I Used to Live Here
January 19 - The White House
These rooms, these walls, the corridors, I used to run through them all. This was my childhood home. From the time I was twelve until I was twenty, my father was the President of the United States.
I used to be the First Daughter.
It'd been four years since my family packed up and turned the house over to my father's successor. Tonight President Jean Santiago, will spend his final night in the White House. Dad's Vice President won his election in a landslide, with everyone flying high over the success of my father's two terms. He hadn't sought a second term, wanting out of public office because twelve years was enough for him.
Dad was invited back to the White House to share the evening with him and reminisce. Mom couldn't make it, her law career keeping her home. In her stead, Santiago invited me and encouraged my husband to come along. I accepted.
"Princess Franchesca, Prince Marcus, the President will see you in the Oval, now," Santiago's secretary announced.
"Thank you," I answered as a Marine guard opened the door for me and I stepped into the room with Marcus two steps behind me.
"Frannie," President Santiago said, welcoming me a broad smile. "How was your flight? Does the Angorian royal plane compare to Air Force One?"
I shook my head at him. "I must admit, Air Force One is more impressive."
"Aha," he said, his face lighting up.
"But I do prefer living in the Angorian castle to living here."
His face fell. "Why does it always have to be a tie?" he asked with a wink and a gesture for Marcus and I to sit.
"Because it just does," I said we all took seats. "Now, your staff told mine that you needed a favor while I was in town? I take it that you didn't ask me here just to fill Mom's seat."
"Yes. All the details for the transition tomorrow are in place, except for one."
I felt my brow line furrow as the President and I looked at one another. Then understanding hit and I settled back in my chair with a nod. "I'll take care of it."
Traditionally, the outgoing First Kids give the incoming children a tour. Give them tips on how to manipulate the staff into getting what they wanted, show them where the main kitchens hid all the good snacks, and give them pointers on how to dodge the press. Santiago and his wife did not have any children, so I'd gotten to do none of that when Dad left office. I found myself eager for the coming evening, when I'd get to step in and fulfill the delayed tradition.
I'd felt like I was back on familiar stomping grounds throughout that evening. I’d savored every moment of revisiting a childhood house and remarked to both my father and my husband how wonderful it felt to be home again.
January 20 - The White House
The Inauguration Day festivities were underway before we rose the next morning. People poured into the city for the ceremony. Dad and I stuck close to one another all morning, trying to soak up as much time with each other as we could, while we were back on the same continent.
I was sad Mom hadn't been able to visit with us. I thought about trying to give the incoming First Son his tour in the morning. That way, I could duck out of the ceremony, see if I couldn’t sneak out with an agent and a car, drive up to Philly, drop in on Mom for a couple hours, before coming back to DC and getting on our planes to head home.
The incoming President, Sebastian Priess, arranged other plans for many of us. He'd surprised all living former Presidents and First Ladies by granting them access to the first floor rooms that used to be included in the tour, to come together and share memories on the common ground of what life for them used to be like, both good and bad. Given that Mom wasn't in town and I was, he extended the invitation to me as a substitute, and to my husband as a courtesy.
It was then, while the new President and First Lady attended their series of balls, I was to help keep their son busy with his personal tour of White House kid-hacks.
The Inauguration itself almost managed to go off without a hitch. Each person speaking had somehow managed to run thirty to forty-five seconds longer than practiced, resulting in about a five-minute delay as we approached noon. Organizers bumped one of the reverends until after the swearing in, in order to adhere to the noontime protocol.
Aside from that, all went well, as far as I knew. Even my own protection detail was looking relaxed. Vigilant, but relaxed. As with any other Inauguration, there was so much protection and security around, you didn't know whether to be uptight because the whole thing was such a huge target, or to throw caution to the wind because someone would have to be an idiot to try anything. Since I wasn't in the habit of being the target of anyone's ire, my guards were enjoying the huge Secret Service bubble around us, and letting the tension fall off their shoulders for the day.
The new president and his wife visited with us briefly, before disappearing off to their series of four balls. The former presidents waited until they were gone, before the group began to discuss the current set of challenges this new president was going to face, come morning.
My husband interjected with a question or two, but mostly just listened, fascinated.
"You're not over there, taking notes?" Santiago asked my hubby.
"No," Marcus answered. "Well, perhaps a little. The older my father gets, the more I pay attention when leaders talk. Although my kingdom is nowhere near the size and population of your country, the root of many of your issues is similar in nature to what is going on back home. I am intrigued by all of your different approaches to the same problem."
"The key to understanding a problem," Dad said, "is to understand that an issue isn't just black or white. An issue often has four or five sides to it, and each is valid to the group of people who see it from that perspective."
"What about solving the problem?"
"Well," Dad's presidential predecessor, Robertson said, "for that, you have to know going in that you can't simultaneously offer four or five solutions. You can only offer one. So, there is no one, right answer. Therefore, whatever solution you come up with is going to upset about three-quarters of the population, in some way. Really, you can only do the best you can with what you've got. Keep smart people around you, listen to what they have to say, hear what your people are saying, and choose the best option."
The conversation carried on for another half-hour or so, before long-time staff members began to peek in. The same people hold many jobs in the White House for decades, some positions are generational, with people occupying the same job one of their parents had. Presidents and First Families might come and go, but many of the butlers, housekeepers, grounds crew, and maintenance personnel remained the same.
This was their house. All others were temporary tenants.
They'd been busy upstairs in the residence. The place was still buzzing around us, what with trying to get the incoming family's things settled into their new home. Repairs had been going on all day, as well.
Things were winding down as the staff had completed the finishing touches, and certain ones were coming down to pay a visit, some showing their outright favoritism as they reconnected with us.
I received my fair share of the hugs and smiles going around, several staff members taking the time to remember some particular antic of mine during my teenage years that had made them laugh, or had driven them crazy. Hubby indulged them by listening to each story.
The mood within the group, after such a busy day, was jovial. If the goal of the incoming president had been to give both groups of people a fond walk down memory lane, then it was a mission well accomplished.
Marcus nudged me and, when I looked up at him, pointed toward an open doorway.
I looked over and saw my most favorite Secret Service agent standing by the brand-new First Son. I smiled and stood to join them.
"Where are you going, dear?" one of the housekeepers asked.
"First Kid tour. I have to show Tommy all the cool places to go."
She nodded and turned back to the former First Lady she'd been talking to.
I turned to Jared and Tommy, my smile bright as I approached them.
"Princess," Jonathan, my head of protection said, walking up to me.
Marcus stood and came to my side. "Are you going outside of the building?"
"No," I answered. "And Jared isn't going to leave Tommy's side, while his parents are gone and he still doesn't know his way around. How much protection do I need?"
Marcus looked at Jared, and the agent nodded his affirmation. Marcus turned to our guard, "Let her go, she's safe here."
Jonathan looked torn, but nodded, moving to resume his post by another doorway.
I blew a small kiss in Marcus' direction, before the three of us left the room. I began giving Tommy the rundown of everything. I was trying to glaze over the things he'd have heard about on the tour given by staff members, but hit hard on the things I thought would interest a ten-year-old. You know, which housekeeper would spoil you more and where to find her, which butler would let you get away with more before ratting you out to your mom, and whatnot. I gave him more tips and tricks on getting what he wanted out of the staff and protection agents. I told him that when he gets older, he should remember that unlike the staff, an agent wasn't supposed to tell on you at all. That had certainly been something that had saved me from parental punishment many times as a teen.
"And now, watch this," I said. I walked over to the wall, pushed on a corner of the paneling, which released a latch. The wood gave way, and the whole panel swung out, serving as a door to enter secret passages built into the walls.
Tommy's eyes rounded.
"Pretty cool, huh?" I asked.
"Way cool. Is it creepy in there?"
I shrugged. "A little, I guess, but only because nothing is painted or finished, to make it look nice. Housekeeping comes through and dusts the corners, and it's fairly well lit." I moved forward and took three steps down the narrow passageway.
"The staff knows about this?" he asked as he warily looked around and stepped in, to follow me.
I laughed at his expression. "Of course they do. The staff knows everything. But it's also how they can service rooms without being seen by visitors, any more than necessary."
"Was the house built like this?"
Jared stepped inside, our mostly silent chaperone, and closed the panel behind him.
"No, this happened once the house began to age and they had to strip it all down and reinforce the whole building with steel. The agents both love and hate it."
"They hate that protectees can take off undercover, and they're left behind, not sure where the person took off to," I told him with a wink. "Like how we're separated from the rest of the group now. But we're being good, taking an agent with us, and going someplace predictable."
Jared shook his head at me.
"Where are we going?" Tommy asked, falling into step behind me.
"This is a shortcut down to the main kitchen pantry."
"The staff is gone by now. The kitchen will be locked."
I turned back to him. "I never said we were going to the kitchen. I said we were going to the pantry."
"You mean there's a passage right into the pantry?"
"Yep. Who needs a key when you have a wall that opens straight into the best part?"
"Secret passageways, man, this is like a castle."
"It's exactly like a castle. In fact, the whole point of a castle is to provide protection. A real castle is designed and built to be a fortress, specifically for protection. That's exactly what the White House is. You're living inside a modern-day fortress."
"I knew that. Five people have already told me that."
I rolled my eyes in response to his sarcasm. "Well, you kinda should've expected secret passageways then, huh?"
He smiled. "Yeah, I guess I should have."
We hadn't gotten far when popping sounds erupted out in the rooms. Jared grabbed us and held his finger up to his lips, signaling for silence.
I listened harder. This time I picked up on it more clearly. The popping noises were most definitely gunfire, and it was only getting closer.
Jared and I froze, with Jared placing an implacable hand on Tommy's shoulder.
I slowly turned my head to look at Jared and await instructions, just like I'd been trained to do years ago. It didn't matter that he no longer had any power over me, didn't matter that I wasn't his protectee. If you train me to look to certain people in times of danger, and then put me in danger while in the presence of one of them, no matter how long the separation had been, I was going to look at that person.
Jared's eyes went from Tommy, to me, and back again. He put a finger to his mouth, indicating we were to stay silent. Then he pointed to the ground and began to lower himself into a sitting position.
We followed suit.
Gunshots continued to fire, the volume growing louder as the sound of it became more crisp, indicating the enemy drawing near.
When you hear gunfire, you get low. We were hidden within the walls, but bullets tended to stray in a frenzy of fire, and I wasn't certain the interior walls were bulletproof.
Jared signaled to Tommy and me to lay down, as he slowly pulled out his weapons, determined to gear himself up for whatever lay ahead of us.
I lie on the flooring, reached out to take hold of Tommy's hand, both to comfort him and to use it to yank him into movement, if it became necessary. Then I closed my eyes and prayed.
Chaos inside the White House reigned, with more gunfire, and angry men yelling in some foreign language. It seemed to go on for an hour, though I'm sure it was mere minutes. The gunfire continued as I kept waiting with dread to hear a scream of pain from a voice I recognized.
Jared was calm, but I could tell he didn't like sitting there. He could try to move us, but Tommy was young, and scared kids tended to start screeching if you made them do anything, like get up and walk. Plus, I could tell Jared was still assessing the situation. His eyes were open, but I knew he was inside his own head. His eyes were tracing the path of the sounds around us, most likely trying to determine where the group of intruders were headed, and how much they were spreading out. Jared couldn't determine a course for us until he knew where it would be safe to go, without running into the bad guys.
I listened to their footsteps, working their way closer. People on the other side of the wall, in the room we lay along the edges of, began to holler. Foreign men yelled in English to 'get down', American military and Secret Service agents bellowing, civilian guests and staff screaming.
I'd never been so glad to be hiding like a child, fearing a beating, in all my life.
Gunshots erupted again. More yelling, more screaming, then a woman's agonized shout of pain, followed by several men's shouts of pain, the sound of men heavy with guns and ammo slumping to the floor, then a nearby man's surprised grunt of pain.
The grunt came from Jared.
I looked up at him, a shaft of light from the room beaming through an angled bullet hole in the wall, shining straight down on Jared's chest.
Tommy started to sit up, a panicked look on his face. My hand flew to the boy's mouth. He turned his gaze on me and I shook my head at him. I lifted a finger of my other hand to my lips, signaling him to stay silent.
And there we stayed, in that position, my eyes locked on Tommy's, until the intruders moved on to the next room.
I turned Tommy so that his back was to Jared, and started whispering to him. "Don't look at him. Don't peak through the bullet hole in the wall. Don't move. Don't speak. Do not panic. Just let me take a look at Jared and see how bad it is."
Slowly, quietly, I moved around Tommy and sat on my knees, in front of the now panting agent. I pulled his flashlight out of his belt and turned it on, to get a good look. "Oh, shit, Jared," I whispered and moved to try to use his suit coat to contain the blood flow.
"I didn't think I needed a vest inside the building. Babysit the kid. How hard was that supposed to be? If I could survive you, a ten-year-old should have been a piece of cake," he whispered, gasping for air a bit more that I would have liked.
"Yeah, well, I am back in town and all. You maybe should have planned ahead."
"I didn't need the vest with you, either. Standard protocol for you was to wear good running shoes and a cup," he said, whispered with a weak chuckle.
I gave him a gentle smile. "Look at you, GSW to the chest, bleeding all over the White House floorboards, cracking jokes."
His grin turned into a grimace and his eyes moved to the back of Tommy's slumped head, then returned to me. "Listen, they've already cleared this room. Stay here a few minutes and let them get through some more rooms, before you two move on from here. Move opposite the direction of the gunfire. We don't want you two to get shot next."
"Who are they?" Tommy whispered, rocking himself back and forth with his efforts to keep himself under control.
Jared was having a hard time answering, so I answered for him. "I don't know. I'm not sure what language they were speaking."
"What do they want?" Tommy asked, sounding very much like the child he was.
Trying for a little levity, to calm him down, I said, "Gee, I don't know. You want me to go out and ask?"
"Where are the rest of the agents?"
"Doing their best to contain the situation. They're working on getting the bad guys."
Tommy seemed to settle, and I refocused on my hands, which were doing a poor job of holding Jared's blood inside of him.
"Is your cell phone secure?" Jared whispered.
I shook my head. "Our tiny little island is a threat to no one. We don't require the same level of security as the First Family does. Our King is the only one with a secure phone, because of who he sometimes has to talk to."
"Take yours out of your pocket, and leave it here, so no one can track you."
"Do you think I'm a target?"
"I think they'll be after as many high-profile hostages as they can get, and you would be quite a prize. But, more likely, they'll be after Tommy, and they'll use you to get to him."
I pulled my cell out of my sweater pocket, powered it off, and laid it on the floor.
"Take my radio, earpiece, and microphone," Jared whispered.
I made eye contact with him. I knew what the look on his face was now saying. He was going to die, and he knew it. I was going to be on my own with Tommy, and he trusted that I'd keep hold of the kid and see it through. I bit my lip, sighed, found some determination, and nodded to him. "I'm going to need your access code."
He grunted as he tried to help me claim his equipment. "D-N-4-R."
I glanced at him as I put in the earpiece and clipped the microphone where I wanted it. "That's too short."
"Friendly-user guest code."
I leaned on an old joke when I smiled and whispered, "Now you're just making shit up."
He smiled weakly and grunted. "Use it. Tommy's codename is 'Kickstand'. We've been calling you 'Cinderelly' because you were on our peripheral radar, with everything going on. But it's too obvious now, it screams 'princess' if those guys know anything. Figure something out that our guys will recognize. Take my gun and the mags, remember Mitch's shooting lessons, and don't let me down."
I sniffled against threatening tears. "I don't want to leave you, not until you're gone."
"I'll be unconscious in a minute. Then I won't know the difference, so it won't matter. Let me go, and you get him out of here. Do not get caught. We can't have a kid as a national hostage, and getting you will drag Angoria and Sweden into whatever this is. Now, if they come back with thermal cameras, your heat signatures will stand out against the coolness of the steel supports. There's nothing you can do about that now. Once you start moving, don't linger anywhere for long. You'll leave a warm spot behind and they'll track you from spot to spot, if they're smart enough to think of it. Assume they're smart and brought sophisticated equipment."
I nodded. "Don't underestimate your opponent."
"Right. And rule number two?"
"Know your limitations."
"Right. We trained you to hide and escape. Stick to what you know. Don't confront anybody. Get one step ahead of their movements and stay that way. Stay quiet. Stay hidden."
He cringed and grunted again. "I'm about out of time. I can feel it. Listen, you are royalty taking custody of a possible American target during a foreign crisis—"
I placed a hand on his arm. "I was born and raised American. I don't care about the politics. I'm taking custody of a child. That's all the matters."
"I know, but if I make it out, he'll be with me."
"There may be traitors."
"I won't leave him until I can put him in his parents' arms."
He nodded as his breaths came quicker.
I wished there was something I could do for him, some way to get help to him, inside the walls. I could try CPR, but to what end? There was no action I could take that would result in any meaningful good. "Jared?"
His eyes focused back on me as I watched him grow paler by the second.
"Thank you for putting up with me all those years and keeping me safe. You were always my favorite. You taught me well." I paused to take a breath. "I've got this. I've got him. You can go."
He didn't even nod. His eyes lost focus on mine, closed as he gave in, then he lost consciousness.
I wanted to cry, but didn't have time to give into it. Occasional gunfire had continued, off in the distance, and I'd been paying attention to where the noises were coming from. I turned to Tommy, to get him moving. There was no point in the kid witnessing the rest of his agent's death play out.
"Dad says if you get lost in the woods, you stay right where you are, so help can find you," he whispered.
"Well this isn't the woods, and I'm not lost. These people may come back and do a sweep with thermal cameras, especially if they were after one of us and didn't find us. And, right now, I'm all the help that either one of us is going to get. We're going to stick together, and I'll get you out of here."
"How do you even know how to get out?"
"Because I lived here for years, remember? I've gone through drill after drill. I know five ways out of this wall."
He looked desperately at Jared, then back to me. "I can't follow you. You're not an agent. And I can't trust you. You're not American."
I felt my face morph into a look my mother often gave me while growing up and I'd done something she had deemed to be idiotic. "Are you freaking kidding me right now? Jared turned your care over to me. Did you not hear him? He said I was taking custody of you."
"You're a leader from another country. Maybe it's you guys attacking."
"Yeah, right, because a teeny, tiny little island with hardly any military is going to attack the United States."
"So? Sweden helps protect you guys, right? Maybe Sweden is attacking and they want you to bring me out to them. I'm not going anywhere with you."
I cocked my head at him. "Did they sound like they were talking in Swedish to you?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know what Swedish sounds like."
"Well, it doesn't sound like that. I don't know what language that was, but it's not European, Scandinavian, or even Hispanic, for that matter."
"How would you know?"
"Do you have any idea how many languages I've been exposed to, over the years? And by the way, I'm still an American. I was born here, and I lived here nearly my whole life. You try to tell me again that I'm not American, and I will leave your little ass behind. And just so you know, I don't lead anything. I'll never lead that country. I'm just a princess, a representative of the government, but no decisions are mine to make, not now, not ever. Now, you are going to come with me. The two of us are going to stand up and get the hell out of here."
His eyes turned suspicious. "Wh— Why do you get the radio?"
"Do you know how to work it?"
"That's why I get the radio." I picked it up off the floor. "I've been curious as to how the intruders got in and Jared wasn't made aware. He wasn't distracted by any chatter in his earpiece, either."
"He had the volume all the way down."
I looked back at Tommy. "Why would he do that?"
"He said there was too much talking earlier, and that he had a headache. He was going to call off sick, but with everything going on, they needed all the people they could get. He told them that he was muting it, since I was to stay inside the building for the rest of the night."
"He was working with one of his migraines? Good God. He doesn't get them often, maybe only once every couple of years. I can't believe he was working during a day like today with a migraine."
"Are you really going to head out of the building?"
"Yeah, and when I get next to an exit, I'm going to use the radio to let the Secret Service know, so they can meet us and know not to shoot at us."
"You're really going to leave your prince and Dad behind?"
I swallowed back tears because the only things my mind could conjure were images of a room full of dead Presidents and strewn bodies. "Yes. They can't be my priority right now."
I sighed, debating whether to tell him. I ended up figuring that if I was trying to gain his trust, I should start out by being honest. "Because I'm pregnant, which means I'm carrying a baby in the direct line of succession to the throne of Angoria. I have to get out, to save the baby. I no longer have the luxury of looking for the others. Besides, if you'll get up and come with me, I have to focus on getting you out, so your Dad can think about what he needs to do with the intruders, without worrying about whether or not they have you. So really, Princess and former First Daughter, or not, I have a duty to both the United States and to Angoria to get the both of you safely out of this building."
"How do you know they're going to trust you enough not to shoot you, now that you're the Princess of some other country?"
It was taking all I had in me not to lose my patience. "Because I'm a former First Daughter. Once upon a time, they were required to protect me, no matter where in the world I was. If they have reason to doubt me, they'll secure me in a holding cell until they're sure I'm not a threat, which I'm fine with, if it means we get out of here."
"You're really pregnant?"
"You don't look pregnant."
His face furrowed. "Where's your belly?"
"I'm only thirteen weeks in. I haven't started to show, yet."
"I still don't know that I can trust you."
It suddenly dawned on me that with a codename like 'Kickstand', it probably meant that he wasn't likely to be too keen on moving around near danger. He was probably the type to want to hole up somewhere with his eyes scrunched closed. "Fine," I told him. "You can stay here with the dead body and hope all the blood still leaking out of him doesn't seep through the wall and give away your hiding spot. Come or don't come, but I'm leaving, now." I stood and started moving.
I hadn't made it fifteen feet before he caught up and started whispering at me again. "Why didn't you turn the volume back up? You never hit the button. Aren't you going to listen to the radio with the ear thing?"
"Because I have to listen for voices and the footsteps of the people who've come inside, to make sure I'm not walking us somewhere where they've gathered."
"But, shouldn't you let them know we're okay?"
I sighed and spun around, putting my hands on his shoulders. "Because the enemy could be listening in, on one of the other radios. I don't want them to know we're on the run, and on our own. There's still too much chaos going on. Let the agents get organized and figure out what they can do. They'll ping the radio when it settles down, and they try to take roll call. Now isn't the time to create more chatter and add to the chaos. Now listen, you have to be silent while we're making our way through these passages.”
I took a step and heard the sound of my heel hitting the floor. I let out a disgusted sigh as I took them off. I couldn’t leave them behind, because once we got outside the heels might fare better than bare feet, but until then… I looked around helplessly before it dawned on me that I was still wearing my sweater. I shoved them into the pockets.
I looked back to Tommy, “For real, no sound at all."
We're All in it Up to Our Eyeballs Now
When the enemy invaded the White House, they hadn't been on a path of destruction. They hadn't rushed around, shooting everyone they could find. They'd had a clear path in mind, and focused singularly on clearing the quickest path possible in securing the underground bunker that contained the Situation Room, along with all the intelligence, equipment, and weaponry stored down there.
As a result, everyone who'd ducked and laid low, letting the intruders pass, were left behind. They only shot the people that posed a direct threat.
The terrorists were quick to lay claim to the control center and only then sent men out from there, to see about securing some hostages.
In those few moments between the invaders going in and then coming back out, the main grouping of men and women made it out. Presidents and First Ladies made a run for it, in their formal eveningwear. Butlers, housekeepers, cooks, carpenters, electricians, everyone made a run to get out of the building. Secret Service left only if their priority could make it out, and either followed or carried them. They headed straight across the lawn, before invaders had gotten men on the roof to secure the comings and goings.
The other agents, either assigned as support or paired with someone that had perished in the gunfire, remained behind to reorganize and lead a counter-charge.
The newest former president, Jean Santiago, had been spending a few stolen moments in the oval, along with Former President Robinson, and the Secretary of State. Their protectors were out in the hall, and lost their lives in the death spree. And since protectees are trained to stay in place and let agents come to them, the two past Presidents remained in the oval and were taken captive, before they even knew their agents had failed. The Secretary, who'd stayed to field congratulatory phone calls from other countries on behalf of President Priess, took two bullets in a last ditch effort to avoid becoming a hostage. Two of the former First Ladies were stealing a long beloved pint of cheesecake ice cream from the kitchens, and they too became captives. The invaders shooed out anyone who remained that wore a worker's uniform. The enemy knew enough to understand they really only needed a few key, high-profile captives, so only kept those they could find in formalwear.