stare that only made her more beautiful.
“Not until you answer my question,” I said. I felt a soft nudge from the tray of an impatient girl waiting behind me.
“Then I guess you don’t want potatoes,” she huffed, and looked beyond me.
“And I guess you’ll have to serve around me while I stand here,” I shot back.
She blew out a long sigh. “Fine, you wanna know how it’s going?” she said. “Just peachy. So great that when I get home tonight, I’ll be doing cartwheels just thinking how much fun I had standing over these hot plates, serving a bunch of spoiled brats like you.” She reached out and grabbed my plate, then dumped an absolutely perfect pile of potatoes. “Next.”
I walked out of the kitchen, feeling that if I died that very second, I had at least seen the most beautiful thing God had ever created.
“Her name is Ashley Garrett,” Dalton said as I settled into my chair. “Born and raised in Roxbury, parents are divorced, and she’s already spoken for.”
Who hit the jackpot?”
“Some guy from Somerville who fixes roofs for a living.”
I wasn’t surprised that Dalton already had the inside scoop. I forgot to mention that not only was Dalton filthy rich, but he was also ruggedly handsome with the charm to match and had a fan club of coeds that even a rock star would envy. He had a special appreciation of the opposite sex, especially women of color, any kind of color—black, Latin American, South American—so long as they had a drop of ethnicity swirling in their blood. I think a lot of their appeal for him had to do with his eternal rebellion against his domineering, magisterial father, whom he derisively called “the Emperor.” Conversely, he despised the blond, blue-eyed WASP types his parents were always arranging for him to meet at parties and other society affairs he was forced to attend on weekends. At the tender age of fourteen, Dalton had unofficially declared war on not only his parents, but also the pretense and elitism of their country club circuit of friends, and his fellow scions anointed to inherit the world.
“She’s amazing,” I said. “But not the friendliest girl I’ve ever met.”
“How friendly would you be, standing over those hot lamps all night and serving food to a bunch of rich kids?” Dalton said.
“You have a point.”
“But, man, is she gorgeous.” He whistled. “I’d crawl on my knees backwards all the way down Mem Drive to the Commons if I could get her out on a date.”
“I’d do the same, but on broken glass,” I said.
Dalton took a long pull on his iced tea. He had four small glasses sitting on his tray. He wiped his hands, folded the letter he had been reading, and stuffed it back into the envelope.
“What was that?” I asked.
“The Emperor’s continuing punishment.”
“He wrote you a letter?”
“Are you kidding me? He’s never even signed his own name to one of my birthday cards. It’s from the trust lawyers. I applied for an emergency loan, but they just flat-out denied me. No extra money for another two years, my twenty-first birthday. Their final opinion was that my being cut off from that heartless bastard doesn’t constitute an emergency. Then they had the nerve to say that there are plenty of student jobs that would help me cover my incidental expenses. Assholes. Easy for them to say, when managing the Winthrop money for the last hundred years has made all of them millionaires several times over.”
“I’ve got a hundred and fifty in the bank,” I said. “Not much, but if things get tough, what’s mine is yours.”
“Thanks, Spense, but I can’t do that,” Dalton said. “That’s exactly what the Emperor wants me to do, borrow and beg and be humiliated. Not a chance I’ll give him the satisfaction. Anyway, enough about my shitty affairs. Do you have the invite?”
I reached into my jacket and handed over the small envelope. He inspected it carefully, first the envelope, then the stationery, turning it around and holding it up to the light. I felt like someone who had taken a family heirloom to the jeweler to get it appraised.
“It’s the real deal, Spense,” he finally said, sliding the envelope back to me across the table. “Do you know anything at all about the final clubs?”
“Not till you mentioned them last night.”
“Okay, so you’re a virgin,” he said. “Makes our job a little tougher, but we’ll get it done. He drained another glass of iced tea and pushed his tray to the side. “First some important background. As you now know, there are nine Harvard final clubs—the Porcellian, Owl, AD, Fly, Delphic, Fox, Spee, Phoenix, and DU. Each one has a gigantic old mansion here in Cambridge that they use as a clubhouse. They are exclusive, members-only, all-male clubs that date all the way back to the 1700s. Back then, Harvard had three major types of clubs arranged in a pyramid hierarchy. The Dickey was a secret society that evolved from something called the Institute of 1770 and the Hasty Pudding Club. The Dickey was at the bottom of the social ladder.”
“Is that the same Hasty Pudding that gives out the awards every year to famous actors?” I asked.
“Exactly. It started out as a secret society, but then it became a theatrical club. About forty years ago, they started awarding a Man and Woman of the Year Award, giving the honorees a parade down Mass Ave into the center of Harvard Square. It’s the parade with all the male members of the Pudding wearing drag. Anyway, above the Dickey were what they called waiting clubs. Students joined these, hoping to one day reach the top of the pyramid—the final clubs.
“The Porcellian, or the Pork, was the first and only final club for several years. Only students from the wealthiest families with the most important pedigree were even considered for the Pork. They held private dinners and outings and played in the most expensive private building in Cambridge. But what set them most apart was how tightly they kept their secrets. Except for the staff, no one including the president of the university could step foot in their mansion. Their rituals and traditions became the stuff of legend. Then, as the years passed, other final clubs were slowly established from some of the old fraternities that were on campus.”
“And these clubs have never been coed?” I asked.
“Never. And that’s not gonna change. They’ve stood up to every kind of pressure imaginable—lawsuits, protests, sanctions—and nothing has come close to working. It’s only made them stronger. The Princeton eating clubs were forced to open their doors to women, and so were some of the clubs at Yale, but the final clubs remain alone, the oldest, most elite all-male college social clubs in the country.”
“So how do you become a member?” I asked.
“In the past, it was all about money and status,” Dalton said. “You needed to come from the right prep school, and your parents had to live in one of the big eastern cities like Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. Your family had to do all the society shit, travel to Florida in the winter, then north to Cape Cod or Europe in the summer. The who’s who of Harvard were members of these clubs, from President Teddy Roosevelt, who was a member of the Pork, to President Kennedy, who joined the Spee. Teddy’s cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, couldn’t get into the Pork, so he settled on the Fly Club.”
“If you’re not a member, can you still go inside?” I asked.
“Definitely not. Male Harvard students who aren’t members must enter through the back door. They must stay in the billiards and TV rooms in the basement. They’re never allowed inside the main rooms of the clubhouse.”
“What about women?”
“It depends on the club. Some let them in, but they’re allowed only on certain floors. Some clubs even have these elaborate schedules—what doors women can enter on certain days, sometimes only through the back door, other times through the kitchen. It’s crazy.”
I looked at the three torches on the envelope, wondering why one of these clubs would invite me to a cocktail party when I seemed to be the opposite of everything they represented. No money, no lineage, and a public school education, I was exactly the type of student they wanted to keep out. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made, but the idea that someone thought I was worthy enough to be part of this privileged world excited me.
“So, what’s this cocktail party about?” I asked.
“It’s the official kickoff event for what’s called the punch season, which lasts from now until the end of November. Just like fraternities have a rush, the clubs have what they call a punch. You can only be punched as a sophomore or junior, but most of the punchees are sophomores. Each club secretly selects about a hundred students to enter their punch. Years ago, it was open only to prep school kids and legacies, but now very few blacks and Jews are being invited. The punch is made up of a series of rounds. Each round has a major event, like a dinner, lunch, or outing. After each round, the membership holds a long meeting in the clubhouse to decide whom to cut from the list and who will continue in the punch. The initial cocktail party is usually held at a graduate member’s house or at some fancy hall they rent for the night.”
“What’s so special about the Delphic?” I asked.
Dalton’s eyes suddenly lit up. “The club of secrets,” he said. “The stories and rumors are endless. Generations of Harvard students have tried breaking into their fortress of a clubhouse, but no one has ever succeeded.”
“If the club is so secretive, how do you know their stories?” I asked.
Dalton leaned across the table. “Because my great-uncle Randolph is a torch man,” he whispered. “I haven’t seen him in several months. He’s holed up in his estate down in New York, dying from some kind of respiratory disease. But when I was a teenager and we were at family events, he’d pull me into his study and tell me these great stories about the Gas House, most of which I was too young to even understand or remember, but he liked telling them to me.”
“Why the Gas House?”
“That’s what the old-timers call the Delphic. Their mansion was one of the first buildings in Cambridge to have electric lights. Uncle Randolph always wanted me to be a Delphic man and not a Porker like the Emperor. He always said my temperament was much better suited for the Delphic. Of course, the Emperor got me punched by the Pork, hoping I would follow in his footsteps. I flat-out refused to participate in any of the clubs. He was mad as hell. Practically had a seizure. The look on his face and the way his head shook—the sweetest revenge ever. But I’m excited that you got punched. The Delphic is the club. It’s the richest club by far and has one of the biggest clubhouses. They own that enormous old pile with the Carolina blue door over on Linden Street. You’ve probably passed it a thousand times heading back and forth to class and didn’t even know what it was. It has four big columns in front and a brass nine in the middle of the front door.”
I vaguely recalled the building. There weren’t many on Linden, since it was such a short street. There were Adams House and Claverly Hall and the Bureau of Study Counsel farther up the street. I remembered this old brick mansion I never paid much attention, because I thought it was just another one of Harvard’s administration buildings. Occasionally I would notice a couple of guys quietly going in and out, but there wasn’t much else to it.
“What’s it like inside?” I asked.
“I’ve never been, but it’s supposed to be complete luxury. No expense spared. They have a collection of cockfight paintings in their first-floor reading room worth several million dollars. Their antique furniture was imported from some English castle destroyed in World War II, and their Persian rugs once decorated palaces as far away as Macedonia. You don’t hear so much about the Delphic, because they’re very private.”
“Do you know what the letters JPM inside the circle mean?” I asked.
Dalton picked up his last glass of iced tea and drained it in one tilt. “That’s J. P. Morgan Jr. of the famous Morgan banking family,” he said. “One of the original members and founders of the Gas. The Pork wouldn’t let him in, so he took out his checkbook, paid for the mansion, then started his own club. After Morgan came the Astors and Rockefellers and other big names. Getting into the Delphic became so impossible that by the time the Emperor was a student, some guy who lived down the hall from him committed suicide when he didn’t get elected.”
My head was spinning as I tried to process all that Dalton was telling me. Secret societies, millionaires, mansions, and private rituals—it was the stuff of movies. Yet of all people, I had arrived at this intersection, a poor kid from the wrong side of a midwestern city, now holding an invitation to peek into this clandestine world.
“I know it’s a lot to take in at once,” Dalton said. “But there’s something else I must tell you. It’s the real reason why I’m so excited you got the invitation.”
Dalton paused and looked around as if others might be listening, though by now only a handful of people were left in the dining hall. He pushed his tray aside and leaned toward me.
“The Delphic Club stole what people have called Harvard’s Holy Grail,” he said. “No one’s sure exactly what it is, but in the early seventies, at least ten students were arrested trying to break into the club to find it. None of them made it past the first floor, but when they were questioned by police, they all said they were looking for the lost treasure.”
“What kind of treasure?” I asked.
“Some think it’s a rare printing of Shakespeare’s First Folio,” Dalton said. “Others think it’s the jewel-encrusted tiara worn by Pope Clement V during his coronation in 1305. I’ve even heard that it’s a rare Vermeer painting that once hung in the president’s office but was stolen in the early 1700s. Whatever it is or was, no one’s talking. But lots of people are convinced it’s hidden somewhere in that mansion.”
“Who do they think stole it?”
“There are nine special graduate members who supposedly have guarded the grail with their lives. But to this day, no one has been able to prove that they exist. They’re called the Ancient Nine. Some people have said they’ve seen an old man who occasionally leaves the clubhouse late at night.” “What does the old man do?” I asked.
Dalton shrugged his shoulders. “Nobody knows except the guys inside, but people believe he lives somewhere in the mansion and protects their secrets.”
“Did you ever ask your uncle Randolph about him?”
“Of course I did. Many times.”
“And what did he say?”
“That it’s all a bunch of crazy stories made up by kids with big imaginations and too much time on their hands.”
“Do you believe him?”
“Not one bit.”
“Why not? You believe everything else he told you.”
“Because I think Uncle Randolph is a member of the Ancient Nine. That’s something he would never tell even me.”
Copyright © 2018 by Ian K. Smith in The Ancient Nine and reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fall 1988
An unlikely Harvard prospect, smart and athletic, strapped for cash, determined to succeed. Calls his mother—who raised him on her own in Chicago—every week.
A white-shoe legacy at Harvard, he's just the most recent in a string of moneyed, privileged Winthrop men in Cambridge. He's got the ease—and the deep knowledge—that come from belonging.
These two find enough common ground to become friends, cementing their bond when Spenser is "punched" to join the Delphic Club, one of the most exclusive of Harvard's famous all-male final clubs. Founded in the nineteenth century, the Delphic has had titans of industry, Hollywood legends, heads of state, and power brokers among its members.
Dalton Winthrop knows firsthand that the Delphic doesn't offer memberships to just anyone. His great-uncle is one of their oldest living members, and Dalton grew up on stories of the club's rituals. But why is his uncle so cryptic about the Ancient Nine, a shadowy group of alums whose identities are unknown and whose power is absolute? They protect the Delphic's darkest and oldest secrets—including what happened to a student who sneaked into the club's stately brick mansion in 1927 and was never seen again.
Dalton steers Spenser into deeper and deeper recesses of the club, and beyond, to try to make sense of what they think they may be seeing. But with each scrap of information they get from an octogenarian Crimson graduate, a crumbling newspaper in the library's archives, or one of Harvard's most famous and heavily guarded historical books, a fresh complication trips them up. The more the friends investigate, the more questions they unearth, tangling the story of the club, the disappearance, and the Ancient Nine, until they realize their own lives are in danger.
About the Author: Ian K. Smith is the author of nine New York Times bestselling nonfiction books, several of them, including Shred and Super Shred, #1 bestsellers, as well as one previous work of fiction, The Blackbird Papers. He is a graduate of Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine.
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (September 18, 2018)
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