Tyndale House Publishers
A l e x a n d r i a, V i r g i n i a
L o c a l T i m e 1 : 2 1 A. M.
Bradley Benton stared at the television for long seconds after the signal went out. His top-of-the-line satellite service had failed, leaving a snowy mess on his flat-screen TV. But that wasn't what was worrying him.
Before the set went blank, he'd been watching a basketball game. The live feed from the West Coast was just what he'd hoped for—a tough match between the Lakers and the Knicks. Then, with two seconds remaining, the score tied and the ball in the air looking like it might just sail into the net for three points that would give the game to the Lakers, the unimaginable happened. Both Laker forwards disappeared from the court.
Their uniforms and shoes fell to the floor in crumpled heaps. A couple of eerie seconds passed as the other players reacted, skidding to a stop in horrified disbelief. The unnatural sudden silence in the capacity crowd allowed the squeak of a tennis shoe on the boards to be picked up by the broadcast mikes.
The camera zoomed in on the Lakers guard who stood staring at his teammates' uniforms where they lay on the floor in impossible silence. A slight movement near the guard's feet caught the cameraman's attention, and he zoomed to the floor where a single gold wedding ring, once worn by one of the forwards, rolled along the boards until it bumped into the guard's shoe and rattled to a stop. The noise seemed unnaturally loud in the huge arena, but it seemed to galvanize the stunned crowd.
The spectators began to murmur, then cried out in disbelief as their shock gave way to realization. As the camera had panned from the missing players to the sellout crowd in the Staples Center, Brad saw the panic level beginning to rise. The realization hit Brad that over a third of the crowd was missing as well. Empty seats in what had been a packed arena were everywhere—as clearly visible to the camera as to the crowd in the stands. Thousands of people had disappeared, leaving crumpled piles of clothing, dropped sodas and beers, spilled popcorn, and all sorts of other belongings behind.
As Brad watched, the spectators' disbelief became hysteria. What looked like a riot erupted in the stands as people began to search for their missing friends and relatives.
Then the broadcast cut off abruptly.
Brad sat and stared. Just stared. Stunned, disbelieving, shocked. He watched the static on his screen, waiting for the picture to return. After long seconds, he punched a few buttons on the remote. Nothing. Frowning, Brad punched the buttons harder. Something in his brain told him it would do no good, but an unknown reflex kept his fingers moving over the controls. He needed answers. Fast. What in the world was happening?
When the red phone on his living-room desk rang, Brad jumped. It wasn't that he was startled by the sound. The knowledge that what he had just witnessed on his now-defunct television wasn't a figment of his imagination was what jolted him. He wasn't dreaming. There could be only one reason that red phone was ringing right now. On the third ring, he lunged for the phone. As White House chief of staff, he was used to taking calls at all hours, but something told him that this summons would be worse than any he'd experienced in the two years he'd worked at the White House.
"Benton," he said into the receiver.
"Situation Room. Status Eagle," came the response.
"Understood." Too worried even to curse, Brad slammed down the receiver and reached for the cordless phone on his desk. He punched the speed dial for his home in California. The rapid busy signal indicated the phone system was too cluttered to allow his call to go through. He tried the number again. This time a tinny voice said, "Your call did not go through. Please try again later."
Nearly frantic now, Brad grabbed his jacket and his cell phone. He'd continue trying to reach his wife on his way to the White House. He prayed that whatever had happened in the Staples Center hadn't affected Christine and the kids. It couldn't have—it couldn't have happened at all, even in the arena. It was all an illusion. His family was safe. He had to believe that.
But Brad wouldn't feel better until he spoke with his wife.
And the gnawing fear in the pit of his stomach was getting worse.
Twenty minutes later, after a nightmare ride through the streets of D.C., dodging crashed cars and cabs and stunned tourists and wild-eyed government employees roving the streets, Brad was sitting in the Situation Room of the White House, located securely underground in the heart of the historic building. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger and tried to ignore the agitated thumping of the secretary of agriculture's designer pen on her White House notepad. His eyes felt gritty and his chest hurt.
His irritation at the late hour and the command-performance meeting had given way to cold terror once he saw the streets of the city. Whatever happened out there in L.A. wasn't a dream or an isolated incident. D.C. clearly had been hit, too. Hit hard, if what Brad had seen on the way here was any indication.
Now, as reports poured into this top-level meeting from around the country, Brad was forced to accept that the phenomenon was nationwide. His assistant was still trying to reach Christine. She'd promised to send him word as soon as she got through to his wife. Brad was praying on a moment-by-moment basis, whenever he could take his attention off the meeting going on around him. Please, Lord, he prayed, let them be safe. Ruthlessly, he ignored the voice in his head that told him that since he hadn't spoken to the Almighty in years, the Almighty might not have time for him right now. Christine was a devout, loving, God-fearing woman. God would have time for Christine, Brad told himself.
Brad was jerked from his reverie when the president brought his fist down on the polished table and roared at his hastily assembled cabinet and staff. He swore as he looked sharply at Edward Leyton, the secretary of defense. "Why didn't we know this was coming, Ed?" President Gerald Fitzhugh said. "Just what has the CIA been doing for the past ten years that we didn't know this was coming?"
Leyton cleared his throat. "We don't know if we've been attacked yet, Mr. President," he said. "I think we should reserve judgment—"
"Of course we've been attacked," the president barked. "We're missing millions of people. The phone lines are down, airplanes are falling out of the sky, we can't determine who's minding the shop at 90 percent of our nuclear power facilities, and we can't get a definitive answer on who's watching our missile sites. Not to mention the collateral damage to civilians. Did you look out the windows on your way here? It's a nightmare out there. If we haven't been attacked, what in the blazes do you think has happened?"
No one around the large table spoke. The president surged from his chair with a dark curse and began to pace. Charley Swelder—chief policy advisor to the president and the man widely believed to have orchestrated Fitzhugh's rise to power—leaned back in his chair. The chair groaned, drawing the attention of the other occupants in the room. In his characteristically steely tone, Swelder told the secretary, "Someone dropped the ball, Ed. Whether it's your intel or the CIA, somebody dropped the ball."
Ed Leyton scowled. "I'm not taking the fall for this."
"Then find someone who is," Swelder said flatly.
The ultimatum unleashed the barely contained tension in the room. As the president looked out the window, staring at the blazing skyline, Brad glanced at the faces of the group around the table. Three cabinet members were missing. Though the secretary of labor's and the secretary of education's absences were notable in light of the type of crisis they now faced, the absence of George Ramiro, the White House press secretary, bordered on disastrous. Already members of the White House press corps were assembling on the lawn demanding answers.
Without George, whose expert handling of the media and seemingly endless supply of patience and charm had defused several potential scandals for the Fitzhugh administration, this situation could easily become a political bloodbath. The American public was going to demand answers, and if the president couldn't give them decisively, swiftly, and coherently, every political hound in the country would go for his throat.
Brad liked George, had, in fact, discovered that George was one of the few members of the Fitzhugh staff he both trusted and respected. George had come to Washington believing Fitzhugh was a modern-day savior for the country's beleaguered social ills. Somehow, George had managed not to lose his effectiveness, his idealism, or his self-respect as his opinion of his boss had been slowly and severely battered in a storm of scandals and lackluster leadership. George had been largely instrumental in the president's decision to bring Brad to Washington as his new chief of staff. Brad knew that without George, handling the media would be tricky. The White House press corps had shown a decided distrust of President Fitzhugh, and at a time like this, they weren't going to be put off in their demand for answers.
Brad could hardly blame them.
The sight he had witnessed on the television at the Staples Center had been only the iceberg tip of a nightmare stream of impossible disappearances. From all over the country, seemingly endless reports were pouring into the White House. People were missing everywhere. Millions, maybe even hundreds of millions, of people had apparently vanished into thin air.
According to the radio news, media theories about the disappearances currently ranged from government experiments to alien invasions. A few insiders and pundits were already floating the idea that the White House had been hiding information for some time about whatever weapon of mass destruction had caused the catastrophe.
Brad almost wished that were true. If the White House, the DOD, and U.S. intelligence had known this might happen, they'd have a plan for diffusing it or answering it.
Here at the White House, the theory most widely held seemed to be that terrorists had developed a new and shocking weapon—one that could vaporize victims at random. The United States had been engaged in a self-declared "war on terrorism" for some time now, and the stakes had continued to escalate as a handful of Middle Eastern governments had toppled. Though most of the world's leaders supported the position of the United States, they were hesitant to offer that support publicly. Difficult economic circumstances at home, sparked in large part by rapidly increasing oil prices from the OPEC nations affected most severely by the continuing conflict, made foreign involvement unpopular in most of the European and Asian nations. Even onetime close allies of the U.S. had been reserved in recent years.
It wasn't difficult to believe that one of the nations with access to billions in oil money, a vast array of weapons from the former Soviet Union, and the help of several former Soviet scientists and military strategists could have developed a weapon devastating enough to vaporize a large portion of the population.
Brad, however, had another theory, a theory that had him literally shivering as he waited, agonized, for some kind of word from his wife. Every call that came into the Sit Room announcing the disappearance of another world leader or major figure or personal friend of someone seated at the table twisted his gut into knots. His head throbbed, and he was gripping his pen so hard his fingertips were numb.
Had the disappearances been limited to the U.S., the terrorism theory might have been believable. The American people were certainly terrorized by what was going on. While the U.S. had experienced a greater number of disappearances than many other nations, there were reports of entire communities wiped out by the disaster. In China, nearly ten thousand suspected dissidents, all members of the rapidly growing evangelical movement, were missing. South America had experienced devastating losses, while many European and Middle Eastern nations remained relatively untouched.
As it became apparent that the disappearances were worldwide, Brad began to suspect that he knew what had really happened. The pieces of the puzzle were falling slowly together into a frightening image. In his mind, he could hear the echoes of Sunday mornings spent in his mother's church in his South Carolina hometown.
The Second Coming. The Rapture. End times. The prophecies of fire and brimstone the preacher had thundered from the pulpit week after week in the accent of the deep South had seemed angry and threatening to Brad's young ears. He'd learned to tune out the man's rhetoric and concentrate on flirting with the girls from his Sunday school class.
But his mother had never given up hope of persuading Brad that the end was at hand, even though he had come to believe that the end was much more likely to come in the form of a nuclear attack than a supernatural intervention by God. As Brad had risen to political prominence, his mother had urged him to remember his roots, to be a force for God in the political arena. She believed that God was preparing Brad to effect change. Brad had never made promises to his mother, but he'd allowed her to believe that his religious convictions were stronger than they were.
Certainly, on the surface, Brad looked like a textbook believer. He'd married Christine Leon, the daughter of a Baptist minister. He and his wife had three teenage children, all of whom were active in their church youth group. He was a trustee of his church in California. He'd been a deacon, a member of the pastoral search committee, and a frequent speaker at business meetings and important gatherings of the church.
Brad's only regret had been that his mother had not lived to see him become chief of staff for President Fitzhugh. She'd died the year before from a massive stroke.
Under fire from conservative religious groups after his then Chief of Staff had resigned at the height of a sex scandal, the president had tapped Brad for the job. Despite his personal feelings about Gerald Fitzhugh's ethics, politics, and agenda, Brad had recognized the opportunity as indispensable to his own political aspirations. His wife, his friends, and his colleagues had all encouraged him to make the move to Washington.
Now, sitting in the White House in a meeting about what was developing into the darkest hour in the history of the United States—perhaps even the world—Brad wished he could consult his mother for her wisdom. He knew precisely what she'd say. He knew what his wife, Christine, would say. Increasingly, as the evidence mounted, Brad began to believe that his conversation with Christine before the basketball game tonight might well have been his last with her.
If his suspicions were correct, no weapon had caused this disaster. This had not been an invasion, an alien abduction, a natural disaster, a hostile strike by a terrorist nation, a government experiment gone wrong, or any of the dozens of possible causes being offered around the table by the most powerful men and women in the United States.
No, this was the stuff that a small-town Southern preacher had prophesied and Brad had rejected.
God had raptured His church.
He had left the unbelievers behind in a world now ruled by evil.
The time of tribulation was at hand.
Brad broke out in a cold sweat as he considered the implications. Though he couldn't remember precisely what all the prophecies were, he did recall predictions of death, pestilence, famines, and a host of other horrors that were supposed to follow in the wake of the Rapture. He'd generally tuned out sermons on the topic, choosing instead to believe the prophecies were not to be taken literally.
Now, he wasn't so sure.
As the president paced the large room, he was demanding that someone develop a reasonable media response. No matter what had caused the disappearances, Fitzhugh wasn't going to take responsibility for it—especially not with a midterm election looming and control of both houses of Congress at stake.
Brad looked at the haggard and drawn faces of his colleagues and made a rapid decision: under no circumstances could he afford to express his belief that what had happened tonight was a supernatural event. Something done by the hand of God. At best, he'd be ridiculed. At worst, Fitzhugh would use the pretense of an immensely unpopular theory as an excuse to exclude Brad from the decision-making processes in the days to come.
And Brad had the unshakable belief that the events of this night were only the beginning of something much worse.
The Rapture had come, and Bradley Benton and everyone in this room had been left behind to face the Tribulation.
God help us all. …