Far below the U.S. Capitol, there is a sub-basement, with bare cast-iron pipes in the ceiling and exposed brick painted a drab institutional yellow. Dusty old boxes containing long forgotten reports line the hallway, awaiting their demise. An elevator shaft stands at one end of the hall, unused for decades. Abandoned desks and mismatched chairs add to the clutter. No one frequents this hallway, with the exception of a few maintenance men who require access to the mechanical room. The other end of this hallway adjoins a larger corridor leading to a small café about fifty feet away. Well known for its superb coffee, this little café has only a handful of tables and decidedly limited seating. Like the old boxes and furniture, it seems out of place. Nevertheless, for busy Congressional staffers and an occasional member of Congress, it offers solace, its gentle proprietor a welcome respite from the rough-and-tumble world of politics.
Recently, the Maintenance Department designed and installed a new electrical system in the mechanical room to improve the heating system of the Capitol. Considered a minor change, only a handful of workers even know about the installation of this new system. It should be a simple thing to accomplish. The crew chuckled at the notion that management felt it would take two full days to install the new system.
“It’s a minor change.” they argued. “We’ll be finished in half a day. Nothing to it.”
Yet even minor changes can sometimes have unintended consequences.
Addie Hutchison finished making the last sandwich and lined up the lunch bags in a neat row. The large pot of oatmeal began to boil while she finished frying the link sausages and added them to a platter with several slices of toast.
“Y’all better come and eat now. It’s 6:15. I’m not playing games this morning. You boys gonna worry your Gran into the grave!”
Addie tried hard to get her boys fed and ready for school by 6:30 sharp. Actually, they were not “her boys.” Rather, Tyrone, aged fifteen, and the twins, James and Jamal, aged eight, were Addie’s grandsons. She’d been raising the boys on her own ever since a drunk driver killed her daughter and son in-law. Two years had gone by, but it seemed like yesterday. Addie tried not to think about that too much: it left such an awful hole in her heart. Sorrow had been Addie’s companion for a long time, but she kept her smile and her gentle countenance about her.
She was about to call for them again when James and Jamal tumbled into the kitchen.
“Mornin’ Gran. Man, am I hungry! Guess I’m growing’, huh?” Jamal had such a sweet face, she found it hard to discipline him, even when he needed it.
“Gran, how much do basketball players make? Because that’s what I’m gonna be someday. I’ll have a big house and a pretty wife.” James grinned. “You’ll live with us too, Gran!”
Just then Tyrone came into the kitchen, his tall, lanky frame barely clearing the entrance. He brushed Addie’s cheek but avoided eye contact.
“Good morning,” he mumbled, dropping into place at the table.
Before they touched their food, they all bowed their heads as Addie prayed, “Loving Lord Jesus, thank you for this food and this new day. Please be with those less fortunate than us and please guide these boys today in their studies and keep them safe. Amen!”
As the boys began devouring their food, Addie looked intently at Tyrone. “Honey, you feeling all right? You look tired. I noticed you been sleeping well past 6:00. You’re always up by 5:30.”
“I’m fine, Gran,” he responded as he shifted in his seat, avoiding her gaze. “Maybe I’m getting lazy. You better be getting on now, Gran. You know how you hate to miss your bus. I’ll take care of these guys.”
Addie was grateful: Tyrone always walked the twins to school. It meant she could get to work on time. She reached for her coat, picked up her purse, and said, “You boys behave in school and do your work. Jamal, the Lord gave you one mouth and two ears: you listen today, honey. James, work on that spelling list because even basketball players need to spell.
“Tyrone, please lock both doors.”
Addie had to hurry to make the bus, but she was smiling as she heaved her round body up the steps to the fare booth. She grinned at the driver, an old friend of many years. He scolded her good-naturedly, “Miss Addie, you know good and well I ain’t gonna leave you!”
“Sam, you’re one of my guardian angels, now that’s the truth.”
Addie sat and gazed out the window as the streets slipped past. The neighborhoods were changing: cleaner streets, expensive cars, higher prices. Soon enough the bus reached Capitol Hill and she made her way to the café.
Addie always arrived at 7:00 a.m. sharp, even though the shop didn’t open until 7:30. This mystified her colleagues, family, and friends. “Girl,” they said, “why do you get up so early? That’s just stubbornness is what that is.”
Addie let them talk and smiled: she had her reasons. She took pride in her work. She considered it an honor to run a shop in the U.S. Capitol. After working for Senate Food Services for thirty-two years, Addie took over the coffee shop which was nestled under the Capitol within a complex series of tunnels, connecting the Senate to the House. She took pride in that little shop, and she ran it with a firm hand and a gentle heart. Her coffee was known as the best on the Hill, although Addie never divulged her secret—chicory, with a dash of cinnamon.
She hummed an old hymn as the silver urns hissed and burbled and a rich aroma of fresh coffee filled the small café. She shifted the tables into neat rows and bent to pick up some litter. In a moment she would open the doors and the steady barrage of customers would begin. The first wave would be the Congressional staffers rushing in for their quick fix on the way to work. She took one last look around, making sure things were neat and tidy. Then, she unlocked the door and took her seat atop the high stool in front of the cash register.
Simone Perez bent to tie her running shoes, pulled on her fleece jacket, and stepped outside her front door. For several moments she stood stretching on the stoop of her Georgetown home in the early dawn, her body silhouetted against the morning sky. The cool October air made her shiver as she bounded down the stairs and sprinted west toward Massachusetts Avenue, rhythmically pacing her steps. Soon, a sheen of sweat soaked her face. She faithfully adhered to her running regimen. At least one part of her day would always be predictable. For several minutes she thought of nothing except the cadence of her steps as her shoes slapped the pavement. Gradually, she allowed herself to take in the sights and sounds of Washington, D.C.—her new home. She jogged in place at a light, relishing the morning air. The light turned green, and Simone resumed her run, her black ponytail swishing back and forth as her dark eyes took in the edifices that lined Massachusetts Avenue, each distinctive building telling a story. An architect by trade, Simone longed to stop running and study each structure. But alas, that would have to wait, as she had enough on her plate.
As the newly-appointed Architect of the Capitol, she was responsible for the operation, development, and preservation of 17.4 million square feet of buildings. Everything from the Botanical Gardens to the U.S. Supreme Court complex fell within her purview. Frankly, the sheer magnitude of her responsibilities sometimes left her speechless. Not that Simone was any shrinking violet. She enjoyed a wide acclaim among fellow architects. Quite unexpectedly, the search committee had approached her about the position. She’d been teaching at Tulane University, and those who knew the work she’d done restoring portions of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina referred to it as stunning. Simone could never understand why she’d received such accolades: she was just doing her job.
As she approached Chevy Chase Circle, All Saint’s Episcopal Church came into view. She slowed her pace to a power walk, remembering another chapel and another time in her life. Strange how her memories of her time at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church and orphanage still haunted her, even now. She vividly recalled nuns who expected absolute perfection; Simone never felt she measured up. Many of the nuns were kind, and she had received a top-notch education. Still, the little girl grew up telling herself constantly, “I must do better.” Deep within her heart, she had never quite felt adequate.
Simone glanced at her watch and picked up her pace. Sprinting the last few yards down her block, she took the steps to her door at a bound, pleased she’d completed her morning routine. Inside, she showered quickly and dressed in a tailored gray suit and powder-blue silk blouse. Simone Perez possessed a beauty all her own. She wore her thick black hair pulled back in a bun that snuggled neatly in the nape of her neck. With her high cheek bones and tall slender body, she drew admiring glances. Yet, as she blotted her lipstick, she frowned at herself in the mirror.
Simone believed in being punctual and well-prepared for meetings. She had five today, including lunch with an old friend. She needed to gain a working understanding of the Federal budget process, and Rodger Haskins, the Administrator of the General Services Administration, had promised to guide her through it. Then the Speaker of the House, John McIntyre, had asked her to stop by at 4 p.m. to talk about some renovations to the Cannon Building. He seemed to be a kind man, she mused, but still he always made her nervous. She couldn’t say why.
She glanced at her watch and sighed, realizing she was running late for her 8:00 meeting. She’d hoped to grab a cup of coffee and chat with her friend Addie about some new recipes she discovered over the weekend. Simone couldn’t decide which displeased her more; missing her Monday morning chat with Addie or having to settle for the weak, bland coffee served in her office.
Exasperated, she grabbed her briefcase and headed for her car.
Bruce Graham rushed through the tunnel, vowing not to be late today. As the Chief of Staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was about to preside over the most important hearing of his career. Dressed in a navy Brooks Brothers suit and a red silk tie, he looked the part. He clutched his thick briefing book under his arm, even though he knew the book cold. Today was the confirmation hearing of Winton W. Davis for a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States. The Senate Judiciary Committee would confirm Davis. Six months later, Bruce would become the Honorable Davis’s Chief Clerk. His career plan was on track.
It wasn’t until he was almost at the little underground café in the bowels of the Capitol that he glanced at his phone and suddenly realized the date: October 14. A year had come and gone since he separated from Shelley. After law school they had moved to D.C., and for a while things were normal. Yet as Bruce threw himself into his work, Shelley accused him of ignoring her. They fought regularly for two months, then one morning he found a note next to the coffee pot which said simply, “Bruce; I’ve moved out. Please don’t call. I need some space. I wish things were different.” Three weeks from today his marriage would officially end.
He ducked into the café for a large coffee and a glazed donut. He still had a few moments, he realized. He decided to sit and review his briefing book one last time.
Father Dan Larson, pastor of St. Matthews Episcopal Church of McLean, noted for having a number of members of Congress in its parish, had to play the part. Today he’d be meeting with Congressman John Chamberlin, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, to talk about a number of social issues. He managed to smile as he opened the café door.
“Addie Hutchison, I’ve missed you! It’s really great to see you!” He held
open his arms.
“I declare, Father Dan!” Addie smiled broadly as she gave him a hug.
“How’re things at that church of yours? Are you takin’ good care of that wife?”
“Addie, I am so lucky to have Colleen. She’s my girl! Church is a whole other story. I’m here a bit early this morning. I’ve got a vestry meeting this evening, and between you and me, I’m not ready. Give me a medium coffee and a bagel.” Father Dan reached for his wallet and handed her a five-dollar bill. Then he reached into his coat pocket and slipped her a check.
“That’s for you and the boys,” he said.
Addie gasped and tears filled her eyes. “Father Dan, you have no idea what this means to me. Raising those boys on my own, I don’t know up from down half the time.” She shook her head. “They eat like ten grown men! Please, tell your wife how much I appreciate this. We’ll come and visit your church again soon, I promise! I’ll fix some fried chicken. Lordy, Father Dan, if you weren’t married, I’d smooch you here on the spot. Now go! Get yourself ready for your meetin.’ Thank you, you hear?”
As he sat down, Dan wished he could offer a prayer over his breakfast. Lately, he’d found it difficult to pray at all. The same old doubts kept him off his knees. They had for quite some time now.
“Ah, if only they knew,” Dan thought as he bit into his bagel.
Jim Stenson made his way through the House tunnel to his favorite coffee shop, listening as the tap of his cane echoed off the polished concrete floor. As he walked, he tried to count his steps: twenty-one from the escalator to the tunnel, seventy-two from the beginning of the tunnel to the coffee shop. As the Legislative Director for Blind Citizens United, he knew his way around the Hill. Although people were always offering to help him, he was determined to make it on his own.
Tap, tap, tap.
He made the last turn and felt for the door of Addie’s café.
“Mornin’ Addie! Sure hope you have some of that delicious coffee left.”
Jim loved this little café.
“Morning, Mr. Stenson,” Addie called out cheerfully. She handed him
a cup as he paid. “Help you to a table?”
“No, thanks,” he responded. “I’ll go to my usual corner table.”
“Just let me know if you need anything,” said Addie.
Jim Stenson knew exactly what was on his calendar today. He was appearing as a witness before the House Education and Labor Committee for several programs serving blind and visually impaired individuals. In the afternoon he had the dubious honor of chairing a task force on the employment of persons with disabilities, as it decided which position to take on a House bill coming up for a vote. Later that evening he’d be speaking at a reception for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the arts.
Just another ordinary day, he mused.
He opened his computer and brushed his fingertips across the Braille keyboard. He worked quickly and quietly, keeping track of the time, making certain every email received a timely and accurate response.
Congresswoman Barbara Perkins’s heels clicked as she made her way from the parking garage toward her office. She had stayed up late and risen early, preparing for today. With three big votes scheduled at noon today on the Defense Appropriations bill, Congresswoman Perkins still had a number of questions for her staff and she wanted them answered well before the vote would occur. She chuckled to herself, wondering why her staff felt it was so important to prepare four-inch-thick briefing books with information she’d probably never use.
I wish they’d just talk to me, she thought.
In truth, this was not the life she’d envisioned for herself. This was her late husband’s dream. Congressman Paul Perkins had been a popular Democratic member of the House from Cheyenne, Wyoming, who had represented his district with distinction for eighteen years. There had been many rumors he would make a run for the White House.
Then came that terrible day. They were at home in Cheyenne for the President’s Day recess. It had been snowing all night and Paul planned to speak at a meeting of businessmen in Gillette. Barbara had begged him to cancel because of the weather, but he felt he had to go since he was the keynote speaker. He’d take a puddle-jumper, he said, and assured her he’d be home for dinner. Barbara could still see the police chief who came to the door to deliver the news: Congressman Perkins’s plane had gone down shortly after takeoff.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Perkins, but there were no survivors.” That moment remained etched in her memory: no survivors.
Hours—not days—after the tragic accident, Democratic operatives approached Barbara about completing her late-husband’s term.
“It will be easy,” they had said. “Just put everything on autopilot and preserve Paul’s legacy. It’s only fourteen months.” Thus, Barbara had assumed her husband’s responsibilities. That was five years ago. Now she was in her second term and many in the Democratic Party had big plans for her. It was rumored she would soon become the next Chairwoman of the coveted House Education and Workforce Committee.
She succumbed to her need for coffee. Instead of taking the tunnel which led to the Rayburn House Office Building, she took a right and happily opened the door to Addie’s café.
Fred Rafferty and Billy Drexler sat in a small mechanical room. They were
installing more electrical connections which could support cogeneration, allowing more efficient use of power and steam to heat and cool the Capitol. Soon, they would complete its installation.
“I don’t mind telling you, I’ll be really glad when this new electrical system is hooked up. This has been really tough,” Fred said to Billy as they set out the tools they’d need. They hoped to complete the cut-over to the new system later that day, and with everything hooked up they just needed the big boss from the Capitol Power Plant to give final approval.
“Man, you’re telling me!” Billy said.
Although Fred was ten years older and had extensive electrical experience, Billy served as the liaison for this particular project. He’d been with the Capitol Maintenance Department about a year and this was his first major solo project. Fred was more than happy to assist this eager young man.
“These connections are the most complicated thing I’ve worked on so far,” exclaimed Billy. “I went to school for three months on this dumb thing, and I’m still not sure how it works. Don’t even get me started on the brass at the Capitol Power Plant! Those guys are a bunch of flunkies if you ask me. Take today, for instance. They’re already half an hour late! ”
For a long while both men busied themselves in routine tasks which needed to be completed. Fred could see Billy was becoming fidgety, so he wasn’t surprised when he finally blurted, “Fred, I’m not going to try anything stupid, but I want to start some testing of my own. Let me know if you hear anything out of the ordinary.”
“Sure, Billy,” Fred nodded, and went back to his work.
For a few minutes, all Fred heard was the click, click, click of Billy’s electrical gauge as he checked and rechecked the electrical connections. Billy thought to himself, Those guys from the hoity-toity Capitol Power Plant must think we have all day. It really burns me up!
Reaching up, Billy threw a switch and turned to speak. “That should—”
He stopped at the look of horror on Fred’s face.
“Oh God, no! What have you done! Billy, you just threw the main power switch! The system isn’t ready for that kind of voltage. It can’t handle it yet!” Billy spun around and his hands trembled as he tried in vain to turn the switch back to off, but he couldn’t override the system. Anxiously, he tried to remember his training, replicating the schematics in his mind.
“Come on!” he panted, frantically. The mechanical room was filling with smoke.
Fred, coughing and struggling for breath, smelled the unmistakable odor of burning electrical wires.
“I’ll radio Dom,” he cried. We need help fast!”
He lunged for the walkie-talkie, knocking it to the ground. As it skittered away, he bent down and groped frantically for it in the smoke, knowing every second counted. It slid under a cabinet and he dropped to his knees, feeling for it. Just as his fingertips brushed it, the smoke enveloped him.
Billy screamed, “Fred, let’s go!”
He turned to run as the room convulsed violently. In a blur of pipes, water, and falling debris, a deafening explosion threw him across the room.
He struggled to stand but saw with horror that his left leg was pinned beneath a huge cast-iron pipe. Worse still, Fred lay motionless in a heap. A wave of searing pain cascaded through his body and everything went black.