The days sped by. Mark remained focused on getting his education legislation passed and spent almost an entire week travelling around the country to encourage support for it. Sharon had her hands full monitoring a government takeover in Zambia, a contested election in Venezuela, a malfeasance scandal in the Australian government that looked like it was going to hurt just about everybody, and labor riots in both India and Germany.
“At least, the Mideast is quiet,” Sharon’s secretary Julie noted as they ate lunch in Sharon’s office that Thursday afternoon.
“Don’t say that. You’ll jinx it,” Sharon said as Fayza came to the door of the office. “See what I mean?”
“What?” Fayza asked.
“Julie was just saying that about the only region we haven’t had trouble in this week was the Middle East,” Sharon said.
Fayza laughed. “Relax. You’re safe this time. I just came to see if you guys know when the boss gets back from stumping for education.”
“He got back yesterday,” Julie said, getting up and gathering her empty dishes.
“Why do you want to know?” Sharon asked as Julie left the room.
“Our friends, the Saudis.” Fayza rolled her eyes. “I’m getting some rumbles they’re fussing because their mission hasn’t been invited to the White House in a while.”
Sharon sighed. “You’ll have to set that up with Kent. Maybe do an afternoon tea and photo opp for all the Middle Eastern countries. Or does the ambassador want to see the President on his own?”
“If we can set up the meeting as a solo event, I think that would be better,” said Fayza.
“Okay, but remind your source that these things don’t happen overnight,” Sharon said. “The president has a pretty full schedule and it’s only going to get worse with the American holidays coming.”
“I know,” said Fayza with a small sigh. “But you know the ambassador. He needs to show off that he’s well-connected and he’s not happy unless he’s throwing his weight around.”
“Talk to State,” Sharon said. “Then get things set up with Kent.”
Sharon checked the time on her laptop. “And speaking of the president, I’ve got a briefing in…”
“Ten minutes,” said Julie coming back into the office. “I’ve got the outline in your folder and sent the copy to the Oval account.”
“Sharon,” Leonidas Bertonetti, the South American expert, all but ran up to the door. “Better get this on your radar. Massive anti-American protests are going on all over Nicaragua. Apparently, they’re expecting the extradition panel to rule that Michael Eland stays in the States..”
Sharon groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I wish,” Leonidas replied.
Fayza shook her head. “I’m going back to my office where I just have to deal with temperamental Saudis.”
Several minutes later, Sharon was telling Mark what she knew about the protests.
“It’s almost as if the Nicaraguans have forgotten that it was the previous administration that was holding up the extradition,” she said.
Michael Eland, an American citizen, had been accused of assassinating the Nicaraguan finance minister two years before. He’d escaped to the U.S. and the Nicaraguans had immediately requested extradition, with good cause, as they had video of Eland leaving the apartment from which the deadly shot had come time-stamped within minutes of the killing. Extradition was not a particularly fast process, but the previous administration had dragged its feet, insisting that Eland was innocent and being set up.
One of the first things Mark had done after being sworn in was to quietly order an investigation of the video and had found that it was unlikely to have been tampered with. Which is why he had signed the order to start the extradition process. It had not been a popular move.
“And what about their government?” Mark asked.
“They’re being very non-committal about the whole thing,” Sharon scrolled through a couple emails. “All of Leonidas’s sources and my source say that they’re taking a wait and see position. They seem to get that the decision is in our court system and that we really have no control over what the court decides. But they also have to back their people, and given what the last administration let happen there, they have good reason to be upset if Eland stays here.”
“And if the court decides to send Eland, our people are going to expect me to keep him here,” Mark said.
Sharon shrugged. “At least, Nicaragua hasn’t had the death penalty since 1979. Eland will probably be in jail for life, though.”
Mark nodded. “Well, there’s not much we can do until the decision comes down.”
“They’re expected to rule tomorrow.” Sharon clicked into another report. “And here’s the list of the rest of the madness occurring. Least important is the Saudi ambassador.”
Mark winced. “Not him again.”
“I told Fayza to set up a twenty-minute photo op with Kent. She thinks that should shut him up.”
Mark nodded as Sharon went through the rest of the briefing.
The next morning, the extradition panel ruled that Eland be extradited back to Nicaragua. The resulting blow-up in the States pretty much took over the Advisory Panel meeting the next day.
“They’re going to play this one hard,” Media Advisor Gus Guererro said. “It’s already on our not so favorite news network that you’ve sold Eland out.”
“Social media is all over it, no surprise,” said Culture Advisor Karen Tanaka. “I’m seeing lots of pro and con memes on this. On our side, they’re saying it’s about time Eland faced the music for his crime. On the other side, it’s all ‘we told you he’d sell us out.’”
“But we have a treaty,” said Sharon. “We have to honor it. And it’s not just Nicaragua. It’s all the other countries we have extradition treaties with. We keep Eland, they’re not going to want to send their felons back here. It’s hard enough getting them to since we still have the death penalty in effect.”
“Well, maybe we should spend less time worrying about what the rest of the world thinks about us,” Military Advisor Al Eddington glared at Sharon.
“It’s still the right thing to do,” Sharon said.
“And backing up your fellow citizen isn’t?” Al snapped. “Eland took out a completely corrupt jackass. They should be thanking us.”
“Except that it was seen as our government meddling in their affairs, which we have no right to do,” Sharon said. “Worse yet, we may have been.”
“And how do you know that meddling wasn’t invited? Eland was hired to advise them on security strategies.”
“Okay, you two,” Mark cut in. “This is getting us nowhere. We obviously have to send Eland back. The paperwork’s already been signed.” He shrugged. “We’re just going to have to take the hit, that’s all. Gus, Karen, why don’t you two get with Jean and get our statement out. Try and focus on doing the right thing and pointing out that they don’t have the death penalty in Nicaragua. Now, what’s next?”
As the meeting broke up, Mark held Al back. The older retired Marine remained standing and stony-faced.
“Al, what’s going on?” Mark asked, fairly sure he was not going to get a straight answer.
“I’m fine, sir,” Al all but growled.
“No, you’re not. Every time Sharon says something, you’ve got a problem with it, and it’s been that way since you came back to work. You don’t pick on Tanks that way. You don’t pick on Mackie that way. You don’t pick on anybody that way. Just Sharon. And most of the time, even you admit, it’s not warranted. Now, what’s going on?”
“I’ll be more aware of it, sir.”
Mark sighed. “See that you do. You can go.”
Even though the next day was Saturday, Sharon, Press Secretary Jean Bouyer, Gus, Karen, Al, and Secretary of State Dan Friedman all spent the afternoon in the Oval Office with the president. Eland had been sent on an early flight under heavy guard back to Nicaragua, only to have been assassinated on the tarmac. One of the guards had been killed and two others were wounded, along with a Nicaraguan police officer.
There wasn’t much to be said. Sharon looked over at Mark with a sigh. A deep sadness hung over him.
“I think we can legitimately complain that the Nicaraguans were supposed to see to it that Eland stood for trial,” Sharon said.
“We may want to focus on that,” Al grumbled. “I just got some intel that the folks behind the shooting were part of the group that had hired Eland to help them run their operation. Looks like they didn’t particularly want him on trial.”
“We can also take that angle with the press here,” Gus said. “The bottom line is, we did the right thing.”
The conversation continued in this way for another hour or so before Mark dismissed everybody. Sharon wasn’t surprised to see Mark at her townhouse less than an hour later.
“I don’t want to talk about the Eland mess,” he told her after an extended embrace. “I just want to put together something particularly intricate and fussy. Something that will take some concentration.”
“That does sound like a good idea,” said Sharon, opening her laptop. “Anything you’ve got a yen for?”
They spent the afternoon and evening cooking, putting together a Bolognese sauce and several dishes from a digital copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking that Mark pulled up on Sharon’s reading tablet. By the time they went to bed, Sharon remarked that she’d be eating for the next month. Still, around two am, she woke up and found Mark standing in the dark, staring out the window.
Sarah Wheatly felt like she was drowning in work. While her art had always been recognized as exceptional, and she’d usually managed to support herself without resorting to teaching and any number of other things her friends did to supplement their incomes, it had only been in the past year and a half that she’d seen some significant commercial success painting portraits. Those she could paint fast enough to charge a reasonable rate for them.
Only over the past year, she hadn’t needed to paint so fast. She still did. She didn’t like turning down work, partly from the memory of not having that much and partly because she liked people and didn’t want to disappoint them. But she’d had no choice over the past month or so. There was the proposal for the White House portrait to consider, plus the two other portraits she’d been commissioned for, plus a quick painting that Susan had requested, plus her own art. She also had a waiting list and commissions for a good chunk of the next year.
So however nice the youngish man at her door seemed, Sarah was decidedly annoyed by what he told her.
“Father said to tell you that he confirmed the appointment with you last week,” he said.
“Oh? Who’s your father?” Sarah tried not to glare.
“Edgar Samuelson. He called last week.” The young man put on an appeasing smile.
Sarah frowned. There had been an unpleasant call not too long ago. It could have happened the week before. She looked at the calling card he’d given her. The name, in elegant, engraved font, was Reginald Samuelson, with no other information. Sarah sighed. Who would name a kid Reginald in this day and age? He was tall and thin and hunched over, with full black hair and dark-rimmed glasses. He wore a starched white shirt with an argyle vest and tan corduroy pants under his dark wool top coat. Sarah couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.
“He… He told me you’d probably forget the appointment,” Reginald continued, growing more nervous.
It suddenly became clear. The elder Mr. Samuelson had told Sarah to tell someone she had forgotten about their commission. Artists were always forgetful.
“Oh, him.” Sarah glared, then flushed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to dump on your father. But he was pretty rude to me.”
Reginald ducked his head. “I’m sorry about that. He thinks he’s being firm.”
Sarah sighed and waved Reginald inside the studio. The young man shuddered as he looked around at the clutter. Sarah’s studio was located in an old Nineteenth Century factory that had been converted to lofts. Neither she nor her neighbors were technically supposed to be living there, but most of the tenants did, including Sarah. She liked living in her workspace and she didn’t like paying for an additional apartment when she was in her studio most of the time, anyway.
She had built sections into the large, square room using screens, which depending on whichever project she was working on, sometimes shifted. At the moment, she had placed the screens next to the wall of windowsand around the front corner that she usually used as an office. It was serving as inspiration for the White House project. A huge sofa dominated the rest of the room, and near the windows toward the back was an easel with a large canvas on it that had been covered. Screens shut out the other corner where her bed was and a bathroom had been built into the loft. A dining room table next to the door overflowed with papers, sketches, flip books. Beyond the table was a small counter with a sink and stove. A toaster oven sat on top of a small microwave.
As Sarah shifted a small pile of medium-sized canvases off the sofa, she tried not to look as annoyed as she felt. She got that Reginald might feel a little uncomfortable in a space as cluttered as hers, but she did not like that he had visibly shuddered.
“Is it possible that you did forget?” Reginald asked, sitting down tentatively in the space Sarah had cleared. He looked around at all the littered surfaces.
“No,” Sarah said, clearing a nearby wing-backed chair, then flopping into it. “I don’t forget commissions. Besides, you’re not in my system. That’s why I tell everyone to go through the website.” She grabbed at a set of locater tiles that hung from a chain around her neck. She flipped through, pressed one, and something started beeping next to her. “In the cushions again.” She slid sideways, then dug through the cushion next to her and pulled up a tablet in a paint-splattered cover. “See? People used to try to bamboozle me all the time and it got really annoying. So, my niece, who’s a computer geek, helped me set up a system and then got me a virtual assistant. Everyone goes through the website, no exceptions. That’s the only way you’ll get a contract and I don’t do anything without a signed contract. And I do read them, so people aren’t pulling funny changes on me, either.”
Reginald blinked, as if he were about to cry. “But you don’t understand. This is my mother’s Christmas present.”
“I’m sorry about that, but I simply do not have the time to squeeze in another portrait, and even if I did, I can’t make exceptions or it’s not fair to my other clients.”
Reginald sank into himself. “No, it isn’t. My father would say that money is the only client that counts, and he’ll outbid anyone.”
“Goody for him,” Sarah grumbled.
“He doesn’t react well when he comes up against someone who isn’t about the money.”
“I’m guessing it doesn’t happen too often.”
Reginald shuddered again. “No. That’s kind of my problem.”
“You’re not about the money, either.”
“Nope.” He sighed. “I’m a professor of sociology. I was supposed to go into business, but I hated it. My father cut me off, and it was rough, at first, but I survived and got my PhD anyway.”
“You’ve got a PhD?”
He shrugged. “I’m older than I look. The point is my father never got that I didn’t mind scrambling and living simply. We’ve only recently patched things up, mostly because my mother wanted us to. She supported me going out on my own, but it really hurt her.”
Sarah sighed. “Oh, criminy. Whose big idea was the portrait?”
“Dad’s. Well, sort of. Mom would love it, and if Dad was going to get one done, then it has to be from the best. And, apparently, you are.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “That frickin’ magazine article. I mean, it was a nice way to get noticed, but it’s been more than crazy since.”
Reginald got up. “Well, I appreciate you listening.”
“Sit down.” Sarah got up as he sat and began rummaging around the clutter. “Look, the portrait is not going to happen until it goes through the website and I have a signed contract. Are we clear?”
“But let’s see what I can do right now.” Sarah pulled up a large sketch pad, a couple pencils and a pencil sharpener. “Let me get a good look at you, then just sit and talk to me.”
She circled around the couch, concentrating, as Reginald tried to look forward, then she plopped down into the wing back and began to draw. She asked him a couple questions about his dissertation and what he taught, and he rambled on happily. What she was able to process sounded interesting, but she was too focused on her drawing to pay much attention. All told, it took about an hour to do the drawing. Sarah was not happy with it, but Reginald was ecstatic. She rolled the paper up and sent him on his way. As she went back behind the screens to her office set up, she began to wonder if she shouldn’t have at least gotten Reginald’s email address.
Dear Aunt Charlotte –
Sorry to take so long to check in, but it has been really busy here. I was thinking of bringing a crustless quiche with courgettes. That should travel pretty easily. Or rum cake. As far as I know, Michael hasn’t made up his mind what he’s going to bring beyond the vegetables so that Sarah can make a salad. As we warned you, she’s okay in the kitchen with supervision. It’s just that if it’s not about art, she gets distracted way too easily and thing get burnt.
The quiche sounds good, but what are courgettes? Sarah’s salad will be fine. Michael emailed that he and Inez are making tamales.
Tamales! Oh, are we in for a treat! And courgettes. Those are zucchini. I do not know why, but I cannot keep those two straight for the life of me. Probably because I learned courgettes first and zucchini is Italian. You know what? I think rum cake will be easier. That okay?