Episode 149 – Mark and Sharon Make Up

Sharon continued her avoidance maneuver the next day as both parties got arranged in the small buses and SUVs that would take them out to the village where the newest well had been built.

It was a full day’s ride out to the village, and it was almost dark by the time the group arrived. The villagers had prepared a welcoming party with dancing and music around a roaring fire. There was a small banquet and Michael took great pains to explain to the reporters and the President’s party that because of the new well, the villagers were able to grow enough food to host the party.

After that, the party grew relaxed and noisy. Sharon noticed that Mark had slipped away. She found him at the edge of the huts, gazing into the night sky.

“It’s usually me who takes off for a breather,” she said, quietly.

Mark turned his head to look at her, then shrugged. “I suppose we should change it up occasionally. Besides, I had some business to do.”

“Oh, dear.” Sharon backed away. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“I’m done.” Mark’s gaze went back to the sky. “I was just appreciating the quiet for a moment.”

Sharon waited for a moment. “Are we okay?”

“I don’t know. It’s been a rocky week.” Mark glanced back at her, then sighed. “I just can’t help wondering what else you haven’t told me in the cause of plausible deniability.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“The worst of it is, I know damn well Warmonger has been playing that game with me, and I made it clear from the start that I don’t want anyone hiding stuff or whatever for any reason, especially that one.”

Sharon frowned. “You did? I don’t recall you saying anything about that.”

“I did. At the very first Advisory Board meeting.” Mark stopped. “Which you weren’t at.”

“Still, I suppose I could have figured it out that’s not your style.” Sharon said. She took a deep breath. “The irony is, I have a terrible time getting some of my CIA contacts to tell me things because they know I’ll turn right around and tell you. Makes it damned hard to get you good information.”

“I’ve got to trust you, Sharon,” Mark said.

“I know. I didn’t think I was breaking faith. But I’m sure that doesn’t help.”

It was Mark’s turn to frown. “It does and it doesn’t.”

“So what do we do if something similar comes up, where the only way I can get the right intel is to give you plausible deniability?”

“I can’t imagine…” Mark shook his head. “You know what? It’s going to happen again. Silly me. I keep thinking I’m in control of this game.”

“You are, at least in terms of the big picture. It’s some of the minor skirmishes that are the issue.” Sharon walked a little closer. “I think the idea will be to let you know there’s something going on along those lines and see if you think it’s dire enough that it’s worth playing along.”

“That’s reasonable. I hate it, but it’s reasonable.”

“And now that I know the policy, I promise not to make those kinds of decisions without checking in with you, first.”

“Thanks.” Mark smiled softly at her. Once again, he felt his breath catch at the sight of her, her brown eyes glistening in the starlight, her voice soft and low. He looked up again, not wanting to feel what he was feeling. “It’s something else out here, isn’t it?”

“It’s beautiful.” Sharon smiled. “It’s my first time out in the bush. It’s austere, but it is gorgeous.”

Music and laughter roared from the fire ring. Sharon looked back at the group.

“Um, I don’t know if I should be asking this, but…” She bit her lower lip. “Things have been pretty tense between you and my brother. Did he say something?”

“No, he hasn’t.” Mark ducked his head. “That may have been my fault. I just got this vibe that he was going to go all protective on me and I probably over-reacted.”

Sharon shot a quick glare back at the fire. “Hm. He didn’t exactly under-react. I think I’ve got an older brother to thump.”

“We’d better get back,” Mark said suddenly. “And, uh, I’m glad we had this chat. I feel better.”

Sharon nodded, smiling softly to herself and Mark strode back to the party. Even as she was glad he’d pulled away at that moment, having him so distant had felt even worse. She didn’t need either feeling. She lingered a few minutes longer and was just about to turn back to the party when she heard someone coming toward her.

Episode 148 – Things Get Still More Awkward

The public part of the meeting with Carla went off smoothly. But as soon as the cameras were gone and Sharon, Carla and June were sequestered in Sharon’s hotel room, there were tears, screams and generous hugs.

“Are you all right?” Sharon gasped. “I mean, obviously everything went okay, but how are you doing?”

“I’ve been better,” Carla said. “And I’ve been worse, too. But I’m here and Daddy didn’t need his frickin’ commandos after all.”

June snorted. “Believe it or not, they helped. Trust me, my brother was seriously pissed off about the whole thing.”

“Oh, no,” Carla said.

“He’ll get over it,” said June. “The important thing is that you’re okay.”

Sharon smiled and nodded, but she was not nearly as confident as June that the President would “get over it.” In fact, Sharon had a bad feeling that she knew what was bugging Mark, but had no idea how to broach the subject with him, assuming things were not irreparably messed up between them.

She didn’t have long to dwell on it, however. There was another press conference scheduled just before dinner to document the president and Michael Wheatly meeting each other. It was supposed to have been a simple smile and shake hands for the cameras kind of thing. And the two men, indeed, smiled pleasantly and posed while flash units went off. But as soon as they departed to an inner room in the Nairobi hotel, tension filled the air. The two men retreated to opposite sides of the room, neither really glaring at the other, but it sure seemed like they wanted to get into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

“Oh my god,” June murmured to Sharon. “It’s like a couple of male dogs about to fight each other or something.”

Sharon nodded, wedging the middle knuckle of her left forefinger in between her teeth. Inez Santiago, Michael’s life partner, just patted Sharon on the back before picking up her camera to keep shooting. Sharon wondered which party she was supposed to stand with, but in the end, it didn’t matter. A casual dinner was served and even if the president and the rock star managed to stay well away from each other, neither seemed to notice or mind that Sharon was avoiding both of them.

Episode 147 – The Trip Continues

The visit to Johannisberg went off as planned. The government there was far more friendly to the U.S., and there was even some sympathy regarding Carla’s dilemma. The only hitch was that her escape was announced a day before it was supposed to be. Carla’s father had hired two Australian commandos to rescue his daughter. Bantu later told Sharon that the commandos were perfectly happy to pretend to rescue Carla to further divert suspicion from the U.S. President’s party.

For Mark, it was a difficult three days, never mind that the South African government had pulled out all the stops to see to it that the American party was well entertained. The talks were friendly and relaxed. There was a brief tour of a diamond mine, then another to a wildlife preserve and finally, an extended tasting from several of the South African wineries. Mark put on his best game face, but he still felt uncomfortable around Sharon. The odd thing was, even though he knew what was bugging him, he had no idea how to broach the subject with her.

Things got decidedly worse when the party reached Nairobi, Kenya. There was the happy reunion with Carla to deal with, which for Mark only rubbed the salt in his wound. And a special trip into the bush had been planned with none other than rock star Michael Wheatly. Or as Sharon knew him, her older brother. Mark had agreed to the trip because the Kenyan government wanted to show off how well it was working with Non-Governmental Organizations to improve things for those living in the country’s more remote areas. But given Mark’s usual feelings for Sharon and how confused those feelings were at that moment, Mark was not at all sure meeting up with Sharon’s brother was a good idea.

Michael Wheatly had been working with a group building wells to provide clean water to remote villages. He’d planned the trip the previous winter as a press event to get publicity for the group’s efforts. When the U.S. President accepted the Kenyans’ invitation to visit, the Kenyans, apparently unaware of Sharon’s relationship, asked Michael to include Mark and his party. So that had been arranged for some time. Matt and Rebecca were looking forward to meeting Jodi’s father, Michael, even if Jodi was still in the States. Mark had been looking forward to meeting Sharon’s brother, in theory. But then Nigeria had happened. As Air Force One touched down in Nairobi, Mark resigned himself to more days of being pleasant and friendly even when he wasn’t feeling either. First there were the talks with the Kenyan government, then the big press conference celebrating Carla’s safe arrival in Kenya. At least, June was taking the lead for that event.

Episode 146 – Mark Gets Angry

Fortunately, Bantu, who would be staying behind to continue negotiations, briefed Mark on the situation while June and Sharon got Carla on the helicopter in question. There were four U.S. transport copters. The press corps traveling with the president were loaded on two, with the rest of the president’s party loaded on the other two. Mark didn’t even notice that one of the helicopters – the one carrying June, Matt and Carla – took off from the Embassy rooftop before his.

In fact, Mark didn’t notice that Carla was on board Air Force One until the plane was halfway to their next stop, Johannisberg. But when he did, he was not happy.

June saw Mark motioning Sharon into the on-board office and followed quickly.

“It’s not Sharon’s fault,” June said as she burst in.

Mark glared at her. “June, this isn’t about blame. It is about our relations in a complex and difficult situation.”

“Sir,” Sharon cut in. “We were told by a CIA representative that they needed to get Carla out of the country quietly. She referred to Al as Warmonger, so we figured he was trying to tell us to go along with it. I didn’t like going behind your back, but Al apparently said that plausible deniability was critical in this case.”

“But you don’t know why.” Mark was standing, his arms folded across his chest as if he was trying to hold in his anger.

“I can think of a lot of reasons why,” Sharon said.

“Convenient for your friend,” Mark said, his voice tight.

“Mark!” June snapped. “That’s not fair or kind.”

“I wasn’t going to leave her out to dry.” Mark started pacing. “But you two couldn’t have trusted me to take care of it?”

“Who said we weren’t trusting you?” June argued back. “We saw an a good opportunity and took it. Maybe we were trying to keep you out of trouble. Did that ever occur to you?”

“How do you even know this person was CIA?”

“She knew Al’s nickname,” said Sharon. “That’s not common knowledge. Plus it didn’t seem like anyone else would want to set things up this way. It got Carla out of Nigeria discreetly, and you can honestly say you had nothing to do with it. Yeah, maybe I am personally involved in this, but it sure looked like a win-win from my perspective. Not to mention, it lets the Nigerian government off the hook regarding negotiations and a trial.”

Mark frowned. “I suppose. But how do we get her off the plane without anyone noticing?”

“She’ll stay on the plane after we all disembark,” June said. “I’ve already confirmed with the crew that they’ll get her to the liaison, who’ll put her on another flight to Kenya and we’ll all meet up in Nairobi.”

“Bantu is going to stay on in Lagos for a couple more days, then announce that Carla escaped,” Sharon said. “He’ll meet us in Nairobi, as well. Fortunately, there aren’t as many issues with the South African government these days.”

Mark nodded. “I’m still not happy about this.”

“I understand, sir.”

“All right. You may go.”

June and Sharon left the office.

Episode 145 – A Interesting Visitor

“I do not understand how they can seriously believe that we would turn over one of our own,” June complained to Sharon that evening after the Americans had gone back to the embassy for the night.

“They probably don’t,” Sharon said, her voice calm in spite of her roiling stomach.

Sharon, June and Carla were sitting in the bedroom June had been given, drinking wine and eating stale crackers as all of them were too keyed up to think about sleeping. Even though the president’s party would be leaving the next morning, a negotiating team from the American embassy would continue working on Carla’s release.

Sharon took a deep breath. “Bantu says that they have to make a good faith effort to get Carla to stand trial for inciting rebellion. And I definitely got the impression they were hoping we wouldn’t give in, since they don’t want to have that kind of trial on their hands. Extremists aside, most of the government wants good relations with us because of the oil money. The trick will be getting Carla out of the country without it looking like we helped her. Or that the president helped her.”

There was a soft knock on the door and Terry Wilkins popped her head in.

“Ms. Jerguessen, is Ms. Danford -” Terry smiled. “You’re here, Ms. Danford. Perfect. Ms. Jergessen, we may have a solution to the issue of getting Ms. Danford out of the country quietly.”

“You do?” June jumped up from the side of the bed where she’d been sitting.

“I don’t,” Terry said. “But, well, may I show someone in?”

June glanced at Sharon and Carla. “Yes. Please.”

The woman who slid into the room had the dark, dark skin of a native African. She was of medium height and build and Sharon realized that she’d seen the woman working among the clerical staff at the embassy.

“You don’t need to know my name,” the woman said, her voice deep and rich and perfectly American. “As far as you are concerned, I’m just another secretary.”

“But you’re not,” said Carla.

“Let’s just say that my bosses in Langley, Virginia, want to see Ms. Danford out of the country perhaps even more than you do,” the woman replied with a smile. “But we can’t tell the president. In fact, Ms. Wheatly, I would rather you weren’t even here.”

“Too late,” Sharon said, grimly. “I’m staying.”

“Then as your party leaves tomorrow morning, Ms. Wheatly, you must make sure that the president is distracted enough that he does not see who all is getting on the third helicopter,” the woman said.

“I think I can manage that,” Sharon said.

“He’s not going to like that,” June said.

“We know about the president’s preferences.” The woman looked at Sharon. “Unfortunately, this is not merely about Ms. Danford. We need to get her out of this country to protect someone else and the president cannot know. But Warmonger said to tell you that in this case, plausible deniability is critical.”

“Warmonger?” June asked.

“Al Eddington,” Sharon said. She glanced over at Carla. “He’s the military and intelligence advisor on the Advisory Board. He does a lot with the CIA.”

“I don’t get it,” Carla said. “What have I got to do with protecting somebody?”

“I can’t say,” the woman said. She looked at June and Sharon. “Just please see to it that Ms. Danford is on that helicopter and that the president does not know that she has joined your party until you are in the air and preferably outside of Nigerian airspace.”

The woman withdrew silently.

“Well, that was creepy,” Carla said after a pause.

“There’s a reason why Al refers to the CIA as spooks.” Sharon got up and started pacing.

“At least we’re leaving tomorrow,” June said. “So we won’t have to play Mark for that long.”

“I don’t want to play him at all,” Sharon grumbled. She frowned. “Maybe I should call Al.”

“What if that alerts the bad guys?” June asked. “We don’t know how secure the lines are around here.”

Sharon sighed. “True. And she wouldn’t have referred to him as Warmonger if he hadn’t told her to.”

“You know, I can stay and take my chances with the negotiating team,” Carla said.

Sharon shook her head. “Something doesn’t feel right here, but I think it’s best to do what that woman suggested. There’s always something going on that we don’t know about. You’d think they’d make sure the president does, but that doesn’t always happen and it does usually happen for the best.”

None of the three women entirely believed what Sharon had said, but there seemed to be little alternative. The easiest way out was to get Carla out of Nigeria without it looking like the president and his party had helped her.

Episode 144 – The Arrival in Nigeria

Sharon spent most of the flight to Lagos, Nigeria, pacing and worrying. She had tried repeatedly to connect to her friend Carla Danford, but with no response. Finally, about an hour before Air Force One’s scheduled landing, Mark called Sharon into his office on the place.

“You don’t know that the terrorists have her,” he pointed out as Sharon continued to pace. “There haven’t been any ransom demands.”

“Except that I don’t think this is about ransom,” Sharon said, her voice rising in pitch despite her best efforts to keep it calm. She swallowed back her fear. “It’s more likely about her corrupting the women. The men in her office were taken to the airport and let go. Carla’s just straight up missing.”

“Well, that could be a good sign.” Mark sighed. “Look. I understand that you’re worried and I’m not saying you don’t have cause. But I need you to pull it together. It’s not going to help the talks with the Nigerians or Carla, for that matter, if you’re too messed up to concentrate.”

Sharon swallowed. “Yes, sir. You’re right.”

Mark reached over and gently held her by the elbow. “I want you to know that I’m concerned for her, too. We just really have to keep our heads on straight. That’ll be her best chance. We get the talks going well, then we’ll hopefully get the army on board with finding her. If we don’t get the government on board, then it’s just going to be that much harder to make things happen.”

“I know.” Sharon sniffed back a tear. She took a deep breath. “I’ll be fine. Thank you for helping me get calm.”

The talk didn’t help entirely. Sharon remained skittish and nervous as the plane landed and U.S. military helicopters took the presidential party to the U.S. embassy – the situation being considered too tense and dangerous for the President to stay in a local hotel. Several extremist groups were operating in the country, with the result that ongoing skirmishes between the different groups had left the city reeling with the violence.

The Presidential party was somewhat larger than normal. In addition to Sharon’s Africa expert Bantu Imaji, a young man born and mostly raised in Kenya, there was the President’s entourage, which also included Matt and Rebecca Cooper and Rebecca’s father, Eddie. June had decided to join the party, as well, and had her secretary, Terry Wilkins, along. Wilkins was an African American woman of indeterminate age. But she had been a former model and carried her slender figure with grace and assurance. The group was rounded out by an extra battery of Secret Service and regular Army and Marine guards.

June was just as worried about Carla as Sharon was, which didn’t help. The presence of the extra armed personnel should have been reassuring, but it only underscored the need for the extra armed personnel. Sharon found herself cringing on the roof of the embassy and didn’t really stand up straight until she got inside. The group met in the embassy ballroom, a grand open space decorated in Baroque elegance, which didn’t hide the fact that the windows along one wall were blacked out. Rooms were assigned and as the group dispersed to find theirs, Sharon stopped.

A lone, tall, thin woman with full kinky hair waited at the door to the ballroom.

“Carla!” Sharon shrieked. She abandoned all decorum and ran straight for her friend.

“Carla?” June also ran toward the woman.

Sharon enveloped Carla in a tight hug. “Are you all right? I couldn’t get a hold of you and I was scared to death!”

“We both were,” yipped June as she joined the two others.

“I’m fine,” Carla was finally able to gasp. “It was pretty scary, but I’m okay.”

“What happened?” Sharon asked. “You were there on Facebook one minute and then I couldn’t get a hold of you. And we heard about the office and they let the others go, but you weren’t there.”

“I was on my phone when we were chatting,” Carla said, still trembling. “I was out on the street, heading for the office when I saw the terrorists running into the building. Masked men with guns. I kind of figured they weren’t up to any good, so I went home only to find out there was a fatwa on my head, particularly. I’m the only woman there and I’m the one stirring up the women in the villages. So I’m the one they most wanted. I got out of my place as fast as I could and came here. The CIA didn’t want me to let anyone know I was here, just in case.”

“Thank God you’re okay,” sighed June. “When Sharon told me, I nearly had a heart attack.”

“I’m with you there,” Carla said. “The hard part will be finding a way to get me out of the country without alerting the terrorists.”

“Why?” Sharon asked. “The government can’t be supporting them.”

“But they are trying to build bridges with the different groups.” Carla shrugged. “So they’re thinking I would make a nice sacrificial lamb.”

“Not if we can help it,” said June.

“No way,” said Sharon.

Carla smiled weakly. She didn’t doubt the American party had some pull with the Nigerian government. Far too much U.S. money was flowing into the country thanks to oil interests for the government to be too anxious to piss off the Americans. But there were also the extremist groups, which also held a fair amount of sway, especially since they were Nigerians and had good reason to resent foreign influences.

All of which made the talks the next morning particularly tense. Sharon held herself together, and while it wasn’t obvious to anyone else, Mark could see that she was struggling. Meanwhile June quickly tired of playing nice and developed a sudden “headache,” and went to hide back in the embassy

Episode 143 – A Scary Chat

Facebook Chat

Carla: Hey, Sharon. Looks like everything’s set on our end.

Sharon: Great. We appreciate the help.

Carla: I can’t wait for you guys to get here. It’s been so frickin’ tense lately.

Sharon: It hasn’t gotten any better?

Carla: Why do you think I agreed to do June’s intervention. Trust me, that was a picnic compared to here.

Sharon: Oh goodie.

Carla: The government wants to look good, so they’ve put the clamps down on the militia groups – not that I like how they’re doing it. But it does mean it’s been safer on the streets.

Carla: Uh-oh.

Sharon: What?

Sharon: Carla? You there?

Episode 142 – Paul Marley is Worried

Back in his dorm room at St. Ignatius Preparatory School, Paul Marley pressed his lips together, trying not to cry. He didn’t want the other guys to catch on that he was terrified. He wished desperately that he was back in the small, but elegant apartment he usually shared with his mother, a senator from Georgia. But she was back in Georgia for the August break and had arranged for Paul to stay at the school while she was gone so that he could work out with the football team. His dad was back in Georgia, too, busy coaching the local high school team he’d coached since before Paul was born. His parents had divorced, although they barely acknowledged that they were separated. Paul and his mother spent most of their time in Washington, DC.

Up until the previous January, Paul had never questioned playing football. It was just something he did because it was expected of him. His father was a coach. His older brothers had played. Now, it was his turn. Until that idiot Ralston had missed his block and Paul had almost suffocated under four 300-pound defensive linemen.

One expected to get hit. It was a rough game. And it was hardly the first time Paul had gotten a concussion while playing. But that sensation of not being able to breathe and then blacking out – that was terrifying. Paul was not a small person. Even with some growing still to do, he was already a very muscular six feet plus, with a round, mischievous face and short blond hair.

Paul’s mother had told him he didn’t have to play, and Paul had happily skipped spring training. Problem was, his father found out and when Paul went to visit earlier that summer, his father made it plain that he was expected to shake the injury off and play. Which Paul did, unhappily, but he did.

It looked like things were going to work out, what with Matt Jerguessen joining the team. Paul’s father could hardly complain when Paul got demoted to second string when someone as good as Matt was around. Then Matt got his ass kicked off because he wanted to go to Africa with his uncle.

Paul took a deep breath. It was all Matt’s fault. And it certainly felt better being angry at him than quaking with terror inside. Yep. It was definitely Matt’s fault and Paul was going to find a way to get him back.

Episode 141 – So Much for Football

Matt did decide to try out for the team and early the next morning, he headed off, his Secret Service team in tow. He spent the day working out with the team and proclaimed how sore he was that evening at dinner with his uncle.

Mark grinned. “I told you not to stay on your backside all summer.”

Matt rolled his eyes. He was busy eating – more like gobbling – the feast White House Chef Yasmine Sollet had prepared. There was a whole roasted chicken, potatoes, carrots, broccoli and a salad. Like most boys his age, Matt could, and usually did, consume a goodly amount of food. But the day’s activity had kicked his appetite into overdrive and he had already cleaned his plate twice and was munching through the third quarter of the chicken.

“I’d just be even more sore,” Matt said, around a mouthful of potatoes. “Coach is, like, really tough on us. He was in everybody’s face, yelling and spitting. Man, if it weren’t for the other guys, I’d probably have left.”

“You like them?”

“Yeah. They’re a pretty good group. Especially Paul. He’s really cool. Does this sleight of hand thing.” Matt looked over the table. “You gonna eat the rest of that broccoli?”

Mark pushed the dish toward him. “Help yourself.”

“Thanks.” Matt scooped the florets onto his plate. “Anyway, a lot of the guys, they’re pretty much your garden-variety idiots. But Paul’s smart. So’s Deshawn. Although I don’t know how much longer Deshawn is going to be on the team. Coach got in his face more than anyone and some of it got borderline ugly. Deshawn said he doesn’t have to take that kind of crap, especially since his mother doesn’t want him playing football. But he’s an awesome running back.”

“Really. Do you know what position you’ll be playing?”

“First-string quarterback.” Matt struck a pose. “I’m taking Paul’s place.”

“And he’s okay with that?”

Matt shrugged. “He seems to be. Deshawn told me that Paul got his bell rung pretty badly at the end of last season and he skipped spring training. Then since he came back this summer, he’s been playing super careful. Paul said he was glad he didn’t have to listen to Coach yelling at him.”

“Sounds like your coach is an intense kind of guy. Is he okay with you taking off for the Africa trip?”

“I asked him and he said okay.” Matt looked over the table, hoping to find something else to eat.

Unfortunately, near the end of the following week, when Matt reminded the Coach that he was leaving for Lagos, Nigeria the next day, it became very obvious that Coach Helmsley wasn’t okay with the trip.

“He screamed at me for five solid minutes, Uncle Mark!” Matt paced his uncle’s study. “I swear, I thought my Secret Service guys were going to come after him.”

Mark, who had heard a similar report from the security detail earlier, nodded. “You did ask him about the trip, didn’t you?”

“Only every day. I swear, Uncle Mark. I did. He kept saying okay.”

“Well, according to the school, he can be a little hard of hearing.”

Matt rolled his eyes. “He can hear plenty good when he wants to. Ask Deshawn about that. He heard Deshawn whispering from behind a bank of lockers. That’s when Deshawn walked. I almost walked then, myself.”

“Well, the school says you can still play if you want.”

“Are you kidding?” Matt shrieked. “No way! I am done. That guy’s a psycho. I don’t want to play under that! He’s a total do-”

“Matthew, you know how I feel about that word.”

“Well, he is.” Matt looked over at his uncle with a guilty frown. “You’re not going to say I have to, are you?”

“No.” Mark folded his arms. “I think you should have checked things out a little more thoroughly before you committed to playing. But now you know. Lesson learned. Let’s move on.”

“Thanks, Uncle Mark. I’m sorry it got so screwed up. But I did tell him.”

“I’m sure you did. Now, let’s go get dinner.”

Episode 140 – Matt Thinks Over a Decision

And as it turned out, Ginger and Kickie weren’t the only surprise. Shalla, the tall, black short-hair, decided she liked hanging around the West Wing and was as likely to be snoozing in one of the offices there as she was in her kennel. Staff had been warned not to feed her and to keep an alert eye on any office snacks since Shalla was perfectly capable of pulling food off of desks and would sometimes snatch a tidbit from someone’s hand. And while most of the staff was perfectly happy to welcome Shalla to their cubicles with pats and smiles, there was the odd staff member who either had allergies or just wasn’t that fond of dogs. Sharon’s second secretary, Dianne Bowen, was afraid of dogs, in general, and was out and out terrified of the very large Shalla.

“Which is ridiculous,” pointed out Sharon’s first secretary, Julie, a few days after the dogs had arrived.

She and Sharon had just gotten Diane calmed down after Shalla’s latest visit and were hiding in Sharon’s office. Shalla was napping in a nearby corner.

“I can understand being a little nervous,” Julie continued. “Shalla’s pretty big. But come on. She’s nothing but a big old love muffin.”

Sharon couldn’t help chuckling. “I know. But apparently, there was a childhood trauma with Diane.”

“I suppose,” Julie grumbled.

Sharon sighed. “Isn’t it getting any better between you two?”

“I’m trying,” Julie said. “But, Sharon, she has no sense of humor. She wants everything done her way. And she has no patience with people who don’t speak English.”

“I know.” Sharon frowned. “But she’s great on getting reports done. And there really isn’t much I can do about her personality if her work’s up to par, and except for the phones, it is.”

“And it’s not fair to ruin her career because she’s a rule-bound prissy witch.” Julie rolled her eyes. “Sometimes it sucks to be the good guys.”

Sharon laughed. She looked over at Shalla. The dog stirred as Julie left the office. Sharon’s mobile phone rang as Shalla got up, shook and began to pace. Sharon decided that she could talk to the aide in Johannisberg about the President’s upcoming visit while taking the dog outside as easily as talking in the office. It wasn’t a particularly difficult discussion, just one focused on the complex logistics of such a visit and one Sharon had already had with another aide from the South African foreign ministry. So she murmured soothingly into the phone as she led the large black dog from her office to a door leading out toward the South lawn.

She wasn’t the first staffer to do so, and there was a small box near the door filled with tennis balls and other dog toys. Shalla wandered around the grass nearby and watered a small tree. Then she bounded back to Sharon, who was ready with a tennis ball.

Sharon tossed the ball, her other hand holding the phone to her ear. Shalla yipped excitedly and tore after the ball. Sharon was still talking as the dog scampered up, ball in mouth. Sharon snapped her fingers and held out her hand. Shalla deposited the ball, Sharon threw it again, and Shalla ran after.

As Sharon tossed the ball for the fourth time, Matt sauntered up from around one corner or another, Sharon didn’t see which one. The teen was dressed in cargo shorts and a plaid shirt, this being one of his days off from working for his uncle. Sharon waved at him as she finished the call, then made her notes.

“Hey,” Matt said, with something less than his usual enthusiasm. “Playing with Shalla, huh?”

“More or less,” Sharon replied.

She looked him over, pondering. Matt was usually insatiably curious about her calls, but this time, his gaze remained fixated on the dog running toward them, ball in mouth.

“What’s up?” Sharon asked as Shalla dropped the tennis ball into Matt’s hand.

Matt drew back and threw the ball well into the trees surrounding the lawn. Shalla yipped and ran after it.

“Nothing much,” Matt said and winced. “Well, you know, family weirdness.”

“With your aunt and uncle?” Sharon asked.

“They’re fine.” Matt paused, looking out over the lawn in the direction Shalla had run. “It’s my mom. We’ve been emailing. Not a lot, you know. But some.”

“Really.” Sharon debated how to approach the revelation. From what she’d gathered, Matt’s estrangement from his parents was pretty firm, and just because there was some thawing in the relationship didn’t mean it was a good thing from the teen’s perspective.

“Yeah.”

“Is it a good thing?”

“I guess.” Matt scrunched up his face. “I mean, it’s not like I want my mom to hate me. Anyway, I called her today.”

“That’s good.”

“Oh, yeah. She asked about my new school and all. And I told her about football tryouts. And she didn’t say I had to, which she totally would have before, but she did say if I played football, it might make things easier with my dad.”

“So when are tryouts?”

“Anytime, really. I was thinking of going out tomorrow morning. But I don’t know. I mean, I like playing, but I hate it when I have to.”

Sharon nodded. Shalla came running back. Sharon got the ball and tossed it again. Shalla hurried after.

“That makes sense,” Sharon said. “Did you want to play before your mom suggested it?”

“Yeah, I sort of did.” Matt shrugged. “It’s a lot of fun.”

“It might help you make new friends,” Sharon said. “Have you talked to your uncle about it?”

“He’s been pretty busy today. Has that whole running the country thing going on, you know?” Matt grinned.

Sharon smiled. “Yes, I know.”

“Uncle Mark would probably like it if I did play football,” Matt said. “You know, that staying active and healthy thing.

“He might, although you can get hurt pretty badly playing football.”

“He played football and I know he likes the game.”

“I’m sure he does and you certainly know him better than I do.” Sharon watched as Shalla returned and plopped down at her feet. “But it has been my experience that as soon as you assume you know what your uncle is going to do, he does the exact opposite.”

Matt guffawed. “Yep. That’s Uncle Mark.”

“Listen, Matt.” Sharon put her hand on Matt’s shoulder. “I don’t know how your uncle will feel about you playing. But ultimately, there is only one reason you should and it has nothing to do with your uncle, with your parents, with anyone. You play because you want to play. You’re not going to be competitive if your heart’s not in it. And if your heart isn’t in it, there’s really no point. There are too many other ways to stay active and healthy and meet people and all that.”

“Huh. That makes sense.”

“Good. Now I’ve got to get back in and get some work done.”

“Okay, Aunt Sharon.” Matt gave her a quick hug.