Twenty-one minutes before the ambush, Harrison Tucker—former state senator, former Ohio governor, President of the United States, leader of the free world, and a month away from being reelected in a landslide to a second term—is lying on his stomach on a king-size bed in an Atlanta hotel room, feet toward the headboard, chin resting on a pillow, watching a retrospective documentary on the TV series House of Cards with the love of his life.
A breakfast cart with the remains of two meals has been pushed to one side of the small but adequate room, and he sighs with pleasure as his companion, Tammy Doyle, straddling his back, gives him a thorough and deep post-coital back rub.
“Look,” he says, watching the fictional president slither his way across the screen, “writers have to fictionalize politics and deal-making, like on The West Wing or Madam Secretary, but there’s no way Frank Underwood could be elected president in real life. You know why?”
Tammy lowers her head, purrs in his ear. Prior to this they were both clothed, while he was giving a fund-raising speech and she was watching from a distant table that had cost her lobbying firm ten thousand dollars, but now they were both nude, the room filled with the scent of perspiration, coffee, and sex.
“Is it because he wears a toupee?” she whispers. “Or because what’s-his-name was fired in disgrace?”
“Hell, no,” Harrison replies. “It’s because he strangled that dog in the first episode. Remember? Most voters own cats or dogs. They have a sixth sense when it comes to someone who doesn’t like animals. They would have felt that from Frank. No one would vote for him. Trust me.”
She kisses his right ear. “Have I ever not trusted you?”
“If you didn’t you’ve kept it quiet … which is a nice change of pace.”
Tammy laughs—a sound that still thrills him—and she really digs her warm fingers into his back and says, “Your state campaign director here in Georgia, Congressman Vickers.”
He closes his eyes. Only his Tammy talks politics after love-making. “I’d rather not think about him right now,” Harrison says.
“You should,” Tammy says in her soft, low voice. “The setup for the rally was a disaster. A jumble of people couldn’t get in the door because they didn’t have the right tickets. That means the wheels are coming off the field operation here.”
“I thought the speech went well.”
Tammy leans forward again, rubs her nose against his thick hair, like a loving cat, rubbing up for attention. “Harry, the speech went well because the people love you. After years of conflict and shouting, you’ve calmed things down, you’ve gotten the country moving again, and because your opponent, the honorable governor from California, is a fruitcake. But there should have been more people there, and the ticket fiasco pissed off some of your supporters for no good reason. It all goes back to Congressman Vickers. Sack him.”
Harrison shifts a bit from her weight. “Tammy … the election’s four weeks away. Wouldn’t that be seen as a sign of weakness? Besides, the latest polls in Georgia have us up by six percent.”
“Five point six,” she replies. “And no, it won’t be seen as a sign of weakness. It’ll show that once again, you have the balls to make the tough decisions when you need to do the right thing. Vickers is a drag on the campaign. Kick his butt to the curb— it’ll energize your supporters and volunteers.”
“Good point,” he admits. “I’ll think about it.”
Tammy laughs again and reaches down to his shoulders, rolls him over onto his back, and her full curvy body is now on top of him. He wraps his strong arms around her and gives her a hug he wishes would last forever. Smiling and with her thick brown hair cascading down the side of her beautiful face, Tammy says, “You know what?”
“I do love you, even if you’re a power-mad, patriarchy-supporting President of these evil United States.”
He gives her a firm squeeze around her waist. “And I do love you, even if you’re a corrupt, money-hungry lobbyist that degrades the political process.”
Another kiss, fully sweet and pleasurable, only disturbed by Harrison’s thought of what his wife, Grace Fuller Tucker, First Lady of the United States, might be doing at this very moment in the District of Columbia, hundreds of miles away.
Showered and dressed once more in the gray Brooks Brothers suit that Tammy Doyle had stripped off of him a few hours earlier, Harrison Tucker leaves his hotel room exactly one minute ahead of schedule, with Tammy behind him. Outside the room, standing calmly on the Oriental-style carpeted floor, Jackson Thiel, the lead agent on his PPD—personal protective detail— nods. “Good morning, Mr. President.”
“Good morning, Jackson,” he says.
His Secret Service agent—a tall, bulky African-American with short hair and the traditional curly Motorola radio wire running out of his ear—also says, “Morning, ma’am,” and the acknowledgment of Tammy pleases Harrison. He knows he has put the Secret Service in an awkward position with his relationship— he loves this woman and refuses to call it an affair. But he has spent his last four years building trust with his agents, listening to their security recommendations, remembering their birthdays, and ensuring they are treated well. In return, they have treated him with respect, affection, and … understanding.
Harrison falls in line behind the business-suited Jackson as he heads to the near bank of elevators. Jackson brings up his coat sleeve and murmurs into the microphone, “CANAL is on the move,” CANAL being the President’s Secret Service code name.
As they get to the elevator, the door slides open, revealing another Secret Service agent and a quiet military man dressed in civilian clothes, holding two very thick and bulky briefcases. The only time in his presidency Harrison ever felt unready was the day he was briefed on the horrible power and responsibility belonging to him in that briefcase, carrying the codes and communications devices to launch nuclear weapons.
Harrison goes in, followed by Jackson, and then Tammy. She smiles at all of them and lingers for a moment next to Harrison, and he knows it sounds like he’s reverted back to high school, but that bright smile just lifts him off his feet. Even the man holding the keys to nuclear Armageddon doesn’t seem as frightening.
It’s crowded in the small elevator, and Tammy is standing right next to him. He lowers his right hand, slips it into her left hand, gives it a squeeze. He knows deep inside he’s doing wrong, that he shouldn’t be having this relationship with Tammy, but she makes him happy. That’s all. Gives him love and affection and makes him happy, and for all the late nights, the compromises, the hard decisions, and the bone-weary responsibilities of being what the Secret Service calls “the Man” … well, doesn’t he deserve some happiness?
The elevator comes to a halt, and in seconds there’s a procession moving quickly through an underground tunnel. Atlanta is honeycombed with tunnels and steam pipelines and old passageways, and this one leads to the sub-basement of the hotel where he was supposedly spending the night alone.
Another elevator, another agent already pre-positioned. Into the elevator, and Tammy leans in and whispers, “All right. When we get out I’ll swing around out front, catch a cab. When will I see you again?”
He turns, kisses her ear through her thick hair, whispers back, “How about New Hampshire? In three days I’m speaking at Hart’s Location, one of the places where they cast the first votes in the nation.”
Tammy says, “Only for you. I hate that state. They think they’re God’s chosen in picking the next president.”
He moves his lips away from her. “They picked me, didn’t they?”
Tammy laughs. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
The elevator door opens up, other Secret Service agents are waiting for him, and he follows their lead as they go through a storage area with plastic shrink-wrapped goods on wooden pallets, past rolled-up metal doors, a loading dock next to a wide alleyway. It’s barely dawn, and Atlanta’s morning air feels refreshing and his arm is around Tammy’s shoulders.
When he turns to say good-bye to Tammy is when it happens.
The first thing he notices are the bright flashes of light, and he half-expects to hear gunshots follow, and there are people now, coming out of a doorway, coming at him, more flashes of light and it’s—
Spotlights on television cameras.
About a dozen of them, moving toward him, some charging, baying beast demanding to be fed, demanding to be answered, shouting at him, pushing ahead—
Grace Fuller Tucker, First Lady of the United States, takes her time walking through the offices of the East Wing, saying good morning and hello to her young staff members. Her Secret Service detail of two women and one man spread out behind her as she walks forward past her young charges, who are referred to by the news media as “the First Lady’s children.” She always smiles at the joke but never lets on that the little phrase digs at her, a constant reminder she and Harrison will always be childless.
She may be First Lady, a guest on Ellen, a popular subject on the covers of People and Good Housekeeping, and patron of a number of children’s charities, but fate and her husband’s political career have conspired to ensure that she will never, ever be a mother.
Some days, like this one, she almost believes it’s been worth it.
“Good morning, Mrs. Tucker.”
“Lookin’ fine, Mrs. T.”
She laughs, touches folks on their arms or shoulders as she passes through, thinking, Yes, it’s been a good day so far. This morning she attended a breakfast meeting at a homeless shelter for kids in Anacostia. There had been plenty of press there, plenty of attention to the overcrowding and lack of funding, and also—unfortunately—plenty of wide-eyed children sitting on mats on the floor, looking up at all of the adult activity, children who have never had a bed or a place to call their own.
Yes, a good meeting and photo op, although she was tempted to tell the assembled news media it was still a national disgrace that a country as wealthy and as smart as the United States hasn’t solved the homeless problem for children, but in the end she kept that opinion to herself. Once, she could have said that to Harry, but he’d stopped listening to her a long time ago.
The offices on the second floor of the East Wing used to be tiny and cramped, off one long, narrow hallway, but the previous First Lady had replaced them with a collection of open-plan cubicles. The only private offices belong to her and her chief of staff.
One of her staff members, Nikki Blue, comes forward, carrying a coffee cup emblazoned with a caricature of the First Lady with a halo and angel’s wings—originally from a blog site that hated her and her husband.
“Thanks, Nikki,” she says, accepting the cup gratefully and taking a small sip. “If Patty could bring me my schedule and—”
Something is wrong.
Something is very wrong.
The talk and chattering is finished. There are whispers and sighs, and this little warren of cubicles is now deadly quiet.
She turns, sees where everyone is looking.
To a trio of television screens, hanging from the ceiling behind her, all tuned to one of the cable news channels.
Someone whispers, “Oh, that son of a bitch.”
Up on the screens is a video of her husband stepping out in an alley somewhere in Atlanta, looking shocked, like a deer at night surprised by headlights, his arm around another woman …
Grace stands stock-still, forcing her legs not to tremble.
The video runs again and again, like some damn marital Zapruder film, Harry being tossed into the back of an SUV by the Secret Service, the woman—fairly attractive, a cold and logical part of Grace admits—being chased into a hotel, through a kitchen, out to the lobby, and then to the front, where she manages to get into a taxi, the camera work jerky and bouncing as they keep pace with her.
The cab, though, is stuck trying to get into traffic, and the woman—now named as Tammy Doyle, a lobbyist with a K Street firm here in DC—is shown turning her head away from the cameras, microphones, and shouting.
Now the video is back to showing the President being ambushed, being pushed into the SUV, being driven away, and now the talking heads are spouting off their views, theories, and deep thoughts—even though this news has just broken minutes ago—and she gasps as hot coffee is spilled on her shaking hand.
Grace brings up the coffee cup.
Oh, she is so tempted to toss it at the nearest television screen.
She turns, forces out a smile to her children.
“I’ll be in my office,” she says. “And can someone answer that darn phone? Let’s get back to work, people.”
Grace goes into her office, softly closing the door behind her and locking it. Her hand is still shaking as she puts the coffee cup down on her desk.
She turns off all the lights, hugs herself, and leans back against the closed and locked door.
She will not cry.
She will not cry.
She won’t give her husband the satisfaction, even if he’s hundreds of miles away from her.
Grace jumps as a phone rings on her desk, and from its tone, she knows it’s her private line and she knows who’s on the other end.
Never in her life has a ringing phone frightened her so.