Senator Charles Robinson rose from his seat and looked around the chamber. I was standing with one of the Capitol Guards near the tall double doors at the back of the room, and when we established eye contact, the Senator raised his arm and gave a little wave of his hand.
The Secret Service had installed new procedures after two assassination attempts were made on President Ford last September by Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Sara Jane Moore. But security is tight inside the Capitol building, so we tend to relax a bit when we can. Protectees give us endless reasons to stay alert in public.
I’d been observing the Senator for three days but would not be officially responsible for his protection until the full detail came on board the following morning when we would be on the job around the clock. Even so, I wanted to keep him in sight. That ramrod posture, full, close-cropped white beard and black eye patch, Senator Robinson was hard to miss.
No matter how many times I go there, the United States Senate never fails to impress me. High vaulted ceiling with recessed lighting, blue velvet draperies against curved walls of pale gold, one hundred hand-polished mahogany desks almost two centuries old. Despite its often conniving, fallible members, I could sense the dominant spirit of history and dedication throughout the muted tone of the wide room from the brass-railed spectators’ gallery, across thick pile carpet to the stars and stripes and senate flags on either side of the dais.
The President Pro-Tem was engaged in private conversation at the edge of the gray marble podium while a junior senator from the mid-west prepared to address his colleagues from the lectern below. Many of the seats on the floor were empty, senators stood in the aisles talking to one another, their aides, lobbyists and other members of legislative process. Most would leave soon because outsiders are not allowed on the floor while the senate is in session.
I started moving toward Senator Robinson before he dropped his arm, snaking around people blocking my way, expressing polite but firm apologies. By the time I reached him, the Senator was listening to a short Hispanic man, moving his head in little nods, his one eye fixed like a beam of light on the person speaking. The pressure of his grip on my arm acknowledged my presence, but his attention remained fixed on the man in front of him.
I could never figure out why the Senator seemed so large when you were farther away. Up close, he wasn’t much taller than I am. He’s lean and hard with broad shoulders–really good shape for fifty-six. The premature white head of hair adds to it: thick, parted in the middle and combed to the sides. Anyone else would look like a pirate with the beard and eye patch, but not him. The press says it gives him an ‘avuncular’ image, warm and concerned. He looked important, like a Senator should.
“I wonder if you would do me a favor, Jared.” The Hispanic man had left and that clear blue eye was boring into my soul. “I promised to support a bill that wasn’t due out of committee until next week.” He pulled a leather case out of his pocket and detached a single key. “It will reach the floor this afternoon and my notes are at home.”
I guess I must have paused a beat before I said, “Of course, Senator, I’d be glad to.” He gave me that thousand-watt smile, assured me he’d be perfectly safe in the Capitol Building while I was gone and would not leave it until I returned. His expression said that I worry too much, but he appreciated it.
“Have John drive you to my condominium complex and wait while you run in. My notes are on my desk in the den.” He glanced at his watch. “You’ll be back within the hour if you don’t get too engrossed in my condo layout again.
Guarding a presidential candidate after the New Hampshire primary, eight months before the election is different than being responsible for the life of the President of the United States. With the former, a Secret Service agent can use a little discretion. With the latter there is none. The Senator had announced his candidacy the previous October but didn’t rate Service protection until two days ago when the polls confirmed he’d take more than five percent of the popular vote.
I was scout for the two seventeen-agent details that would provide Senator Robinson twenty-four-hour protection while he campaigned across the country for the most powerful elective office in the world.
My assignment and that of several other humps delegated similar responsibilities began an hour after they announced the results of the polls. I called the Senator’s office to get briefed on his schedule, met for the third time with John Goddard and arranged to evaluate the logistical problems we’d have to overcome at his home and during his normal activities while he was in Washington. On the road his schedule would dictate our coverage. I had worked out alternate commuting routes when he was in the District, drawn up a floor plan of the Senator’s condo, made copies for humps on both details, verified his workday and leisure habits, learned about his nightly walk and the kinds of political/social functions he attended. Any change in schedule, we’d be more alert for potential trouble.
We’d bring in enough weapons to make a difference to “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and were prepared to counter the usual scenarios we drilled for constantly. We established guard routes and the best way for exterior humps to provide front and rear surveillance of his condo unit, which was located in the middle of a ‘U’ shaped building, one of thirty in the luxury condominium complex.
To the average taxpayer these precautions seem like overkill, money wasted on a handful of men and women who for one reason or other were under threat of harm or whose stance in Congress made them targets for every deranged sociopath in disagreement with their policies.
The Senator’s condo was not a target or direct threat from anyone, but my boss, Ken Burnett, wanted to make a good impression right off the bat for the man who we would probably be guarding for the next four years.
* * * * * *
I buttoned my trench coat as I dashed down the long granite steps and got into the front seat of the black Lincoln Town Car.
“You must feel pretty special, jumpin’ up here with me,” John said, pulling out into traffic.
John Goddard was a lean black man with salt-and-pepper hair trimmed close to his head. He didn’t say much, but when he did, it usually went with a half-smile and sideways look to see if you knew he was pulling your leg. In the short time I’d known him I discovered I enjoyed tugging John’s chain as much as he did mine. The Senator liked to ride in front but that would stop when we started guarding him.
“You were holding the front door open for me,” I told him, “what do you want me to do now, crawl over the seat into the back?”
“Guess it don’t matter anyways, nobody gonna see how special you be up here, all this snow. How come you drag me outta my nice warm office in this lousy weather?”
“You love it, you old fake. You were probably bored stiff shuffling papers or on the phone practicing your political arm-twisting.”
John liked driving the Senator. His black suit was always pressed, his chauffeur’s cap square on his head, its visor polished like a marine sentry’s. The Senator told me he’d been a congressional driver-aide for twenty years and the federal government was his hobby. John turned onto Constitution Avenue and we became stalled in traffic opposite the Ellipse. The wet flakes sticking to the side window made it difficult to see, but I could make out the White House beyond the wide lawn covered in a layer of pristine snow.
I said, “Your boss could be living over there this time next year.”
John nodded, keeping his eyes on the cars beyond the wipers clicking rhythmically on the wet windshield.
“Couldn’t ask for a better man.”
“How long you been driving him?”
“Thirteen years. Almost the whole time he been Senator.”
“What happens to you if he wins?”
“That makes no never mind.” John pressed his foot on accelerator and the long car moved ahead in traffic.
“What happens to the country if he don’t?”
“You really think he’d make that much difference?”
John smiled as we crept along toward the Potomac and the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge. The Senator had a reputation around Washington Mother Teresa could have been happy with. I’d only known him a couple of days, but I had to agree. Senator Robinson seemed to be one of the few politicians in town that tried to make the government work for the people instead of the other way around.
“It’s a pretty big job,” I said.
“Funny thing about that, ain’t it?”
Somehow, I knew he was going to answer his own question, so I just turned my head to look at him.
“Mr. Nixon probably the most qualified man to live in that big old house since Thomas Jefferson,” John paused for effect before he continued. “Little man named Truman, least.”
I saw what he meant. But it didn’t stop me from thinking about it. One minute a man walks up and down the street like a regular person, the next he’s the most powerful man on the planet. The ancient question: could one man really make a difference? Could Senator Robinson? Who knew.
We crossed the river and started to pick up speed on Route 66 in Virginia, then turned off at a little town called Falls Church, about twelve miles from the center of D.C. John took the back roads to the exclusive condominium west of town and pulled up at the guardhouse standing next to a high stone wall that enclosed the entire complex. The guard leaned down to speak to John through his lowered window.
“Senator send you out to check on the workmen, John?”
“Checkin’ on you,” John said. “Brought the Secret Service to make sure you doin’ your job.”
The guard was a young black man who wore a yellow poncho with a hood and seemed to take his job seriously.
“You just worry ’bout yo’ own self, my man. Senator’s office called ahead, guys had all the papers. I know what I’m doin’.”
John fired his parting shot as he started moving the big car through the gates. “Never can be too sure ’bout somebody stands out gabbin’ inna blizzard.”
A big white box truck sat blocking the entrance to the Senator’s townhouse, one guy smoking in the cab with the fogged window cracked a couple of inches. ‘Alford Girard Carpentry’ was painted on the door. John couldn’t pull up to the walk, so I was going to get pelted with wet snow again.
“I ain’t supposed to be your momma, too.” John said, reaching over the backrest to the jump seat in the rear of the car, “but I guess I’ll do for today.” He tossed the Senator’s wide-brim slouch hat in my lap.
“Don’t let it give you no big ideas.”
Sometimes it seems futile to come back on John with a snappy answer and I guess I thought that was one of them. Now, I wish I’d said something. Anything. But I just jammed the floppy hat down on my ears, opened the car door and ran for the entrance.
I expected the house to be unlocked with the workmen inside, so I didn’t bother getting the key out of my pocket. I stood there in the foyer for a few seconds thinking I should probably take off my raincoat and hat and hang them on the coat tree instead of dripping snow all the way into the den.
Why was it so quiet? Where were the workmen? Why hadn’t the Senator mentioned they’d be here? I slipped out of my coat and unbuttoned my jacket. I took a few steps into the living room and stopped. Nobody was on the first floor, but I heard a noise above me. The stairs were on my left and I started toward them. My mistake was not getting the hell out of there and calling back-up. A rookie cop would do it. Not the Service. We’re taught to intervene, protect the subject at all costs, even at the risk of our lives. If those guys up there weren’t workmen, the Senator was being violated.
I drew my .357 snub-nosed Magnum out of its shoulder holster and started up the stairs.
The carpet was thick, and I wasn’t making a sound. They were though, and the work they were doing was opening and closing drawers. Burglars, maybe spaced-out druggies, but more likely pros with the truck, the advance phone call and fake papers. Either way, they could be armed. How many were up there? I had to confront them all in the same room or I’d have trouble covering all of them. And I’d better do it quick or the guy in the truck would join us.
Now I remembered why cops call for back-up. ‘Dumb, Jared, dumb, dumb, dumb.’ A voice called out off to my left as I stopped halfway up the stairs.
“Scheisse! Die Schlussel noch papier sind nicht hier drin,” the voice said. “Hier its auch kein Safe oder Geheimfach. Nichts.” [Fuck! The key and paper are not also here; is no safe or secret compartment. Nothing.]”
The Service likes us to be fluent in a second language and officially mine was German. They were looking for some key and document and that guy out of sight couldn’t find them. A man in brown coveralls wearing latex gloves stepped out of a room into the hallway and I dropped into a one-handed shooter’s stance with my left index finger up to my lips. The guy got the message and raised his hands in the air. An instructor at Treasury told us that stress was a great fixative of images on the mind. You’re pumped up, adrenaline flowing, scared stiff. If you just thought about absorbing it for a second, you’d carry the image with you for the rest of your life.
The perp was in his early thirties, about five-ten, a hundred and sixty pounds, sloping shoulders, standing like a gymnast on the balls of his feet, ready to pounce with the good sense not to. Straight black hair cut short, low forehead, high cheekbones, deep-set eyes and a square jaw thrust out like a threat. He didn’t look scared or surprised and he didn’t speak, but his dark eyes never left mine. A real pro, no druggie, whoever he was.
There were noises coming from the room across the hall and I motioned the guy toward it. As we entered the Senator’s bedroom another character in a brown jump suit was going through the Senator’s closet with his back to us. Before I could open my mouth, the first guy spoke real easy not realizing I understood him.
“Hinter dir. Ein Mann mit einer Pistole. Dreh dich schnell urn und schiess.” [Behind you, a man with a pistol, turn quick and shoot.]
If the guy at the closet hadn’t moved so fast I would have swung around between the two perps, a second’s hesitation as he dug in his coveralls pocket that told me what was coming. I saw the gun in his hand as he turned and that’s when my Service training made up for my earlier stupidity. We don’t say ‘freeze,’ we shoot.
His arms flew out and he slammed back against the wall taking the night table and everything on it down with him. I caught him square in the chest, confirmed by the blood and fragments of tissue forensics scraped off the closet door. I understand they had plenty to work with. We load with soft lead designed to spread when it hits bone and stop an assassin through massive shock.
I knew I had to swing back on the first guy before he could drop his hands but saw my problem in the eyes of the guy I’d just shot. The wounded perp, slumped halfway in the closet in front of me, pulled a gun out of his coveralls, still in the game, as I heard the soft spit of the silenced pistol from the man behind me. One second, I was starting to whirl around, arms out, both hands wrapped around the crosshatched grip, knees bent, still feeling the kick of the gun, the sound of my shot filling the room.
Next, I got punched between the shoulder blades with one of those huge iron balls they swing from the end of a crane to demolish buildings and dropped into a deep, black hole.
In my line of work, you try not to think of what ‘might happen.’ But you can’t help it. Jumping in front of a bullet meant for the president. Blown into little pieces because you’re standing next to some controversial politician or foreign dignitary.
But not this. Getting wrecked by a punk thief because I was too gung-ho to do it right. I must have faded in and out of consciousness a couple of times before they found me. I hoped John had been smarter than I was and gone for help before the third guy got out in the truck and came into the house. I wasn’t betting on it. I remember feeling worse about letting John down than letting myself down. I still do.
Just before I heard the sirens, I started getting cold, everything coming into sharp focus and I thought they’d be too late. My face pressed into the tufted beige rug, its twisted wool fibers standing out as separate strands before my dilating pupils. Petals of red and purple flowers on the shards of broken lamp. Spider webs of cracked glass in the silver picture frame lying inches from my nose, the black and white photograph of my mother and father.
When she was alive it always sat on the mantle above the fireplace in our home, now on the bookcase in my apartment in Georgetown. What was it doing here? A photo taken thirty-four years ago aboard my grandfather’s yacht in Narragansett Bay. In my picture, my father was standing on my mother’s right, his expression serious, her face bursting with a mischievous look that I had never seen in real life. This photo that lay on the rug less than a foot from my nose did not have my father in it. The blond stranger standing on my mother’s left was vaguely familiar, not a childhood recollection or college friend, but someone I might have seen recently.
Seconds before I tumbled down into that black hole again, I recognized the tall, awkward young man in that cut-down version of my family picture. It was a youthful version of Senator Charles Robinson.