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