The visit turned out to be relatively brief. Al Eddington, aka Warmonger, was the president’s military and intelligence advisor, one of the six full-time advisors on Mark Jerguessen’s full-time Advisory Board. The group worked together to keep the president on top of pretty much everything. The goal of the Board wasn’t to formulate policy – there were plenty of others who did that for him – but to act as a research group that he could turn to that wasn’t as hooked into the politics as most other advisors. Warmonger worked at home, partly because at age 70, he wanted to, and partly because he was a heavy smoker.
Unfortunately, his wife, Caroline, had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer.
“The prognosis isn’t good,” Caroline told Sharon and Karen that evening.
Her head was swathed in a colorful scarf – a sign of the chemotherapy. Thin plastic tubes adorned her nose, since she was also on an oxygen tank.
“How’s Al taking it?” Karen asked.
Caroline took a deep breath. “Total denial, but what do you expect?” She breathed again. “That’s his training.”
Sharon and Karen nodded. The three nattered on for a while longer, then Caroline sent the two others on their way. Warmonger, a tall man with gray hair and the utterly erect posture of a former member of the military, stopped them on the way to Karen’s car.
“I, uh,” he hesitated.
“It’s okay, Al,” said Karen.
“We’d do it for anybody,” said Sharon. “You are more important than just anybody.”
“I’m fine,” Al snarled, then softened. “As long as Caroline is happy. That’s what matters.”
“No kidding,” said Karen.
“Seriously, we are your servants,” Sharon said. “If there’s anything we can do, please let us know.”
“I will,” Al said.
In Karen’s car the two women rolled their eyes.
“You think he’s going to ask?” Sharon asked as Karen navigated their way around the Beltway to Sharon’s Georgetown townhouse.
“Are you crazy?” Karen said. “So not in this guy’s training.”
Sharon sighed. “I was hoping.”
“Nope,” Karen said. “We’re going to have to enlist another White guy. Maybe Eli.”
Eli Weatheral was the Advisory Board member overseeing environmental issues. Though technically a part-timer, Eli was closest to Al in age. The downside was that Eli was about as diametrically opposed to everything Al believed in as one person could get. Still, the two respected each other.
“Maybe,” Sharon said. “I hate feeling this helpless.”
Karen shrugged. “Get used to it. One thing you learn from popular culture is that it while it reflects the larger culture, it’s also constantly changing and leaving the dinosaurs behind. Al is going to be the way he is because that’s what he was taught to do. On the other hand, younger guys are learning to be more open about their feelings.” She sighed. “When they aren’t being taught to be knuckle-scraping Neanderthal frat boys.”
The next morning, tension filled the small sedan. Hideo, a slight man with a stoop, dark hair, and a long narrow face, drove in complete silence. Sharon sat in back with Kira and Allie. Kira, who was 15, was just a hair taller than her mother but had her father’s square face and her hair cut very short in a defiant fade. Allie, not yet 13, looked more like her mother, with long straight hair and a stylish beret. The young girl filled the car with her nervous chatter, mostly about the past semester at school.
Kira, however, seemed the most calm of all. Sharon thought she looked resolute, or maybe even oddly confident, as if she had a secret (and she probably did) that would take care of everything.
She only broke down when it came time to leave her mother and pass through airport security. The terminal at National Airport was crowded with early morning commuters and tired tourists and the line for security ran back and forth several times.
“Mom, please don’t worry,” she told Karen as she held her mother tightly. “Seriously. It’s going to be okay.”
“Of course it is,” Karen said, trying not to cry. “You be good, now. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Allie burst into tears as she got her farewell hug and it took Kira’s cajoling to get her into the security line.
“Call me when you get to L.A.” Karen called.
The girls, flying as adults because they were too old for the airline’s children’s program, disappeared into the crowd. Sharon reached over and put her arm around Karen’s shoulders while Hideo held Karen from the other side. Karen, however, shook them both off.
“Let’s go,” she said, quietly. “Drop you at home, Sharon?”
“Nope.” Sharon held up her briefcase purse. “I’m going into the office. It’s been a week. Or close enough.”
“Do you mind taking the Metro?” Karen asked. “I’d rather let Hideo go on his own.”
“Sure,” said Sharon.
Hideo nodded and left for the parking garage, while Sharon and Karen walked slowly toward the Metro stop.
Sharon’s return to the office was greeted with quiet enthusiasm and repeated offers of concern that she was coming back too soon.
“I’m going to tell The Boss on you,” Eddie Cooper teased.
“Go ahead,” Sharon told him. “Like he’s going to cut short his trip just to make me stay home?”
Still, when the President called later that morning, Sharon spent several minutes reassuring him that her headache was gone and that she was getting extremely stir crazy at home.
“Seriously, I really need to get back to the office,” Sharon told Mark while scrolling through the list of emails on her laptop. “We’ve got all kinds of fun happening in Eastern Europe, it looks like Algeria has the gender thing going on again, and you did hear about the mayor of Sidney going rogue, didn’t you? The YouTube video is all over Facebook, according to Karen.”
“Silly me, I even clicked on it,” Mark sighed. “At least it’s not an issue for us. But do be aware that the European Union is getting fussy about our environmental practices again.”
“I’ve already heard. Did Raoul give you a solid briefing?”
“Yes. Good enough,” Mark grumbled. “I hate to say it, but you do a better job.”
“How’s the weather there in Portland?”
“Drizzling. It hasn’t stopped in three days. On the other hand, we did get out to the Willamette Valley. Tasted some amazing pinot noirs yesterday.”
“Sounds like fun. I’m sorry I’m not there. In any case, I can give you a more complete briefing tomorrow, if you like.”
Mark chuckled. “That would be good. And you will be receiving a few bottles for your cellar.”
“Sir, that’s not…”
“Eddie and the others are getting a few, too, so it is perfectly appropriate. I simply chose with your palate in mind. Have fun at the office.”
“Harumph.” Sharon grumbled outwardly and tried not to feel too happy about the wine coming in.
Of course, her conference with Karen early that afternoon about the viral video of the mayor of Sydney, Australia, disgracing himself while drunkenly dancing with a stripper brought Sharon back to earth quickly.
She and Karen looked at the image frozen on Karen’s laptop screen.
“You know,” Sharon said, frowning, “you really have to wonder what this guy was thinking.”
“Guys like him often say they weren’t,” said Karen. “The strongest theories are that it’s a fear of success reaction – they unconsciously shoot themselves in the foot to avoid facing their own success. Although with some of these guys, I think it’s that they feel invulnerable, that they can do anything and try to push the boundaries as far as they can to prove it.” She frowned at the image. “I’m smelling fear of success here.”
Sharon shrugged. “Possibly. I know we’ve got a Sydney trip coming up. I just can’t remember when.”
They were in Karen’s office, which was cramped, as all White House offices were, and minimally furnished with black and glass desk and pictures of Kira and Allie on the walls.
Karen’s mobile phone rang.
“It’s Kira,” she said, answering. “Hey, sweetie. How was the flight?…. Good. Can I speak to your dad?…. Oh.” Karen looked up at the four televisions on her office wall and quickly aimed a remote at one. “Well, it’s on the news. Still…. Um, okay. Can I speak to Allie, please?…. Hey, darling. I heard you had a nice fight…. Yeah, I know, honey. Go ahead with Ms. Barmwell and it will be all right…. Good. I’ll talk to you later. I love you, baby…. Hey, Kira…. Yeah, go ahead to the hospital and it will be okay…. Right, I love you, too. Bye.”
Karen swiped the phone off, her lips tightening.
“This does not sound good,” Sharon said.
“George didn’t make it to the airport to pick the girls up,” Karen said softly. “Kira said that there was a massive pile-up on one of the freeways and he had to stay at work, so he sent his secretary for them.” She gestured at one of the monitors. “As you can see, it’s on the news, so that part is legit.”
Sharon shook her head. “Still, you have to wonder.”
“Look, the girls are okay. That’s the important part.”
“You’re right.” Sharon glanced at her laptop. “Are we set on the Sydney thing?”
“Looks like.” Karen paused. “And in more fun news, Warmonger said that Caroline was finally up for visitors at the hospital. Want to go with me this evening?”
“Yeah, we really need to do that.” Sharon winced. “This does not sound fun, but maybe it will help you stop worrying about your girls.”
Karen snorted. “You are so not a parent. That being said, we do need to do the visiting the sick thing.”
Unfortunately, June’s brother was going to be out of reach – at least for Sharon – for the next few days. It wasn’t so much the edict that she not work, but that he was on another trip, this time to the Pacific Northwest, for an environmental action conference and an Internet conference. In fact, he wasn’t going to be back in Washington until the following Thursday, right before the Fourth of July holiday that Saturday.
So Sharon spent the next few days watching movies and mostly reading. She got some time in on her treadmill on Monday morning, but that afternoon, Karen Tanaka came by, shaking and in tears. Sharon opened her front door and let her distraught friend inside.
Karen was an average-sized woman, with a slim build, and shoulder-length glossy black hair. She was known for what the Washington elite considered trendy, but was merely more fashionably cut and somewhat more colorful than the usual black or navy suits. Her suit that afternoon was black, but she’d managed a bright red silk pocket square in the breast pocket.
“June said she’d fly down tonight,” Karen said without saying hello.
“What happened?” Sharon asked, leading Karen into the living room.
“The judge decided to uphold enforcing the visitation after all.” Karen swallowed, trying to keep control. “I’m not sure what happened. My lawyer told me, but I can’t figure it out. Something about the girls needing time with their father.”
“Do Kira and Allie know?”
Karen nodded. “That’s the worst of it. I was just at home telling them. Kira kept saying it would be okay. She wouldn’t say why, but she’s got something going on.”
“Crap. I wonder if it would be worth grilling Jodi and Tiffany.”
Karen gasped, then shook her head. “No. There is probably something up. And it’s scaring me to death. But you know what? I don’t think I want to know. Especially after Kira whispered to Allie about plausible deniability.”
Sharon looked everywhere around the living room, trying not to laugh. “That sounds like our girl.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Karen burst into tears. “I keep wondering how much worse can this get, and I keep trying to hold onto what you said when Matt ran away – about how the kids helped him get to caring adults safely. How are they going to do that this time?”
“Maybe Kira’s just resigned herself to spending time with her father.”
Karen gave Sharon The Look.
“Okay,” Sharon said. “Probably not. Do you want me to talk to her?”
“No. She’s got to pack tonight. The plane leaves really early tomorrow.”
“Tell you what. I’ll go to the airport with you.”
“Are you sure you’ll be well enough?”
“If I don’t get out from these four walls, I won’t be well enough for anything.”
Karen nodded. “Hideo’s going to drive us to the airport. We can pick you up. Five-thirty okay?”
“Should be. You gonna be okay?”
“No, but I’ll get through.” Karen got up quickly. “Thanks for letting me cry on your shoulder.”
At that moment, Matt bellowed hello from downstairs and came bounding up the stairs.
“Secret Service let me in,” he announced cheerfully, looking around the bedroom, his eyes lighting on the television set. “Is that your TV? Sweet.”
“Hi, to you, too, Matt,” Sharon said, chiding and chuckling at the same time.
“Hey, Aunt June, you’re here!” He bounded over and hugged his aunt, lifting her off her feet.
June yelped and laughed. “Okay, Matt. We get it. You’re a big boy now.”
“What? I can’t give my favorite aunt a big ol’ hug?” Matt teased. He started toward the bed where Sharon was, but sat down gently next to it. “I mean, I’d hug my second-favorite aunt, here, but you know, she’s got a concussion.”
Sharon sighed. “I’m not an invalid, folks!”
“Close enough,” teased Matt. “Hey, the Secret Service guy said they’re bringing lunch in a couple. Think they’re trying to make up for flattening you, Aunt Sharon?”
“Possibly,” Sharon said.
“Aunt June, you gonna stay and have lunch with us?”
“Can’t. I’ve got to go,” June said quickly.
“I thought you were going to spend the afternoon,” Sharon asked.
“Oh. Forgot to tell you. There’s a meeting in New York. In fact, I’d better take off now if I’m going to get there in time.”
“At least you get to go to work,” Sharon grumbled. “Have fun.”
“I’ll try,” June said. “I’ll call tomorrow to see how you’re getting on.”
She bustled out. Matt frowned at her as she left. He finally turned to Sharon.
“Something’s up,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
Matt got up and paced. “It’s Aunt June. It’s like she’s avoiding me or Uncle Mark or something. Especially around meal times. It’s like we’ll ask if she’s having dinner with us and all of a sudden she’s got to go to New York.”
“Have you talked to your uncle about it?”
“He just said there’s nothing we can do and to not bug her about food.”
Sharon nodded. “Yeah. That sounds about right.”
Matt looked at her. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“Not really,” Sharon said, fidgeting with a corner of the sheet. She debated briefly how much to say. “I can guess, but I don’t really know.”
“Uncle Mark looked pretty worried last night.”
“I’m sure he is.” Sharon looked down at her fingers. “Damn.”
Matt sat down next to her, anxiety rolling off him. “Aunt Sharon, what’s wrong with Aunt June?”
“It’s probably an eating disorder. I’m guessing anorexia. And she’s having a flare up. She’s probably eating some, which is how she’s fooling herself into believing she has it under control. But your uncle’s right. There isn’t much we can do. In fact, bugging her about it could make it worse. Intervention usually helps, but it has to be done the right way.”
“But anorexia, that can, like, kill you, can’t it?”
Sharon sighed. “I’m afraid it can. But June doesn’t look that sick yet. Given that anorexia usually starts in high school, and what your uncle said about it, I’m guessing she’s been through this before and gotten out of it.”
“But what if she doesn’t?”
“I’ll do the research and we’ll stage an intervention before then. I’ll even ask your uncle. He and your aunt are pretty close. He may even know what her triggers are and how we can overcome them.”
Matt nodded. “Maybe I should do some research, too.”
“Good idea. Just don’t get your hopes up. I’ve known other women with eating disorders and they’re tough to deal with. Ultimately, what June needs is professional help.”
“Then we’ll get her to it,” Matt said as his phone rang. “There’s Jodi. Wanna say hi?”
Smiling, Sharon took the phone and said hello to her niece. But in the back of her head, she couldn’t stop worrying about June.
Three days after the assassination attempt found Sharon safely tucked into bed in the Georgetown townhouse where she lived.
“You’re not exactly cooperating,” observed June Jerguessen, the President’s sister and Sharon’s close friend.
“I’m just so tired of being fussed over,” Sharon grumbled. “I wasn’t hurt that badly, for heaven’s sakes. And my headache is almost gone.”
“Almost,” smirked June.
She was a tall, willowy woman with the figure and face of a runway model. Her hair, light brown or dark blonde depending on one’s perspective, was growing out of its short cut. June usually went for a more natural, slightly tousled look, but Sharon thought that her hair seemed a little more tousled than normal. And there were definitely bags starting to form under June’s deep blue eyes.
“Okay,” Sharon said, keeping her observations to herself. “I get staying down until the headache is completely gone without meds. But your brother is insisting I stay down a full week and threatened to have the Secret Service cut off my Internet access if I didn’t stay offline.”
“He’s got a point about that. It’s not like he doesn’t know what a concussion can do, after playing football all through high school.”
“Well, all I’ve got to say is harrumph!” Sharon said. “The doctor in Columbia said I could ease back into work as soon as I felt like it, and whatshername, you know, the official gal at Bethesda pretty much said the same thing.”
“And the fact that you can’t remember her name says something right there,” June folded her thin arms across her small chest. “You almost always get people’s names.” She sighed. “Give it a couple more days, okay?”
“I suppose I should. But I am so bored!”
“Well, I have a pile of fluffy little mysteries for you to read, and Matt said he’d set up something or other so you can stream movies onto your TV.”
“Jodi’s going to talk him through the setup,” Sharon said. She sighed again. “I have no idea what movies are even out there.”
June pulled a piece of white paper from her purse. “Karen made you a list.”
“How’s she doing?”
June shrugged. “Okay, I guess. She’s on pins and needles with that hearing coming up Monday.”
“I thought that was just a formality.”
“They always are,” grumbled June. “And as soon as you assume that, you know what happens.”
Sharon sighed. “Too true.” She paused. “How are you doing?”
“Me? I’m fine.” And yet June said it way too quickly.
In the Orange County, California, home of her parents, Susan Wheatly’s good mood was quickly evaporating. It had been a good couple days. There was the usual rush of anxiety that she got right after accepting a choreography job, as she began to wonder how she was going to create a dance. And while the fear seemed somewhat more intense because she was now in a wheelchair, it felt a lot more normal than anything else in her life. Then there had been the horror of that afternoon, then the enormous relief that the far-away events hadn’t been an issue.
More annoying was the event she was getting ready for. It was a fundraising dinner celebrating a major addition to a local hospital. Susan’s brown hair and eyes reminded everyone of their mother, even though Susan had her father’s slimmer build. And some seriously developed arms, Susan noted with some disgust. She shifted her chair around and headed for the lift downstairs.
She was only going to the event as a favor to her friend Mira, and wouldn’t have been doing that much if it hadn’t been for her niece Jodi and her best friend Tiffany. The two girls had asked Susan to shelter their friends Kira and Allie Watanabe if they ran away to avoid staying with their father.
“Harboring runaways? I don’t think so,” Susan had told Jodi and Tiffany the week before. “That’s insanely illegal, and you have no idea how much trouble Sarah got our parents into when she tried hiding a friend at their place.”
“But, Aunt Susan, we’ve gotta do something,” Jodi pleaded.
Susan had said she’d think about it, and then Mira called, also pleading and begging for Susan to show.
“It’s turning into the fundraiser from hell,” Mira had complained. “Just today, George Watanabe, head of emergency medicine at County/USC? He not only decides to get involved, he makes this mondo donation and want his name in the program and they’re already printed! I hear he only made the donation because he needs to look good because he’s suing his ex for custody.”
Susan pondered the odds that there were multiple Watanabe’s suing their exes for custody in Southern California and decided it was worth the risk and agreed to Mira’s request.
Susan checked her mobile phone for the time. The car service was due at any second. She hoped she could check Watanabe out (assuming he was Kira and Allie’s father) and leave the dinner before the evening got too drawn out.
It was a standard hotel fundraiser. Although Susan did note there were several others in wheelchairs there, including one guy from her rehab facility who looked like he was still trying to score with her. Susan made a point of avoiding him.
She found Dr. Watanabe almost by accident when he backed into her to avoid a waiter rushing dirty dishes back to the kitchen. He was of medium height, built solidly with a square face and coal black hair. Susan introduced herself and he smiled with interest. It wasn’t a leer, but darned close.
“Watanabe,” Susan said slowly. “You wouldn’t happen to be related to Kira and Allie Watanabe, would you?”
“My daughters,” he grunted, the interest evaporating immediately. “Why?”
“My niece Jodi is friends with them. I understand they’re coming out this summer.”
“At some point, yes.”
Susan smiled. “It’d be great if we could set up some time for the kids to get together. Maybe do a sleep over or something.”
“It would, but I don’t know when they’re going to be here. My ex is being a bitch about it.”
“Well, I could email you.”
“I don’t have time for that.” Watanabe glared for a second, then dug out his prescription pad from his suit and a pen. “Tell you what. I’ll write up the permission now and you let my secretary know when you want the girls.”
He leaned over her to write on a nearby table, whipped the paper off the pad, and handed it to her, his eyes already sweeping the room and lighting on a tall blonde near the podium.
“My number’s on the pad,” he said and stalked off.
Susan looked down at the paper. Sure enough, he had granted her permission to take the girls and had not specified when or for how long. Susan wasn’t sure if she was elated or appalled. But she carefully put the paper in her purse, went to find Mira, and left the party the very second she could.
Jodi was thrilled to get the text. Susan still winced. How could anyone be so casual about where their kids went while spending huge amounts of money to get custody of them? Jodi had said the custody suit was more about Watanabe being angry at his ex. Susan shook her head. It certainly seemed that way.
….We finally did figure out what had happened and I have to cop to the blame. Turns out when Tomas was asking us about Sharon, and I said, “No es muerto,” what it sounded like to Tomas was that Uncle Mark wasn’t dead. I’d made the classic mistake we English-speakers make when speaking Spanish. I’d forgotten that you have to change the endings of words based on whether you’re talking about a male or a female. So what I said was, “He isn’t dead.” And Tomas apparently thought I was trying to point out that at least my uncle wasn’t dead, which meant that Sharon was. Or something like that.
Anyway, Tomas is the one who told the rest of the media that Sharon was dead and they all jumped on it. Sharon was pretty cool about it. I mean, I know more Spanish than that, but Sharon said that it was probably the stress from the whole shooting thing that made it hard for me to think in Spanish. She says that language is one of those things that’s almost hard-wired into our brains and that the two things almost any human being will do in their native language is pray and count. So while I do have to cop the blame for the mix-up, it was also the situation.
The levity and good feeling lasted through the next morning as the U.S. party loaded themselves into a limo motorcade that was joined by President Mendoza’s own motorcade. Mark later was hard pressed to remember where the group was headed. All he remembered was that as he got out of the limo and bent to help Sharon out, he was flattened and shoved back in by body guards. He never even heard the gun shots.
An American Secret Service agent, unnamed, was later credited with spotting Pablo Tomenco’s gun and calling it out in time for one of the Columbian agents to knock the gun askew and send the bullets skyward. Somehow, no one was hit in the attempt on both the Columbian and American presidents.
In the U.S. presidential limo, Mark realized that Sharon was underneath him and as he slowly got up, he saw that she was unconscious.
“Are you all right, sir?” asked the ever-present Riff Butler, an imposing African American man with a buzz cut and a perfect Secret Service demeanor.
“I’m fine,” Mark snapped. “Sharon’s out.”
Mark glanced around. Calvin Whitecross was in the facing seat next to Matt. Sharon groaned and tried to pull herself up. Riff reached around the tight space and helped her up as he let out a stream of Spanish, directing Tomas, the Columbian driver, to head to the nearest hospital. Sharon responded, her Spanish far too fast for Mark to follow in spite of her grogginess, but Riff not only glared her down, he repeated the order.
At the hospital, the limo screeched into the emergency bay. Doctors, nurses and orderlies were ready with several gurneys.
“Sir, come with me,” Sharon ordered as she was lifted onto a gurney.
She started in Spanish again and the doctor motioned for Mark to join them as they rushed Sharon into the emergency room, with Riff on their heels. Matt swallowed and looked at Calvin.
“Now what?” Matt asked.
“Get out of the car?” Calvin asked.
Fortunately, an orderly who spoke English appeared in the doorway and took them to a waiting room.
“Your driver, he is parking the car someplace else,” the young Columbian said. He was short and slight, but had a firm demeanor.
Matt swallowed. “I heard shots. Did anyone else get hurt?”
“I don’t think so,” the orderly answered. “The radio for emergency, it does not say anyone is coming. I will come for you if it calls.”
“Thanks,” Matt replied.
“So I guess we wait,” Calvin said as the orderly left.
“Yeah.” Matt sighed. “Hope she’s okay.”
Calvin smiled softly. “In my experience, when they’re yelling like that, they’re okay.”
The waiting room could have been anywhere, with green and blue plastic chairs strung together in tight rows and gray walls with supposedly soothing framed pictures on them. Except that the voice coming from the TV mounted on a wall in the corner was speaking in rapid Spanish. Matt watched the images from the shooting site and tried to deduce what had happened.
Tomas, the short and fat limo driver, waddled into the waiting room. With a worried frown, he approached Matt and spoke rapidly in Spanish. All Matt caught was “La Senorita” over and over again and guessed that the driver was asking about Sharon’s condition. Matt’s mind went blank.
“No es muerto,” he finally said.
“Ay! Pero la senorita?” Tomas asked.
“No es muerto,” Matt said again, trying to remember how to say Sharon was mostly okay, especially since he knew that he knew that much Spanish.
It didn’t help. With a loud cry, Tomas went running off out of the hospital. About 20 minutes later, Matt noticed a head shot of Sharon on the TV screen with the caption “Muerta.” Dead.
An obscenity dropped from his lips. “Calvin, it’s saying Sharon Wheatly is dead.”
“What?” Calvin came over and looked at the screen. “You think?”
“Why wouldn’t they have told us?” Matt cried belligerently. “What the hell happened? Where’s that guy?”
He left the waiting room with Calvin on his heels, looking for someone to who could speak English and who knew how Sharon was doing. The two didn’t find help right away, but they found Mark and Riff waiting in an empty room.
“Oh, no!” Matt sobbed.
“Matt? What’s the matter?” Mark asked.
“Aunt Sharon… The TV said she’s dead,” Matt blinked back tears. “And she’s not here.”
“They’re doing an x-ray on her head,” Mark said. “She has a concussion, probably. They’re checking just to be sure there’s no skull fracture.”
“But the TV,” Matt gasped.
“Are you sure you understood what they were saying?” Mark asked.
“Pretty sure,” Matt said.
Mark glanced at Calvin, then glared briefly at Riff. He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and dialed out.
“Yesmenia -” he began, but was cut off. “What? No. She’s fine. I mean, she probably has a concussion, but she’s alive and cranking… Seriously? Crap…. Even the U.S. news?…. No, no. Get out the retraction. Now. I’ll call Wheatly’s folks…. Yes, I’ve got her phone…. Just get on it, okay?”
Mark swiped off, then rolled his eyes as he dug through the plastic bag holding Sharon’s belongings. He pulled Sharon’s Blackberry free and started scrolling through her contacts.
“Her mother is Madeleine Fauvrillet,” Calvin said. “Father Robert Wheatly.”
“Here it is.” Mark connected through as Matt elbowed Calvin.
“How’d you know that?” Matt hissed playfully at Calvin, who shrugged.
Mark waited as the phone rang in California.
“Allo?” asked a worn female voice.
“Madeleine Fauvrillet?” Mark asked, stumbling over the last name a little.
“Yes. This is she.” Her voice was firm, but she sounded upset.
“This is Mark Jerguessen. It sounds like you may have heard about your daughter on the news.”
“Yes. It is kind of you to call.”
“Ma’am, it’s a false report. I was just with your daughter, and it’s no more than a concussion, maybe a skull fracture at worst. But she is most definitely alive and likely to stay that way.”
“False? She is alive!” There was a sigh, then the sound of her crying and shouting at someone in French. “Oh, grace a Dieu! Merci. I mean, thank you so much. Thank you for calling. I must call the others. Merci. I mean, thank you!’
She hung up. Mark looked at the phone. A second later, orderlies wheeled Sharon into the room.
“Why do you have my phone?” she asked.
“It’s a long story,” Mark said.
Sharon frowned at Mark as he, Matt and Calvin exchanged guilty looks. Matt suddenly sniffed and soundly hugged Sharon.
“Easy!” she yelped, then hugged him back. “What was that for?”
“I’m sorry,” Matt gasped. “I know you’re hurt, but I’m just so glad you’re alive.”
“Of course-” Sharon suddenly stopped and listened. Rapid Spanish floated over from another television elsewhere in the emergency department. “You have got to be kidding me! Oh, my god, my parents!”
Mark showed her the phone. “I just called them. Sorry to use your phone, but it was the fastest way.”
Sharon eased herself back down onto the pillows. “How the hell did this happen?”
President Mendoza arrived just as Air Force One touched down. Tony and Matt, who had previously been bouncing off the walls, suddenly settled down and got their ties tied and suit jackets on. Sharon smiled to herself. They were technically there as the president’s personal assistants. It was a heady job, but Mark had chosen well in spite of their youth, with both boys having just enough youthful joie de vivre to be excited about opening doors for the President but enough gravitas to behave appropriately.
Mark made his way down the airplane’s stairway to the podium and red carpet set up nearby. There was a decent-sized crowd gathered on the airport tarmac, and plenty of press, both American and Columbian. Mark greeted Mendoza, a broad-shouldered man who Sharon thought resembled Omar Sharif more than a little. Mendoza made a little welcome speech in excellent English, then Mark made his way through his speech in Spanish. Mark didn’t speak Spanish very well, but Sharon had coached him extensively, and if she was not thrilled with his accent, at least his Spanish didn’t sound forced.
After the welcome speeches, there was an early evening car tour of the city, then dinner in the presidential palace. That went late. Nonetheless, the U.S. party was up again early for tours and talks and much-needed fence mending with local farmers who had suffered at the hands of American soldiers who had been trying to take down the drug cartels. Mark strongly suspected that more than a few of the government officials and citizens they met were members of said cartels, if not the heads of such groups. Sharon didn’t say for sure, but she hinted.
She spent her day mostly observing. Her staff member who oversaw research on South America, Leonidas Bertonetti, had been in Bogota since late the week before and had made a goodly number of contacts even apart from the ones President Mendoza had set up.
The day was a whirlwind, finishing up with a particularly rowdy party with dancing and a decidedly free-flowing bar. Sharon didn’t think she’d had that much to drink, but she was feeling pretty happy.
The news from home was exceedingly good. First, Karen Tanaka, Sharon’s colleague on the president’s Advisory Panel and Sharon’s good friend, had called. Karen, also known as Tanks, had been recently sued by her ex-husband, George Watanabe, for custody of their two daughters, Kira and Allie.
Then Sharon’s sister Susan had called with her news, followed closely by their brother Michael, whose parting advice, while unsolicited (as so much of Michael’s advice was), Sharon had to concede had merit. Which turned out to be fairly convenient, since Mark suggested the two take a light walk around the grounds of the Columbian presidential palace, where the party was taking place.
Sharon was acting as Mark’s “date” that night – a frequent arrangement that made it look like Mark was bowing to the demands created by the social expectations of couplehood. But since Sharon spoke Spanish almost as well as a Mexican native, it also made her readily available as a translator when needed.
Sharon left the party first and found the walkway around the outside of the palace gardens without trouble. She was wearing a long, straight black dress with a sheer beaded overlay. Mark smiled as he saw her standing on a low retaining wall, looking out over the garden with a happy smile on her face. Her hair was pinned up.
“Hey!” she said, turning and seeing him. She lightly hopped down, took a deep breath and spun around once.
“You look exceptionally happy,” Mark said.
“I am,” she replied. “It’s been an unusually fun party and right before we left the hotel, I got some terrific news from home.”
“The Indians and the Pakistanis are making nice?”
She scrunched her face. “I wish. Nope, this was on the more personal front. Has Karen talked to you about the custody suit?”
“Not much,” Mark said. “But she’s been keeping me up to date. Last I heard, her ex got an emergency order to enforce the girls’ visit this summer.”
“Boy, did that backfire on them.” Sharon laughed. “I’m not sure how it worked out in legal terms. But Karen was going to send the girls to their dad’s for the summer and had it set up before the suit was even filed. And since she was able to prove that the emergency order was anything but an emergency, the judge got annoyed. Then Karen’s lawyers petitioned him to stop the visit based on George’s history of abusive behavior and the judge okayed it. Well, at least for the time being. There’s another hearing next week, where George’s lawyers get to respond.”
“That sounds pretty good,” Mark said. “But why stop the visit?”
“Kira’s refusing to go.”
“She’s barely fifteen. How can she refuse?”
Sharon grimaced. “Well, she can’t, technically. But remember when Matt made his unauthorized arrival in DC?”
Matt had, in fact, run away from his very unhappy home, and thanks to the plan he’d put together with Kira, Sharon’s niece Jodi and her friend Tiffany, along with Tony Garces and Rebecca Cooper, the daughter of one of Sharon and Karen’s other colleagues on the Advisory Panel, he’d arrived safely in Washington, DC.
Mark sighed. “Right. They were originally planning Kira’s getaway. They’re not still up to something, are they?”
“I have no idea. I’m trying to play it cool on the off chance someone will confide in me. In any case, with luck, the judge will keep the order in place and Kira and Allie won’t have to go to their dad’s.”
“Or wherever.” Mark smiled. “That is good news, but not normally the sort of thing that has you dancing.”
“That’s the even better news.” Sharon smiled and spun again. “My sister Susan has been commissioned to choreograph a new dance for the Artists with Disabilities Festival at the end of August, and she’s going to use my brother’s music.”
“Susan? Oh, she’s the one in the wheelchair. I mean, uses a wheelchair.”
Sharon chuckled. “Michael and I are thrilled. We didn’t think she’d go for it. It’s been barely two years since the accident and she’s been going through a really bad patch the past few months. The best we can figure is that it’s finally sinking in that her injury is permanent. She’s been pretty angry lately.”
“Wow. Wasn’t she some sort of dancer?” Mark asked.
“Lead ballerina with the Pacific Ballet, although she was getting ready to retire when the accident happened, being over 30 and all. The good news is that she can still choreograph and since the dance will be about her own journey as someone with a disability, it might help her confront some of her own issues.” Sharon smiled. “She’s really excited about it and happier than she’s been since the accident happened.”
Mark smiled. “It sounds great.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Sharon spun very, very close to him. “Better yet, my brother suggested I get a little of my own happiness, too, and I thought why not?”
She reached up and kissed him full on the mouth. Mark felt himself rejoicing, even as he worried about the two of them being seen.
“I like that kind of happiness,” he whispered as their lips parted.
Sharon’s lips were still slightly open and her breathing was just a touch heavy. “As much as I’d like otherwise, the good news is that this will go absolutely nowhere since we cannot risk being seen and someone is bound to be headed our way soon.”
Mark kissed her again, starting softly, then stronger and stronger as she responded, melting into his arms and holding him tightly against herself. However, it was he who gently pulled them apart.
“What are we going to do, Sharon?” he sighed. “This distance thing is not working. I can’t lose you as an employee. And I don’t want to lose you.”
“I don’t either.” Sharon blushed, then looked at him, her soft brown eyes almost piercing him to his soul. “And you’re not going to. We’re friends, good friends. Your sister and I are just as close. Your nephew is my buddy and he’s best friends with my niece. Our lives are so freaking tied up together that we’re sort of stuck. We just have to try to stay friends and hold out as long as we can.”
The sound of footsteps crunching on the gravel forced Mark to pull away from her. Leonidas appeared on the path with one of President Mendoza’s aides on his arm. Leonidas was young, dark and smooth, although Sharon couldn’t help wonder if he was finally getting played by the lovely young woman with the very shrewd dark eyes.
They didn’t quite notice Mark and Sharon as they slipped into the garden. Mark nodded back at the building and Sharon went ahead of him.
“I’d better stay out here a bit longer,” Mark said somewhat more loudly than he needed to. “I think I see Matt headed this way. I overheard him and Tony talking about practicing their Spanish with some of the younger ladies here.”
“I did, too,” Sharon replied. “Do you want me to take the outer loop of the garden and see if we can flush them out?”
“Sure. Why not?” Mark turned and headed away from the building as Sharon headed around the other way.
If Mark was hoping that he and Sharon would meet on the far side of the garden, it was not to be. Never mind that their “search” was actually intended to throw Leonidas off, Sharon did actually encounter Matt and Tony and three obviously over-age-eighteen young women near the entrance to the palace.
In rapid Spanish, Sharon not so gently convinced the young women that they might be better off inside back at the party.
“Aw, come on, Aunt Sharon,” Tony groaned as the women left. Tony called Sharon “aunt” simply because her niece Jodi and Jodi’s best friend Tiffany did.
“Uh-huh,” said Sharon.
“We weren’t going to do anything,” Matt complained.
“And what were you guys going to say when not doing anything turned into an international incident?” Sharon asked, her grin belying her serious tone.
“Since when does a casual snog in a garden constitute an international incident?” replied Matt, pulling himself up and acting way more confident than he felt.
Sharon laughed. “Let’s see. All three of those girls are over eighteen. You guys are not. One of them is President Mendoza’s daughter and the other two are nieces.”
“And your point is?” Tony said, trying to imitate Matt, which didn’t entirely work since after a poignant pause, he, Matt and Sharon were all doubled up with laughter.
“Seriously, Aunt Sharon,” Matt said finally. “We weren’t going to do anything, well, serious.”
“I’m sure that was your intention,” Sharon replied. “But let’s be real. Those ladies had serious written all over them. And besides, as the nearest available grown up, I have a sworn duty to keep you two from having any real fun.”
“And speaking of fun,” Tony said, “Matt’s uncle left the party right after you did.”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “Nice try. I have no idea where he is or what he’s up to.”
Which, she had to admit, was the truth, even if it was misleading. Still, the boys each took one of her arms and went with her back to the party.