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The following week, Sharon felt as though all was back to normal, at least until Friday’s Advisory Board meeting. During a discussion over some mild unpleasantness in a small African country, Al made a joke about how the U.S. should just bomb them and be done with it. The room fell silent for a few minutes. Al, realizing he had gone too far, apologized and reiterated that he had been making a joke.
“The problem is,” Karen told Sharon at lunch later that day, “I don’t think anyone actually believed he was joking.”
“Al has always had a very dry sense of humor,” Sharon pointed out. “But, no, he may not have been. I guess we’re still dealing with the anger.”
“It’s not going to blow over quickly.” Karen made a face at her salad. “I’m done with this. By the way, been hearing some exciting stuff about your sister.”
“Besides the awesome reviews for her dance?” Sharon asked, with a grin.
“Yeah, like piles of job offers.”
Sharon nodded. “She’s gotten some incredible ones. Last I heard, though, she wants to stay here in D.C. She says she has a place to live here.”
“Good for her.”
“I’d agree, but she’s acting really cagey for some reason.” Sharon shook her head. “She doesn’t sound unhappy, but there’s something she’s not telling me and I can’t figure out what.”
“Well, at least with her in town you’ll be able to see each other more often.”
“Maybe. She gets plenty busy on her own.”
Karen got up. “See you tomorrow?”
Sharon grabbed her phone and scrolled to her calendar. “Why? It’s Saturday, right?”
“Come on, Sharon, you promised.”
“I did not. I said I’d think about it.”
“You said you’d do it.” Karen grinned. “Seriously. It’ll get the guys off your back.”
“And who’s paying for the damage to any vehicles?”
“There’s not going to be any damage.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”
“Sharon, that’s exactly why you need to do this. You can’t spend your life living in fear.”
“I’m not living in fear. I’m just… Cursed. That’s all.”
“No, you’re not. So, we’ll see you tomorrow.”
Sharon sighed as Karen left. Karen was, in fact, right. But the last thing Sharon wanted to do was drive. It didn’t matter. The next day, accompanied by Karen, Kira and June, Sharon found herself behind the wheel of Karen’s Toyota Camry, practicing in a mostly empty Metro parking lot at the end of one of the lines.
The reality was, Sharon could drive, as in she knew how. But she had little confidence and tended to react to everything going on around her as if it was all going to blow up at any second. Which, as far as Sharon was concerned, it would.
June wouldn’t buy it and soon Sharon was on the quiet suburban streets, heading out along a two-lane country highway.
“So where are we going?” Sharon asked.
“You need motivation,” June said. “We’re going to Loudoun County and the wineries there. Get us there safely and we’ll buy the wine and Kira can drive back.”
Which Sharon did. The drive was pleasant and only took a little over an hour. Pastures and lush, green hills slid by. June directed Sharon to the parking lot of a medium-sized winery once they reached the Hillsboro area. Following Karen’s instructions, Sharon even managed to parallel park under a tree on the edge of the parking lot.
The four women had just left the car and headed toward the tasting room when they heard a very loud crack and whoosh. They turned just in time to see the tree crash onto Karen’s car, splattering glass and branches all over and breaking the windows of the cars on either side of Karen’s.
“Okay,” said Karen softly. “I’ll buy it. You’re cursed.”
“She did get us here safely,” June said.
“I’ll buy the wine,” said Sharon, pulling out her Blackberry. “And call the car service.”
June looked at the small troop of black-suited Secret Service agents running up.
“You won’t need to do that,” June sighed. “But I could use some wine.”
“So could I,” said Kira, with a grin.
“Nice try,” Karen said, glaring at and nudging her daughter. “How do you explain this to your insurance? I was teaching my friend how to drive and it turns out she’s cursed?”
Others from inside the tasting room were wandering out to the parking lot, including the owners of the cars that had also been damaged and the winery owner. One of the car owners, a tall, beefy man with a red face and balding head began screaming at the winery owner while pointing at the car in front of Karen’s.
“He ought to be thankful that’s not his car in the middle,” someone said.
“Is that Secret Service?” someone else asked.
June, who was wearing a baseball cap over her hair, slid on the pair of sunglasses she’d just taken off before the tree fell over. She nodded and the plain clothes detail slipped around the little group and spirited them away, leaving their suited fellows to deal with Karen’s car and the winery.
The good news was that the incident somehow escaped the notice of the media. The winery’s insurance took care of the damage to the cars, even if Sharon tried to insist that she was technically liable. But even Karen wouldn’t accept that and took the whole episode philosophically.
By Friday, the rest of the Wheatly clan descended on the Nation’s Capitol. Sharon did go so far as to arrange a special tour of the White House for her parents and the rest of the family. However, she was happy to leave the actual tour guide duties to Jodi and Tiffany, especially since a flare up of potential hostilities in Dubai took most of her focus that day.
“I’m so sorry, Maman,” she told her mother. “But it is one of the more annoying realities of my job that if something is going to happen, it will be on the day I least want it to.”
“It is how things happen, ma choux,” Madeleine said. “As it is, I am glad to see Jodi coming out of her shell. We should be proud of her.”
Saturday was an easier day, but by that afternoon, Sharon found herself caught up in getting Susan ready for the gala at which her dance would appear. Susan was less than cooperative. But June stepped in and practically dragged Susan from the rehearsal hall.
“Your dancers need time to rest,” June insisted. “And you have to look good for tonight.”
“But what if–” Susan began.
“No buts,” said June. “There is nothing you can do now that will help. If anything, you’re probably making your dancers more nervous than not. You’ve done the hard work. Now let it happen. I’ve seen the piece. It’s wonderful. Let it go and get glammed up for your date with my brother.”
Susan wasn’t entirely convinced, but finally wheeled herself meekly behind June to the waiting limo that took them back to the hotel where Susan would have been staying if she hadn’t moved out. Her whole family was there, but there was little time. Soon the presidential limo arrived and Mark came to the door of the suite to be introduced and take Susan out to the car.
“Phoof!” Madeleine Wheatly hissed as soon as Susan was gone. “She is as bad as Michel before a big show. It’s no wonder I’ve never liked performing.”
“I’m not that bad,” Michael protested.
“No, you’re worse,” said Inez. “And the stakes aren’t as high anymore for you.”
“They sure are if I don’t want to end up on the casino circuit,” Michael grumbled.
Susan, for her part, was beyond nervous. However, Mark immediately realized her nervousness was not about him, for a change, and found it refreshing.
“June tells me it’s a really good dance,” he told Susan before they got to the theater.
“Really?” Susan groaned. “It feels like my entire life is up for grabs.”
Mark nodded. “I know what that feels like. And I remember when I lost that one campaign, it sure felt like my career was over. But a very wise friend of mine pointed out something that I think you’ll get more than most folks.”
“Everything is almost never up for grabs. Granted, life happens. You know that better than most. But it doesn’t mean game over. You find a new direction. You try again. You try to correct whatever mistakes you made. But this dance is not your last chance. Whatever happens tonight, you will go away from the experience with options. Maybe not the options you wanted. Maybe, and I happen to think this is more likely, with more options than you’ll know what to do with. And you’ll come out a better, stronger person no matter what.”
Susan suddenly sniffed and blinked back tears. “You’d think I’d be strong enough by now.”
“Are any of us?” He reached and patted her shoulder. “Look, I think the reason you’re so nervous now is that you’ve put it all out there on that stage. And that’s usually a good sign that you’ve done something special. I really believe that.”
“You’re not going to get me to calm down,” Susan said with
“Yep.” Mark looked out the window as the limo pulled up in front of the Kennedy Center. “But we’ve got to go make nice now. Can you manage it?”
Susan looked out the window and took a deep breath. “Yep. Let’s go make nice.”
There was a buffet reception before the performance set up in the foyer of the theatre. Art from all the other festival participants lined the walls. Susan did her fair share of schmoozing, but it was almost unendurable. The night crawled. Then there were the other performances, all of them quite wonderful. But Susan couldn’t pay any attention. Her dance was the last on the program. All she wanted was to go first and get it over with, but she had to wait.
And then it was time. She was seated in the presidential box next to Mark. Her family surrounding her. As the light came up on the stage with the two dancers, she felt her mother’s hand on one shoulder and her father’s hand on the other. Her sister Sharon was on her other side from the president, and Sharon gently took her hand. June was on the president’s other side and smiling at her. Just beyond her, Michael gave her a big grin and a thumb’s up, and Inez waved. Sarah, on the other side of Sharon, put her hands together and signalled her support, with Jodi, Tiffany, and Toby all waving. Only one person was missing, Susan realized with a start. But that would come later. She hoped.
The sad, crashing notes of Sparrow Without Wings, by Michael Wheatly, started. There was anger, with the one dancer pinned to the ground through the whole dance and the other fighting her. The was despair and frustration and slowly but surely, there was growth, and as the music swelled to its finish, the two dancers were moving together, the one still pinned to the floor, but the other moving along, going where the pinned dancer couldn’t. The dance ended. There was a brief hush, then the auditorium exploded with applause and cheering. The dancers took their bows, then waved at Susan in the box. She was surrounded by family members and the president, all, like the rest of the audience, on their feet, applauding with abandon.
It was sometime before the audience quieted enough to let everyone go. Susan made her way through the closing reception, accepting congratulations and even a few business cards. But Madeleine noticed that her daughter was wilting and nudged Mark, who agreed and collected her.
Susan told Mark to stay in the car as they came up to the hotel. He did help her out and into her chair, and she rolled into the lobby alone. Apart from the crowd outside, no one really noticed her and she wheeled herself into the bar.
Max was there, waiting for her.
“Well?” she asked.
“You nailed it,” he said with a happy grin on his face. “That was just unbelievable. Not a dry eye in the house.”
“Did you like it?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Good. I’m beat. Let’s go home before my family gets here.”
“Sure. Want me to push?”
“Yeah, I’d like that.”
Life Happens, right? Alas, I’ve had to put White House Rhapsody on hiatus until probably September.
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PaulDaMan: Just want to say thanks and sorry again.
MattJ: It’s okay. I get why it happened.
PaulDaMan: I had a really good time. And the girls are really cool, too. I really liked Kira.
MattJ: Good luck. I mean, she’s the greatest, but given what just happened with her dad, I’m guessing she’s not interested in dating right now.
PaulDaMan: Oh, well. I probably shouldn’t, either. See you Monday.
But first Mark had to deal with Mervyn Belwish, the Dean of Students at St. Ignatius Prep, the boarding school where Matt and the others went. Belwish was balding, lisped slightly and was dressed in a dark wool suit with a red bow tie and matching pocket color. He met Mark as the presidential limo pulled up.
“We’re so glad you’re here, Mr. President,” Belwish said. “Obviously, we wish the circumstances were better. But I’m sure this is all just a misunderstanding. We hold our boys here at St. Ignatius to a very high standard of behavior.”
“I understand,” said Mark.
He walked at a fast, but easy clip, which forced the smaller Belwish to scramble to keep up. Even so, Belwish didn’t let up with his sycophantic babbling.
“The security people from the mall are here,” Belwish said. “They’ve brought the video from the store and we’ll be able to see exactly what happened.”
“That would be a good thing,” said Mark.
“They’re right in here,” Belwish said, opening a door to a conference room.
Mark walked into the room and turned to the dean. “Will you excuse us, please?”
“Uh, certainly, sir. I’m sure we can get this all cleared up quickly.” Belwish reluctantly shut the door with himself still out in the hall.
Mark turned to the two women and one man in the room. “Good afternoon. I understand you’ve got some video to show me?”
“Yes, Mr. President,” said the one woman. She was older, in her mid-forties, wearing an elegant red suit. She was obviously somewhat nervous, but her innate elegance and the righteousness of her cause held firm.
“And you are..?” Mark asked.
“The store manager. Marlane Tortoricci,” she said. “And this is Earl Mixton and Tanisha Walsh.”
She indicated the rather beefy man in the ill-fitting suit of a security guard and a young Black woman in the same suit, but cut to better fit her generous body. Then Tortoricci turned the laptop on the conference table toward Mark.
“We always bring the video with us when we come to St. Ignatius,” she said.
Mark grinned. “Because Dean Belwish would let them get away with murder?”
Tortoricci quirked a smile in spite of herself. “Something like that, sir. In this case, there were four boys involved, including, I understand, your nephew. Ms. Walsh observed three boys taking the merchandise and hiding it on the fourth. We detained the three and immediately called the school. St. Ignatius being a boarding school, it’s usually easier for Dean Belwish to contact the parents.”
“And the fourth boy?”
“He removed the merchandise from his person and ran. Ms. Walsh believes that the boy was surprised to find it on him. But it’s possible he had merely spotted the cameras and decided to drop the goods and run. Here. You can see it on the video.”
The image was in black and white, but surprisingly clear. Matt, wearing a light-colored hoodie over loose jeans, was walking through the store next to Paul Marley. Marley was almost as tall as Matt, but fuller through the shoulders and sported light-colored hair. Two larger boys walked slightly behind Matt and Paul. Every so often, one of the larger boys would slide a small item off a display – a necklace from the jewelry department, cufflinks from another – and slip it to Paul. At one point, the three surrounded Matt. Paul’s hands were lightning fast, Mark caught him dropping a small tube into Matt’s hood. At that moment, Paul looked directly at the store camera, smiled softly and nodded. Mark guessed that Paul knew they had been caught.
A minute later, the three boys left. Matt wandered around the men’s jewelry counter, then frowned and batted at the hoodie. Seconds later, he was frantically piling socks, two necklaces and other items from his hoodie pockets and even from the back pocket of his jeans. Terrified, he glanced around, then ran.
“Mr. Mixton caught up with the other three nearby,” Tortoricci said. “He said they were watching the fourth boy and laughing.”
“I’m assuming you’ve guessed that the fourth boy was my nephew,” Mark said.
“Do you have any evidence that he knew what was going on until he found the merchandise in his pockets?”
“No, sir.” Tortoricci’s face said that she wished she had.
“I can understand why you’d be suspicious,” Mark said slowly. “Obviously, boys from this school have gotten into trouble before and you’ve had to back down, thanks to high-powered parents and their demands.”
“I am afraid that is the case, sir.”
“Well, if you feel you need to prosecute Matt, I understand. I don’t want to stand in the way of you doing what you think you need to do.” Mark frowned. “But I have good reason to believe he really was set up by the other three. After the school called me, one of our mutual friends called. Matt had called her in a complete panic and told her he’d been set up and was more worried about what getting caught would do to me than he was about getting arrested for stealing. And, truth be told, if he really had been shoplifting, he’d have a lot more to worry about from me than he would from you or any law enforcement. And he knows it.”
Tortoricci smiled. “Actually, sir, I’m impressed. Most parents and guardians get very defensive if I even hint their little darling has done something wrong. I’m not looking forward to dealing with the other three parents. Or the dean.”
“I’ve got an idea.” Mark smiled. “Nothing was actually stolen, was it?”
“Not that we can tell.”
“Well if anything got past Matt when he dumped everything, I’ll see to it that he brings it back to you. As for the others, I’m told I’m something of a power player, myself. And dear little Dean Belwish is such a sycophant that I’m sure he’ll find a way to let me lay down the law with the other three. The idea, of course, is to ensure that there are no repeat events, especially from this crew, correct?”
“That would be the ideal, sir.”
“Then Ms. Tortoricci, it was a pleasure meeting you and I’ll see to it that the others catch holy hell,”
“Thank you, sir.” Tortoricci shook Mark’s hand. “That will make my life easier.”
“Good day, then. And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some backsides to rake over the coals.”
“Hi. Is this serious?” Mark asked when he picked up.
“It’s about Matt. He just called me.”
“Where is he? The school just called me and I can’t get a hold of him.”
“His battery was dying and I told him to turn the phone off for the time being. He’s at Union Station in a total panic. It seems some of the boys at school set him up at some mall by putting merchandise in his pockets without him knowing, then ditched him. He found the stuff before leaving the store, but he’s scared to death that the mall security is after him.”
“Not quite, but things are a pretty mess. I’m heading to the school now. Tell you what. I’ll have a car meet you at Union Station. You bring Matt back to school. I’m not sure what all is going on, but I’m pretty sure they’re not going to charge him.”
“Matt’s pretty worried about this hurting you.”
Mark chuckled. “He would. Tell him not to worry. We’ll get it all straightened out.”
“Okay. I’ve got to go underground. I’ll call when I catch up with Matt.”
“Good. And, uh, thanks.”
As Mark swiped his phone to hang it up, he noticed Secret Service Agent Riff Butler, a tall, broad Black man with the blank demeanor most agents wore, already ordering the car. Butler paused.
“Sir?” he asked. “We’ve got a car on the way to Union, but is it for Ms. Wheatly?”
“Yeah,” said Mark. “Do you know if Matt ditched his detail?”
“No, sir. He didn’t. But they won’t interfere if he’s not in actual danger.”
“That’s right. But Matt was set up by some boys.”
“Yes, sir. We know. But it will be better for Matt if his detail doesn’t step in.”
Mark frowned. “I don’t see how that will help keep him safe.”
“It’s not personal safety, sir,” said Riff. “It’s socialization at school. No point in reminding everybody that he has government bodyguards. Makes him more of a target for resentment and harassment.”
“I see.” Mark glared out the window. “I know why you can’t tell me what’s going on, but Tony Garces was saying that Matt’s been getting a lot of grief from Duffy and Rob.”
“Yes, sir.” Riff shifted as he checked his tablet. “Duffy McIntyre and Rob Ayres. Duffy’s father is Andrew McIntyre and Rob’s father is Stephen Ayres.”
“No.” Mark groaned softly.
Andrew McIntyre had made his extreme fortune buying and selling software companies. His hardline approach to business and everything else meant that he was a frequent and very loud critic of Mark’s. Stephen Ayres was part of a real estate dynasty, and while he wasn’t the blowhard McIntyre was, he was no fan of Mark’s, either. Mark tried to remember if either were active parents. Mark knew Paul Marley’s mother, Senator Janet Marley. She was from the opposition, but the two were friends.
Sharon did not sleep well that night and woke up the next morning with her mind grasping at fuzzy images of Mark Jerguessen. As she ate breakfast, she debated going into the office that day, but decided the chance of running into Mark was not worth it.
Besides, there were fewer distractions at her townhouse. Determined to get the jump on the week ahead, Sharon fired up her laptop and began reading.
She was so absorbed that she barely noticed that her mobile phone was ringing and only just switched it on before the call went to voice mail.
“Wheatly,” she answered quickly, wondering who would be calling on a Saturday.
“Aunt Sharon, it’s Matt.” The boy’s voice sounded upset.
“Is everything okay?”
“No. I don’t know what to do. They set me up, Aunt Sharon. I didn’t do anything, and I think I got all the stuff out of my pockets. But what if they’re after me?”
“What? Who’s after you?”
“The mall police. They think I was shoplifting. Only I wasn’t.”
“Of course, you didn’t, Matt. Now, take a deep breath and let’s start at the beginning. What happened?”
“It was Paul and Rob and Duffy. They’re guys from school. They’re on the football team. I got to know them a little before Africa. They were really mad when I left the team. But they got some off-campus passes and invited me to come with them. I figured they were trying to make peace, you know?”
“Okay.” Sharon got up and began pacing. “So they weren’t?”
“No. Paul does this pickpocket thing. I mean, he’s really good and you can’t tell he’s pulling stuff from your pockets. Only this time, we were at a department store and Paul and the guys put a bunch of stuff in my pockets then ditched me. I found the stuff before I left the store. But you know how they have all these cameras all over the place. I’m sure someone saw me. I got everything out of my pockets I could and got out of there. I didn’t even stay at the mall. I took the Metro into DC, but then I thought what if this gets Uncle Mark into trouble? Aunt Sharon, what am I going to do?”
“Take another deep breath.” Sharon paused long enough for Matt to take his breath. “All right. Now where are you?”
“Okay.” Sharon thought it over. “Why don’t you stay put? I’ll come get you and we’ll work out what to tell your uncle and see how he wants to handle it. It shouldn’t take me that long to get there. So just stay put. Okay?”
“My battery is dying.”
“Where at the station are you? Can you get to the food court?”
“Okay. Hang there and I’ll be on my way in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
“My battery is dying.”
“Turn the phone off, then turn it back on again in about 30 minutes. Okay?”
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