She rinsed the dye out of my hair and rubbed a threadbare towel across my ammonia-tingling
“What do you think?” She spun me around to the mirror.
My gasp couldn’t be contained. Seeing my
face framed in black startled more than my collagen-enhanced lips had. The mane of light brown hair with the blonde streaks
so expertly placed by a beautician in a high-priced Manhattan salon…gone.
“Well?” she asked.
In shock, I whispered, “It’s dark.”
She whirled the blow dryer around my head and I longed to see a lighter hair color emerge once dry.
didn’t. It was black. A shade away from jet. “It’s different.”
“That’s the idea,” she said. “Now your eyes. Have you ever worn contact lenses before?”
have good vision.”
“These are cosmetic, not corrective.” She popped open a case and placed a brown-tinted lens into my outstretched
hand. “Put it on your fingertip.”
She furthered her instructions
and after a couple failed attempts, I managed to successfully insert both lenses. And obliterated the translucent blue eyes
others called my best feature. I blinked hard at the intruders and tried to focus on my image in the mirror. My eyes burned,
watered in complaint.
She smiled. “They take some getting used to.”
touched the still-damp ends of the hair she’d cut into a smooth chin-length bob. “I hardly recognize myself.”
not good enough.” Her smile faded into a grim line and she brushed bronzing powder across my cheekbone.
Concerned the powder would make my face an unnatural orange color, I opened my mouth to
protest. But a swallow was all I could manage--a failed attempt to rid the cotton-like
texture fear had crusted to my throat. She was no beautician, and I wasn’t a pampered client sitting in a high-priced
Manhattan beauty salon where my every whim was catered to.
I was sitting in a sealed room at the FBI compound
in Quantico, Virginia, and she was a federal agent--a master in the art of disguise. The intent of my makeover wasn’t
to enhance, but to transform.
Gray, was to be no more. Indeed, I was disappearing right before my newly-browned eyes.
“Drivel,” I mumble loud enough
to stir Bronson awake. The opening paragraphs I penned months ago reek of a flippancy that didn’t do justice to the
terror at the start. Nor did they portray so much as a hint of foreshadowing at the tenderness that followed.
Forget emotions. Forget the tenderness. I promised the publisher a serious non-fiction account about my experience, not a
cozy memoir about life in a tin-roofed house surrounded by miniature horses.
I grab a
tissue and dab at my eyes, determined to refocus my attention on the beginning. How can I capture in words the magnitude of
fear that wrapped, squeezed and often still tightens its grip on me today?
not terror, raced up my spine the afternoon my editor called and asked if I could handle the exclusive interview with Governor
Manola because Jim Rothberg, originally assigned the plum, could not.
in a favorite blouse with oversized faux-pearl buttons, I rushed through my scheduled interview with a wildlife conservation
lobbyist to arrive at the Governor’s Albany mansion half an hour early.
Sattler, the Governor’s press secretary, greeted me with a handshake. “You’re early.”
A smear of peach-colored lipstick marked her
front tooth and I fought the urge to brush a finger across the slick surface of my own teeth. “I don’t mind waiting.”
She smiled. “On the contrary, the Governor will be delighted. His son’s Little League game starts in an hour.”
She led me to
the Governor’s office.
He smiled; his politico-perfect teeth mocking Julia’s. “Ms. Gray. Nice to see you again.” He stood
from his desk and shook my hand. “I understand Jim Rothberg had more pressing matters.”
I returned his smile, both in greeting and in
appreciation that he remembered me. “Yes.”
“Julia, make a note to send a gift.”
“Of course,” she said and gestured for me to sit down. “Do you know if his wife had a boy or girl?”
I set my tape recorder on his desk. “Their second.”
“Speaking of boys.” The Governor pointed to a spot beyond me.
I turned and saw the Governor’s son wearing his Little League uniform and a youthful exuberance that would do
Norman Rockwell proud.
“Hello,” I said.
The boy raced toward his father. “Are you coming to the game?”
“Ryan, I told you. I’ll be there,” the Governor said. “Now, say hello to Ms. Gray. She’s
a magazine reporter and writes a monthly column about children’s law.”
Ryan’s eyes brightened. “About kids
I smiled. “Yes, kids your age.”
The Governor winked at me. “I think you’ve
gained a f...” His focus shifted away from me and the color drained from his face.
I turned to the direction of his gaze and thought
the sports-clothed stranger standing behind Julia was the Little League coach. A
flash of silver appeared at Julia’s neck, replaced by a thin red line. Only when the line grew into a waterfall of horror
did I react.
I scrambled from my seated position and rushed forward. The assassin grabbed me from behind. He wielded his knife toward
my throat and the blade deflected off the top button of my blouse and sliced my collar bone. I dropped to my knees as my seeping
blood turned the teal color of my blouse into an ugly shade of puce. I fell to my side and watched in gruesome disbelief as
the man produced a second knife and aimed it above the number eight embossed on Ryan Manola’s uniform.
In agony, I squeezed my eyes shut. I held my
breath and willed my nostrils not to flair at the pungent odor of blood and urine that now cloaked the room. As consciousness
began to fade, I was certain the death I was faking would become reality.
As always, I have to shift my focus from the manuscript and gulp air. While a day never
passes that I don’t recall the assassination, describing it in such detail is always more draining than I expect it
reread my words, checking to see if my writing has captured the vivid voice my high school creative writing teacher had always
stressed. As a journalist for the last decade, I’ve become much more accustomed to factual no-nonsense writing, and
while I am indeed writing fact, Jannelle, the editor whose scrawled handwriting decorates this first draft, has reminded me
that even a non-fiction account must have a creative flair to it. An example of how to add creativity is to ensure all of
a reader’s senses have been provoked. Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. I think I’ve succeeded in capturing all
the senses except sound. I shut my eyes and think back to the horror of the day, searching my memory for sound. Nothing comes
and I am horrified anew to remember the silence. As the assassin turned his knife on each of us, none of us spoke. None of
us screamed. The only sound was the metallic clink of the assassin’s two knives sometimes tapping each other--a gentle
sound if heard in another place and time.
didn’t any of us shout? Why didn’t any of us scream? Why didn’t
any of us cry? I shut my eyes and allow the pain to wash over me.
I awoke in an ambulance and finally managed the
scream terror had rendered mute at the mansion… minutes ago…hours ago? I didn’t know. “No. Help
us! Somebody help!”
The medic eased me back down to the gurney. “You’re okay, but I need you to stay still.”
“You’re safe,” he said. “I promise
you, you’re safe.”
Shaking with panic, I watched him prepare a syringe. I tried to say no, but only managed to mouth the word.
Fifty-one stitches and three
units of blood later, I awoke in a hospital in Schenectady.
“What time is it?” I asked a nurse.
“Oh, no!” I tried to sit up. “I
have to pick up Bronson from daycare.”
The nurse lifted my hand from the bed and checked
my pulse. “Is there someone I can call who can pick up your son?”
“No, Bronson’s not--” I stopped. “Yes, please, call Gemma. Gemma Winthrop.”
The nurse’s soft voice revealed she was
no New York native. “The same Gemma Winthrop who writes the restaurant column for the Post?”
“Yes, my friend,” I said and recited her phone number.
“I’ll call her,” she said and
held out a plastic bag. “I think your clothes are beyond repair. Would you prefer I just throw them out?”
With a tentative reach, I took the bag from her
hand and pulled out my blouse. I gagged as my fingers touched the fabric still drenched with my blood. I wrapped my finger
around the threads of a button, ripped one of the life-saving tabs off, and handed the bag back to her. “Yes.”
feel well enough to talk to the FBI? They’re waiting outside.” She gave me a look of sympathy. “I’ll
ask if just one agent can come in, rather than the whole pack.”
“Yes, okay. That would probably be best.”
She opened my door to leave and before it swung closed I heard a man berate her for handling my clothes. My favorite
blouse was now the FBI’s blood-soaked evidence.
An exceptionally well-dressed man walked into
my room. He resembled Eddie Murphy, minus the smile. He offered his badge and no sympathy. “Agent Roy Bingham.”
a hand atop my hospital gown below my sliced clavicle and the wound throbbed in protest as he started questioning me in rapid-fire
fashion. Why wasn’t my name in the governor’s appointment book? Why had I arrived a half hour early? Why
wasn’t my wound fatal like the others?
Until that moment, I wasn’t aware I was the only survivor. I showed him the button I held in my hand as if it
Once satisfied I hadn’t conspired with the assassin, Agent Bingham’s manner gentled. “Do you think
you would recognize the assailant again?”
He left the room and came
back in minutes (or hours?) with mug shots of men the Governor prosecuted during his term as District Attorney.
I flipped through the first
your time,” he said.
I turned to page twelve and pointed to the thin-haired blond I estimated to be in his late twenties. “Him.”
sure? Study it close.”
“I don’t have to.” I shut the book so I wouldn’t have to look further at a set of eyes I knew
would haunt me forever. “That’s him.”
I expected my speed and assurance to bring a satisfied expression to Agent Bingham’s face. Instead, he looked
anyone besides your friend Gemma know you’re here?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Gemma’s husband probably does.”
“What’s his name?”
Perplexed by the urgency in Agent Bingham’s voice, mine weakened. “Adam.”
“Can you give me a list of people who knew you
were at the Governor’s mansion today?”
“Other than my editor, I wouldn’t know.”
“Is your editor someone who can be trusted?”
I couldn’t grasp what he was asking. “Trusted?”
“Trusted to keep your whereabouts a secret from the press?”
“Frank is the press. I’m the press.”
“The less people who know you’re here, the better.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
“If you can identify the assassin in a matter of seconds, he can probably identify you too.”
“Are you saying he
wasn’t caught?” The tendons in my forearms tightened in fear. “He’s still out there?”
A cold, clammy sweat smothered
my body. My heart raced and the urge to get up and run so overwhelmed me, my stomach heaved and I vomited.
Agent Bingham looked at me with disgust or embarrassment;
I couldn’t discern. Nevertheless, he awaited my answer.
With my hand pressed against my mouth, I spoke
through trembling fingers. “Yes. I trust Frank.”
Agent Bingham nodded. “Would you like me to get the nurse?”
Vomit covered my hospital gown and the ends of my hair lay in slime. “Please.”
“Security has been posted outside your
I waved him frantically away, and vomited again.
A strong sedative enabled me to sleep until a loud, grinding sound awakened me. Gemma
and Frank sat at my side.
“Where am I?” I sat up and eyed my surroundings. “I’m in a helicopter! Why am I
in a helicopter?”
“Relax,” Frank said.
Weakened from the exertion, I lay back down and looked at Gemma. She had eyeliner and mascara on one eye, but not the
other. She’d rushed when she heard. “Bronson.
Did you pick up Bronson? Is he all right?”
She shouted over the noise of the engine. “Forget about Bronson! Are you all right?”
My heart sank. “He’s still at daycare?
You didn’t pick him up?”
“For God’s sake. He’s fine! Adam picked him up.”
Baffled by Gemma’s hostility, I looked
stated what should have been obvious. “She’s worried about you.”
“Who takes their dog to daycare anyway?”
Gemma started crying.
on the edge myself, I couldn’t handle Gemma’s hysteria and focused my attention on Frank. “Where are we
FBI contacted the Attorney General,” he said. “He agreed to move you to the FBI compound in Quantico until
they make more definite plans.”
“Plans about what?”
“About where you’ll live,” Frank said. “Somewhere safe.”
“What are you talking about?”
relocated. Placed in the Witness Security Program.”
“What?” I demanded. “Who authorized this?”
“You’re not safe in New York.”
“But my life is here. My job is here. I can’t just leave.”
“I don’t see you have a choice.”
“Yes, I do! They
can’t make me leave.”
I started at the sound of Agent Bingham’s voice coming from behind me. I hadn’t realized he was in the
one’s making you leave, but we can offer better protection out of state,” he said. “You’ll be given
a new identity. A United States Marshal will provide security. You’ll receive a stipend from the government until you
find employment. You’ll--”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t want to hear this.”
“Lexie. Please!” Gemma said.
“I have a home. A dog. A husband. A--”
“I wasn’t aware you were married,” Agent Bingham said.
At the awkward realization that I inquired of my dog before my husband, I cleared my throat. “We’re separated,
but we’re working on reconciling.”
Frank snorted. “Oh, come on. You haven’t seen Perry in two months.”
I shot Frank a disarming look, annoyed at his words
and more so at his miscalculation. I hadn’t seen Perry since Thanksgiving. Three months ago. Nevertheless, in my drug-induced
state, I strangely defended a man who broke his promise of fidelity twice in four years. “He’s busy. Since he
took over the anchor spot, he barely has time to--”
“Your husband is Perry Conaway?” Agent Bingham interrupted.
My forehead beaded with
Agent Bingham’s brow furrowed. “Well, he and your dog can move too.”
Gemma’s sarcasm-coated chortle landed like a slap.
To his credit, Agent Bingham
“Lexie, be sensible,” Frank said. “The paramedic already told the press an unidentified female survived
the attack. They know you’re media because your tape recorder’s part of the crime scene. It’s only a matter
of time before this maniac--”
Alarm gripped me that Frank, a man who had spent the last two decades sniffing out news and driven to be the first
to print a story, felt my situation was grave enough to remain silent himself.
I jumped. “My car, my car’s at the
mansion! They can identify me
“Your vehicle was removed from the premises,”
Agent Bingham said.
Rather than calm me, his words defeated me. Everything
was set in motion while I slept, my life determined without my consult.
“A new vehicle will be provided once you’ve
been placed,” he said.
“I haven’t agreed to be placed.”
only witness to a triple homicide, your life is in grave danger.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s not me you’re worried about. It’s your witness you’re worried about.”
Agent Bingham’s eyes met mine in challenge.
“We’re talking about a man so diabolical he didn’t hesitate to slice the throat of a nine-year-old boy.”
His words produced a macabre snapshot and I shook
my head hard in an attempt to block the image. “It all happened so fast. It’s not like someone’s handing
him a book of mug shots to study.”
“No, but he could see this.” Frank pulled out an edition of World
Focus ever present in his coat pocket. He flipped the magazine open and slapped it in front of me.
Above my monthly column “Minor Politics”
was the photo I always thought flattering, but now looked grotesque. “That picture’s three years old. I look different
you don’t. Except for the fifteen pound weight loss, you don’t.”
At any other time, I might have been flattered.
“He’ll be caught,” Gemma said. “Then you can come back.” She turned to Agent Bingham.
“She would be able to come back, wouldn’t she? Once he’s captured and tried?”
“Maybe,” Agent Bingham said.
I remained quiet. We all remained quiet.
Frank finally broke the silence. “Think of the material you can get from this. An inside look on how the Witness
Security Program operates. An inside look at the FBI, Marshal Services. The works.”
“God, Frank!” Gemma said. “How
can you think of that at a time like this?”
I ignored Gemma, spoke to Frank with a throat parched from something other than thirst. “Keep going.”
“Once he’s captured,
I’m sure you’ll be offered a book deal. We’re talking bestseller. Fame, fortune. Riches beyond your wildest
gaze met Frank’s and I managed a smile, grateful to him for giving me a piece of normalcy in a world turned chaotic.
I believe he understood that. I believe that’s what he intended to do. Give me a purpose. A mission. An angle. A story.
A chill raced
up my arm. “What if he’s never caught?”
“He will be,” Gemma said.
“He will be,” Agent Bingham said.
I turned and looked at Agent Bingham. His eyes burned with an intensity and confidence that shouted Fed. I clutched
the button I still held in my hand and gave him a smile Gemma would later describe as vapid. “How long have you been
with the FBI? Did you say your first name’s Roy?”
And so it begins--my account of what happened after
a button saved my life.