Chapter 1—An Unanticipated Turn of Events

 

DAVID HAMMOND proudly held the Bible on which Grayson Alexander took the oath of office as Vice President of the United States. While some might be nervous knowing millions of people all around the globe were watching his every move, David was not at all anxious. Instead, he was overwhelmingly happy—not for himself but for his husband of ten years, who had achieved what few men in the nation’s history had been able to.

“So help me God,” Gray said, concluding the oath of office.

“Congratulations, Mr. Vice President,” the Chief Justice said as he shook the hand of the newly inaugurated Vice President. Gray gave David a quick hug and a kiss before he and David returned to their seats so the program could proceed, culminating with the inauguration of the new President.

While the President was giving his inaugural address, David quietly leaned over to Gray, being careful to keep his mouth hidden from view in case anyone could read his lips, and whispered, “I’m freezing my fucking nuts off out here.”

“I know. Who would have expected a cold, snowy day in January in Washington? Later I’ll help warm the little guys up.”

“Promises, promises.” David smiled slyly at Gray but didn’t dare to continue their whispered conversation, since the eyes of the world were on them. They behaved themselves for the remainder of the speech.

The new President was many things, but a dynamic speaker was not one of them. On Inauguration Day, however, the President had a captive audience. The West Front Lawn of the Capitol was a sea of faces, tens of thousands of faces, all cold but anxious to hear what the new President had to say about his plans and expectations for the next four years.

David’s world was medicine. Politics was Gray’s business, not his. As a nonpolitical animal, David let his mind drift to work, and he quietly outlined a lecture he was scheduled to give the following day to the first-year medical students. He and Gray were expected to put in appearances at some ridiculous number of formal balls later that night, so he was dreading the thought of getting up in the morning to go to work, but he had promised he would be there on time and ready to teach.

When Gray gently jostled his arm, David’s focus snapped to the present, and he rose with everyone else to head back inside the Capitol—the heated Capitol. It meant sitting through what promised to be a dreadfully tedious lunch with members of the House and Senate, but at least it would be warm.

The lunch was every bit the fascinating time David had anticipated. He did his best to be sociable, but the topic everyone in the room wanted to talk about—politics—was not his subject. Still, he played the dutiful spouse and talked with people as needed.

Two hours later, when they stepped out of the Capitol to move to their limo for the ride down Pennsylvania Avenue, snow was falling heavily. David’s instinct was to open his mouth, lean his head back, and try to catch a snowflake on his tongue. He reminded himself that hundreds of cameras from all around the world watched their every move, so he was able to suppress his naturally playful urge. Anything he said or did that day would likely be seen by millions of people, so he knew he had to behave impeccably.

Safely ensconced inside their tank-like limousine, David automatically moved to take his husband’s hand in his. Holding hands for the trip down Pennsylvania Avenue was as natural as breathing. Gray and David were out and proud and had never hidden anything about who they were or about their relationship. Gray was the first openly gay Vice President in the history of the nation.

They had a short distance of only two miles to cover, but it would take some time because the parade moved relatively slowly. Most participants would walk the route, but not so the newly inaugurated President and Vice President.

“Do you think the snow is going to create a problem for the parade?” David asked. “It’s really coming down out there.”

“Probably not.”

“Well, not for us, since we’re inside this tank. But think about all those people behind us who have to march all the way—I hope they’re dressed for this weather.” As a medical doctor, David automatically thought of the fundamental law that said cold equals hypothermia and frostbite.

With less delay than David had anticipated, their car began to slowly move. For ten minutes both David and Gray looked out the windows of their car and waved to the crowds assembled along the parade route. An inauguration drew a huge number of people to Washington, DC, swelling the city’s population by upward of one million for that day.

“Wow,” David observed quietly as he tried to take in the crowds that lined both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. “So many people,” he said. People stood just about anywhere they could to have the chance of seeing the new President.

David was surprised when their car slowly braked.

When they remained stopped for more than a minute, he asked the agent in the car with them, “What’s happening?”

The agent, who rode backward, facing them, said, “The President and his wife are about to leave their car to walk along a portion of the parade route.”

“Should a man of his age be trying to do that?” David asked Gray.

“Behave,” Gray warned him.

“Don’t I always?” David said with a smile.

“Yeah, right,” Gray snorted. “The President told me he wanted to show the people that he’s physically fit and able to walk part of the route.”

They continued to wave out of their respective sides of the car as they sat there, not moving. With the scene outside not changing for a few minutes, David looked at the agent. The man raised his hand to his ear and his expression momentarily flashed to—to what? Was it surprise? Upset? Concern? David was positive he saw something pass over the man’s face, but it happened so fast he couldn’t tell what he was seeing, and it was hidden away again almost immediately.

“Is something wrong?” David asked.

“A disturbance along the parade route” was the cryptic answer he got immediately.

Quite suddenly two things happened simultaneously. Their agent yelled at them to “hang on,” and their limo made a fast, sharp U-turn and accelerated back down Pennsylvania Avenue in the direction from which they had just come. The road was lined with the parade groups that were in position behind them waiting to move, spread all across the wide avenue. But their driver was good. He wove from one side of the crowded street to the other, constantly accelerating and somehow managing to miss hitting anyone.

David looked out the front and noticed they had acquired a contingent of motorcycle police and a couple of police cars in front of them. World War III could be happening outside their car, and they wouldn’t hear it. But the number of flashing lights and the speed at which they were traveling told him that if they could hear, the sound of sirens would likely be the primary sound right then.

“What’s happening?” Gray asked once he caught his breath from a very near miss with a member of a band well back in the parade. The street suddenly opened up, apparently with police along the way quickly moving people to one side of the road and creating a clear path for their car. They accelerated even more now with a clear open stretch of road. David had no idea what their speed was, but it was faster than he’d ever driven down that road.

They took a corner back toward the Capitol, and both David and Gray were thrown to one side of the car. David felt the heavy limo slide sideways on the snow-covered Washington streets.

They both gasped in fear, but their slide stopped, and the car was once again rapidly accelerating. David saw they were headed back to the Capitol. Before anyone could ask, though, they skidded to a stop. They were under an awning when the door on Gray’s side opened and a new face appeared. “Mr. Vice President, please come with me—quickly.”

“What’s happened?” Gray asked, already moving to follow the agent.

“Please, sir, not here. Quickly.” David slid over and followed Gray as they were rushed into the Capitol Building. Surrounded by a veritable wall of security, they walked at a fast pace to a holding room of some sort.

“What’s happening?” Gray demanded.

“There’s been an incident along the parade route that constitutes a serious compromise to the security perimeter,” the lead agent said. “I need to get an update, but we had to get you to safety first. Please remain here while we attempt to sort out what’s happening. I’ll be back as quickly as possible once I have some idea of what we’re looking at.”

Alone in the room, David turned to Gray. “I don’t recall this being on the schedule.”

Spying a television set, he reached for the remote control and turned the set on, then flipped to CNN. The channel number was printed on a sheet of paper in large print and taped to the wall beside the screen.

“…This is unbelievable,” a commentator was saying when the picture appeared. “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes…. My God. How could this happen?”

“What?” David yelled in frustration at the television, since they were just now coming into a story that CNN had apparently been reporting when he turned on the television.

A clip of footage was played that showed the new President waving and smiling at the crowd as he and his wife got out and stood beside their limo. David and Gray watched the new President take his wife’s hand in his and turn to start walking along the parade route. While the President smiled and raised his right arm to wave to the crowd, his wife smiled and raised her left arm and waved to people on the other side of the avenue.

David gasped as he saw the President’s smile disappear suddenly, replaced by a grimace. And then…

“Oh my God,” David said, as shocked as the commentators on the television. It couldn’t be…. No. There was no way. It was impossible.

The President was jerked backward and fell against the side of the limo he had just exited, then slumped to the ground. He and his wife hadn’t even walked away from their limo.

The sound of the President’s wife screaming was clearly heard on the video, but her scream was cut short when something appeared to impact her as well, jerking her so she fell back against the car. Much less dramatically than her husband, she too slumped to the ground. At least one Secret Service agent also appeared to be hit by what they could only assume were an assassin’s bullets.

“Oh my God,” Gray said slowly, in shock. David watched the color drain from his face and quickly grabbed his hand and pulled him close. “This cannot be happening.”

David and Gray stood in front of the television, both shocked by the images of the drama that had played out less than ten minutes earlier just a few hundred yards from their location. They now understood why they’d been rushed back to the safety of the Capitol.

They watched all manner of security staff race toward the President and his wife. A helicopter appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and landed in front of their car, right on Pennsylvania Avenue. An army of agents and uniformed personnel surrounded the President and his wife, making it impossible to get a clear view of what was actually happening.

“We can’t really tell for sure,” the television anchor reported, “since a large number of security personnel have fully encircled the President and his wife, but it appears they have lifted something from the ground. Yes, we can’t be sure who, but it looks like they’ve lifted someone from the ground. We can’t quite tell, but it appears that something is moving toward the helicopter.”

It was amazing how quickly the military helicopter had appeared on the scene. Of course, in the storm that had descended on Washington, it was next to impossible to see anything through the snow. It could have been just a few hundred feet above them all along.

“It looks like someone else is being moved. We really can’t tell. It appears that the various security personnel are using their bodies to create a wall between the President and First Lady and the rest of the world.”

“A little bit late for that,” a nameless news commentator could be heard muttering. Whether he had intended that statement to go out to the entire world as part of the broadcast wasn’t clear, but it was out there now.

As quickly as it had appeared, the helicopter took off and disappeared almost immediately into the swirling snowstorm.

The camera panned over the previously crowded sides of the street where people were now screaming and running, a scene of utter chaos as everyone attempted to get to safety.

The voice of Anderson Cooper was heard coming from the television as he described what would likely happen next. “The closest hospital, the hospital put on alert for any contingency, is George Washington University Hospital, a relatively short distance from here. They have a first-rate trauma center. Clearly, shockingly, the President and his wife and at least one agent with them appear to have been struck by what we must assume to be gunfire from somewhere along the parade route.”

“Anderson, how is that possible? The Secret Service agent you just interviewed not more than an hour ago was telling us they had that part of Pennsylvania Avenue completely locked down and that nothing like this could happen.”

“Clearly someone found a gap in the security grid and took advantage of that opening,” Cooper commented. “Something terrible has happened. The extent of the President’s injuries is not clear to us yet, but we have a reporter on the scene at the hospital, and we hope to be able to learn more relatively quickly.”

The voices on the television continued to talk, but David was not able to process what they were saying. Something they had been assured was impossible clearly was very much possible, because they had just watched it happen.

With the television as background, David grabbed Gray and gave him a tight embrace. “We don’t have any information yet, so don’t panic, babe,” David told Gray as he released him. The panic on Gray’s face was visible to anyone who looked his way.

“Okay,” Gray said, looking pale.

“Take a deep breath,” David instructed. “Hold it for a few seconds. Let it out. Push it all out. More. More. That’s it. Now take another deep breath. Come on. More. You can do better than that. Hold it. And let it out, slowly, but push it all out. Okay. Starting to feel a bit better?”

“Things have stopped spinning.”

“That’s always a good thing,” David said with a smile. He muted the television. “Let’s sit down.” He gestured toward the sofa nearby.

They had barely sat when a sharp knock sounded at the door, which made them both jump, followed almost immediately by the door swinging inward to admit the head of the Secret Service. He was grim faced as he strode decisively into the room, the door closing behind him. He sat down opposite them and, clearly shaken, said something that made David’s heart skip a beat.

“Mr. Vice President, I have bad news for you.”

“Oh my God,” Gray said softly. “So it’s true?”

“I’m afraid so, sir. I see you have the television on, so you probably know the basics. The President was shot while outside his limo. He died instantly.”

He paused to allow that information to sink in.

“Sir,” the agent continued, “I know this is a lot to take in all at once, but we have some things we need to do as quickly as possible.”

“Yes?” Gray said.

“Sir, you need to be sworn in as President immediately. There are a lot of people waiting outside that door ready to get things rolling, but I wanted to inform you privately first.”

“Thank you,” Gray told the agent, who was clearly as unnerved as Gray and David were. “I suppose we… what? Let’s do it.”

The agent simply said one word into his radio. “Okay.”

The White House Chief of Staff, Marty Ford, entered the room quietly and walked directly to Gray. He was followed by several aides, who all looked significantly more shell-shocked than Ford did.

“Marty?” Gray said.

Ford started speaking, looking remarkably calm and collected. “The President is dead, sir. His wife may survive, but it appears unlikely. We need to get you on television immediately to inform the world of what has happened and that you are automatically moving into the position vacated by the last President. Here are your remarks. They’re short and direct. The world needs to see that we are completely in charge, that there has been no gap in leadership, no time when our defenses were down. It is imperative that we move now, sir.”

Someone shoved a piece of paper into Gray’s hand. “After you deliver these remarks, the Chief Justice is standing by to administer the oath of office. It is important that we show you taking the oath on live television for all the world to see.”

“Where?” Gray asked.

“The Rotunda of the Capitol.”

“I need a pen,” he said. David took one from his suit-coat pocket and handed it to him.

“There should be no need to change the wording, Mr. President,” Ford tried. “I’ve reviewed and approved the precise wording.”

“If I’m supposed to say the words, they need to sound like me.” It only took Gray thirty seconds to review and tweak the statement. “Okay, let’s do this.”

When Gray and David walked out of the holding room in the Capitol, their lives had changed completely from when they had entered the room such a short time earlier.