Title: BULLET IN THE CHAMBER
Author: John DeDakis
Publisher: Strategic Media
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Gutsy White House Correspondent Lark Chadwick is front-row center when the executive mansion is suddenly attacked. The president is missing, the first lady’s life is at risk, and Lark is forced to hit the ground running in her new job as White House correspondent for the Associated Press. Her career may be in high gear, but when the man she loves disappears, Lark’s personal life starts to fall apart. Swiftly swept up in a perilous web of deceit, murder, and intrigue, Lark relentlessly seeks answers. But her dogged quest for the truth puts her on a dangerous and deadly path. Just how far is Lark willing to go to get the whole story? And how far is too far?
About the Author:
Award-winning journalist John DeDakis is a former CNN Senior Copy Editor for the Emmy and Peabody-Award winning news program “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.” DeDakis, whose journalism career spans nearly four and a half decades, is a former White House correspondent and interviewed such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. DeDakis is a writing coach and taught journalism at The University of Maryland -College Park. DeDakis lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
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BULLET IN THE CHAMBER
Have you ever tried to fake confidence? That’s what I was doing as I stood in Lafayette Square looking at the White House. It was my first day on the job as the newest White House Correspondent for The Associated Press, the nation’s leading wire service.
Up close, the White House seemed smaller than I expected, but no less magnificent. Perhaps it’s a subtle magnificence. Elegant.
I was about to go inside for the first time. And I felt like I didn’t belong. Felt like I was an imposter. Just three years earlier I was a college dropout trying to find out what caused the car accident that orphaned me as an infant. I could’ve cared less about politics. But that was then.
You have to be smart to cover the president, but smart is not the way I felt on this Monday morning — Valentine’s Day. Nor did I feel particularly loved. The guy I’d been “dating” hadn’t answered my last text in more than forty-eight hours – the entire freaking weekend.
The eleven o’clock briefing was going to start in twenty minutes, and I was running late. I revved up Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” in my head to give myself the psychological boost I needed to cross the Pennsylvania Avenue pedestrian mall and approach the Northwest gate.
By the time I got to the formidable black-barred fence blocking the way to the guard shack, my knees were weak and wobbly and I was shivering in my down jacket. It was a cold-crisp day. I wore tights, but they weren’t doing any good.
R-e-s-p-e-c-t . . . .
“Where’s your ID?” commanded a metallic voice coming from a speaker. Sunlight reflected off the bullet-proof glass so I couldn’t see inside.
“Oh. Sorry.” I fumbled in my messenger bag. “Here it is,” I called through the bars as I held up my newly-issued, laminated, press pass — white block lettering against a bright red backdrop:
I heard a click come from the doorknob, so I stuffed my pass back in my bag, opened the spear-topped gateway and strode more confidently than I felt to the guard shack.
“ID!” The Voice barked.
“I just showed it to you.”
“I need to see it up close.”
I sighed, pulled it out again, untangled the lanyard and pressed it against the window, my reflection an angry scowl masking the terror I still felt.
The door next to the window buzzed and The Voice said, “Enter!”
Inside, the guard shack was claustrophobic, but at least it was toasty warm. The Voice sat behind a counter that separated us. He was mid-thirties — young, cute, and wore a crisp white shirt and narrow black tie. His badge announced he was a member of the Secret Service Uniformed Division. Two other uniformed Secret Service guards stood off to the side.
A radio newscast was on in the background. “More tough talk from China this morning,” the announcer read.
“Put your bag up here on the counter,” The Voice said.
I did. And so began several minutes of being searched, wanded, magnetometered, and scrutinized that made going through airport security feel like a breeze. Finally, The Voice handed me off to a tall African-American man in his fifties with salt and pepper hair.
“Good morning, ma’am.” His comforting brown eyes were alive with interest and caring.
“Hi,” I said brightly, grateful for his friendliness.
The nametag on his tunic read Crandall. “You’re new here,” he said gently.
“Uh huh. First day. ” I bit my lower lip. “Is it that obvious?”
He simply smiled. At me.
“Do you know how I can get to the press room?” I asked as I squeezed through a turnstile, clearing the final hurdle.
“Sure,” he said, putting on his uniform cap. He opened the back door and let in a fourth guard who’d just arrived from the White House. “Now that my relief is here, I can show you. I’m heading that way.”
Officer Crandall spoke to The Voice. “I’ll be on break inside, Jim.”
“Okay, Ernie. Thanks for your help.”
Ernie Crandall touched me lightly on the elbow as we stepped out the back door of the guard shack and onto the White House driveway.
I was inside the black bars of the perimeter fence.
I stopped to look at the iconic alabaster building. It looked bigger from here.
“First time, huh?” he asked.
I nodded, my mouth slightly agape. I felt like a rube from Wisconsin. Oh, wait. I am!
“It never fails to impress me, either,” he said.
“How long have you been here, Officer Crandall?”
“Ernie. The name’s Ernie.” He tipped his hat. “Twenty years. Been here twenty years. Retiring soon.”
“Friday,” he beamed.
“Wow. And then what?”
“Fishin’. A whole lotta fishin’.” He chuckled.
I smiled. “I’m sorry you’ll be leaving. I miss you already. Thanks for being so nice to me.”
He smiled. “You’ll like it here. Lots of history in the making. And you’ll have a front-row seat. Press, right?”
I nodded. “A.P.”
The driveway where we stood bifurcated. The left fork curved up toward the imposing north portico of the White House. The president’s front door. Another asphalt driveway headed straight toward the one-story West Wing and a low-slung doorway beneath a porch held up by several white columns.
“Press room’s this way.” Ernie Crandall guided me along the driveway toward the West Wing. We walked slowly, like old friends.
“Who was president when you started here?” I asked.
“Was he as much of a player as they say?” I asked.
“My lips are sealed,” Ernie smiled, pretending to zip them.
“What were you doing before here?”
“D.C. Metro Police,” he said. “A cop on the beat.”
“Family?” I asked.
He nodded, but a shadow crossed his face. “A son in Michigan. A daughter in California.” He paused and swallowed. “Wife passed a year ago. Year ago today, as a matter of fact.”
“Oh no! Valentine’s Day. That’s so sad.” I touched the sleeve of his coat. “I’m sorry,” I said.
I’m only twenty-eight, but I know pain and loss far better than most people my age: I found the body of the aunt who raised me after my parents were killed; my boyfriend, Jason, was murdered just as our relationship was about to take off; and I was sexually assaulted by an English professor I idolized. And all of this happened just within the past few years.
Ernie smiled faintly. “Life goes on,” he said. “Life goes on.”
As we walked up the driveway, we passed to the left of a long row of about a dozen television cameras, each beneath its own awning-covered workspace crammed with power cables, equipment boxes, and light-stands. I found out later the camera positions – affectionately nicknamed “Pebble Beach” – are where network reporters do their standups and live shots with the White House in the background.
“This is my stop,” Ernie said. We had come to where the asphalt driveway went around a grassy circle and passed beneath the porch in front of the entrance to the West Wing where a Marine in dress blues stood at attention.
Ernie pointed toward the White House. “The press room’s that way down this sidewalk. See the double doors right there?”
I looked. He was pointing at a spot halfway down the sidewalk on the right, an entrance to the West Wing that was far less imposing than the one where we stood – no elegant portico, and no handsome young Marine guard.
“I see it,” I said. “Thank you, Officer . . . um . . . Ernie,” I said. “Glad we met.” I held out my hand.
He shook it and bowed slightly. “I am, too. Maybe our paths will cross a few more times before I move on.”
As I watched him turn toward the West Wing entrance, my phone went off. I fished it from my messenger bag.
“This is Lark,” I said.
Rochelle Grigsby is my nemesis. She’s about forty, single, and good looking – way better looking than me. She’s also the deputy bureau chief at the A.P. – my immediate supervisor.
“What’s up?” I tried to sound cheerful but, based on my experience of the past seven months as one of her general assignment reporters, I’d come to accept that she saw her job as trying to trip me up at every turn.
“Heads up, Lark.” I could hear Grigsby’s gum snap. “Ridgeway’s out today. You’re in the front row.”
Stallings Ridgeway is the long-time and legendary White House Correspondent for A.P. He’s been there at least thirty years. Maybe more.
Grigsby plowed on. “I know it’s your first day on the beat, but if you’re the golden girl all the higher-ups think you are, then you’ll be fine. Me? I have my doubts.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I replied.
Grigsby merely grunted and hung up.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Sing it, Aretha! A little louder, please, babe.
I turned toward the briefing room. Doug Mitchell stood at the double doors, Nikon at the ready, and flashed me his trademark neon smile that contrasted sharply with his ruddy complexion, dark eyes, thick black hair, and stubble beard. He’s six-two and was looking fine in a navy pea coat, jeans and work boots.
I hadn’t seen him in a week and my heart did an involuntary flip-flop.
Doug is ten years older than I am. We’d worked together at the Sun-Gazette in Columbia, Georgia, where he was a staff photographer. We had a thing for each other then, but it never got off the ground because the police were, shall we say, “very interested” in him for awhile, so I backed off. But, when the police lost interest, mine picked up. And so did Doug’s interest in me.
We both got jobs at A.P. when the Sun-Gazette folded, but right away he was on the road covering Will Gannon’s successful presidential campaign, so we only saw each other off and on. Mostly off.
Now, after not hearing from him all weekend (okay, forty-eight hours, sixteen minutes, and thirty seconds, give or take — but who’s counting?), there he was thirty yards ahead of me, hatless in the cold, his dark, wavy hair parted down middle and curling slightly over his ears and collar.
Doug raised the camera to his face and began shooting pictures of me. He wore fingerless gloves and I could hear the rapid-fire chick-koo, chick-koo of the shutter as he squeezed off shot after shot.
My cell phone bleeped again. The display read Lionel Stone. Lionel is my friend, mentor, and the guy who got me started in journalism. He earned his Pulitzer decades ago while covering the White House for The New York Times. Since his “retirement,” he’s been the publisher of his hometown newspaper, The Pine Bluff Standard in Pine Bluff, Wisconsin, and he teaches journalism as an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Normally, I’d be glad to take Lionel’s call, but lately he’d been blowing up my phone with all kinds of mansplain texts and links to various online articles. It all started when I told him I’d gotten the White House gig.
Now Lionel’s living vicariously through me. And it’s getting old. But I haven’t had the heart to tell him. Yet.
“Hey there,” I said into the phone. “I’ve only got a second. I’ve just been told I’m in Ridgeway’s front row seat for the daily briefing.”
“Outstanding!” Lionel roared. “Front row seat on your first day. That’s awesome, kid.”
I winced. I hate it when he calls me kid. I’d told him that when we first met. It was when I learned from aPine Bluff Standard newspaper clipping about the car accident I survived as an infant. The crash killed my parents. I convinced Lionel to let me look into the accident. What I came up with almost got Lionel and me killed, but instead landed me my first job in journalism with Lionel as my boss.
Gradually, I’d let “kid” creep back into his lexicon. But now it was grating.
“Yeah,” I said. “We’ll see just how awesome it really is. Rochelle Grigsby made it real clear she doesn’t think I’m up to the job.” I sighed. “Maybe she’s right.”
“It’s a tough job. No doubt about it,” he said, “but you’re tough, too, kid.”
I sighed again, unconvinced. “At least they let me through the Northwest gate.”
“Put me on FaceTime,” Lionel ordered. “Lemme relive the experience of the ole place.”
I took the phone away from my ear and pushed the FaceTime button. My wide, terrified eyes stared back at me.
Lionel noticed immediately. “I see that deer in the headlights look. Stop it, Lark. You’re gonna be fine.”
“So you say. I almost turned around and went back home to throw up, but one of the uniformed Secret Service agents was nice to me, so I think I’ll keep going.”
Lionel’s face came on the screen. He wore a white shirt, tie loosened — and, to my surprise, he had a white beard.
“Whoa. Lionel! When’d you grow the beard?”
He stroked it and preened. “You like?”
“Very distinguished. What does Muriel think?”
He frowned. “She thinks I should shave it. Says it makes me look old.”
“Lionel. I hate to tell you this: You are old.”
“Nonsense. Seventy-five is the new thirty-five.”
“Geez, I wish I was thirty-five again,” he said wistfully, then cleared his throat. “Age is all in your head. It’s just a number. Did I ever tell you about the time–”
I cut him off. “Yeah. Probably. Look, Lionel, the briefing’s gonna start any minute and I’m late, so let’s get on with this little tour.”
I turned the camera around so Lionel could see, but Doug filled the screen. He was now about ten feet from me, camera at his face, clicking off more shots and adding his own narration.
“Here’s the famous Lark Chadwick about to enter the White House briefing room for the first time. She’s taken her iPhone from her ear and is pointing it in my general direction.”
I was annoyed. He gives me nothing but radio silence all weekend then has the nerve to turn up, all jovial, acting as if everything’s wonderful, and then he makes a point of trying to embarrass me. But I couldn’t afford to make a scene. Not here. Not now.
I put on my best tight smile and gave his lens a laser stare. “Good morning to you, too, Mister Mitchell.” I hoped he felt the chill from the ice in my voice. “What you’re looking at, Lionel, is my so-called friend and colleague Doug Mitchell. Doug is in the process of being exceptionally obnoxious.”
I brushed past him, pulled open the door and stepped into the briefing room. Doug followed.
“Here it is, Lionel.” I held the phone in front of me and panned the scene, left to right. In front of me, a sea of about fifty blue leather folding seats faced to the right. To my left, at the back of the room, TV cameras sat atop tripods and pointed toward the podium at the front of the room.
As I panned right, I noticed that many of the seats were empty, but some reporters were strolling from the back of the room to take their places for the briefing. The room was much smaller than I expected – barely the size of a swimming pool. Actually, according to one of the links Lionel sent me, I learned that the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room is built right above the old White House swimming pool where President Kennedy used to cavort with “Fiddle” and “Faddle,” two of his many mistresses.
“Wow. The place looks great since the facelift,” Lionel exclaimed.
I made a right turn and walked slowly down the side aisle that went along the windows. When I came to the front row I stopped and turned around. Doug nearly bumped into me.
“Chadwick has stopped now,” Doug narrated. “It looks as though she’s about to use her phone to get a wide shot of the entire briefing room.”
I pointed the camera toward the back of the room.
“Yes,” Doug proclaimed. “That’s exactly what she’s doing, folks.” He continued to take more pictures. I continued trying to ignore him.
“Show me the plaque on Helen Thomas’s chair,” Lionel said.
“Which chair’s that?”
“Front row center,” Lionel said. “I miss that old broad.”
I found the seat and put my phone close enough to the plaque so Lionel could read her name on it.
“She sat there for nearly sixty years. Covered ten presidents. She’s a legend, Lark. I wish you could have known her. She would’ve loved you.”
Just then a voice came out of a speaker in the ceiling above me. “Attention, everyone. The briefing will start in exactly two minutes. President Gannon and National Security Adviser Nathan Mann will be conducting the briefing. This is your two-minute warning. The President will be in the briefing room in two minutes.”
“Holy crap. Did you hear that, Lionel?”
“Yup. Better take your seat.”
“Which one is it?”
“Front row center.”
“Helen Thomas’s old seat?”
“The very same.”
The sudden announcement that President Gannon would be giving the briefing caused a stampede as dozens of people came running – thundering – into the room, the sound echoing on the hollow floor above the old swimming pool.
Everyone was piling into the room through a narrow hallway in the back. I pointed my iPhone toward the commotion so that Lionel could see.
In the row just behind me the correspondents for Fox and CNN were hastily getting wired up to do their live reports. Each of them faced the cameras at the back of the room. The guy from CNN awkwardly slung himself into his suitcoat while inserting an earbud into his ear. The perfectly coifed blonde reporter for Fox stood stoically, hand to her ear, waiting for her cue.
The room buzzed with expectation.
“Better sit down, kid,” Lionel urged.
I sat, my pulse quickening. The lectern towered in front of me.
Suddenly, an older, bald man wearing black-rimmed glasses and carrying a long, narrow reporter’s notebook darted toward me from my left. “You!” He yelled at me and jabbed his thick forefinger dangerously close to my nostrils. “You’re in my chair.”
From the phone in my hand Lionel said, “Stallings? Stallings Ridgeway? Is that you, you old fart? It’s Lionel Stone. How are ya, man?” Lionel’s voice was giddy with nostalgia.
For a moment, Ridgeway’s face lost its intensity as his eyes searched in confusion for who’d called his name, but then he focused on the phone in my hand.
“Lionel,” Ridgeway said gruffly, “whoever this is you’re talking to is sitting in my seat.”
“Oh, c’mon, Stallings. Let the kid have your chair just this once.”
Embarrassed, I stood. “I’m sorry, Mister Ridgeway. Rochelle Grigsby told me you were off.”
Suddenly, I became aware of a deathly silence. I looked around. The room was full to overflowing, everyone was standing, and all eyes were on me.
I turned around. Stallings Ridgeway, hands on his hips, glowered at me. Standing at the podium, an amused look on his face, stood the imposing presence of Will Gannon, the forty-ninth President of the United States.
“Oh, my God,” I blurted.
The entire press corps erupted in laughter.
The president spoke. “That’s okay, Miss Chadwick. I’ll wait until you and Mister Ridgeway get things straightened out.”
“I’m so sorry, Mister President.” I slid away from the front row seat and Ridgeway eased into it. “I’ll call you back,” I rasped into the phone and scurried to the side aisle and toward the back of the room.
I kept my head down, but could hear some clapping and sniggering as the reporters took their seats.
I’d only gotten past the second row when I heard the president say, “I suppose this is as good a time as any to introduce you to Lark Chadwick. Today marks her first day as a White House Correspondent for the Associated Press. I met Lark when I was Governor of Georgia campaigning for this job. Lark is an impressive young woman who wasn’t afraid to ask me some tough questions. So, welcome, Lark.”
By this time I was in the back of the room, as far from the president and the blinding spotlight as I could possibly get. Fortunately, it was next to Doug. He gently touched my shoulder to comfort me.
“Thank you, Mister President,” I hollered.
There was a bit more chuckling and then the room became silent again as reporters turned their attention to President Gannon. He’d only been in office a few weeks, but I noticed that the pronounced southern drawl he’d had as a candidate was already beginning to fade.
Behind and to the president’s right stood a nervous, diffident man wearing a dark suit — Nathan Mann, the president’s newly-appointed National Security Adviser.
The president cleared his throat, eyed the TV cameras just behind me, and began to speak. “During my campaign, I was asked many questions about what my policy as president would be on the commercialization of drones. As you know, my consistent answer has been that I want to study the issue before coming up with a plan. I’m announcing today my administration’s position on the subject, and I’m announcing our legislative plan to put it into place. I’ll give you the broad outline of the legislation, then Nathan will stay behind to take your questions.
“First and foremost, as your President, it’s my responsibility to–”
Just then the door to the president’s right rear burst open and a torrent of Secret Service agents swarmed into the room. Ernie Crandall was one of them.
“EVERYONE OUT. NOW!” shouted one of them. “OUT. NOW. SIDE DOORS. MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!”
Two agents grabbed the president and hustled him out of the room.