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.
“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.
Fortunately, Bantu, who would be staying behind to continue negotiations, briefed Mark on the upcoming meetings 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
It was her brother, Michael. Tall and broad shouldered, he had dark blond hair and a square jaw – the kind of good looks that had helped make him the rock star he was. That he was also a talented musician had kept him one. He grinned at Sharon.
“So what are you doing out here?” he asked, mischief glinting in his eyes.
“Thinking,” Sharon answered. “What are you doing out here?”
“Came looking for you,” Michael said. “Thought we could do a little jamming. And… I noticed your boss was out here, too.”
Sharon glared at him. “And so what? We had some work issues to work out.”
“Such as I can’t talk about them because they’re work issues.” Sharon snorted.
Michael frowned suddenly. “We’re not, you know, going to blow up or anything, are we?”
“Not this time,” Sharon said. “You know, I can take care of myself. You didn’t have to play protective watch-dog yesterday afternoon. And besides, he is only my boss.”
“I only worry about you because I care.”
“I know you do, Michael, but I’d really rather you stayed out of my love life. Or what you think is my love life.”
Michael guffawed. “Like you stay out of mine? Come on. I know you were coaching Inez.”
Sharon snorted again, but this time because she knew Michael was right.
“Come on,” she said, taking his arm. “Let’s go jam.”
Sometime later, most of the group had gone to their respective tents, leaving June, Carla, Michael and Inez sitting around the embers of the fire.
“So?” Michael asked June softly.
“What?” June asked, then giggled. “Seriously. I don’t get what you’re asking.”
“I don’t know,” sighed Michael. “It just seemed like things were pretty tense between Sharon and your brother up until a little while ago. Is Sharon in trouble or something?”
“Or something,” sigh Carla. “And it’s my fault.”
“No, it’s not,” June said, swatting at her. June looked at Michael. “You heard about Carla’s miraculous escape from Nigeria, right?”
Inez nudged him. “Yes, you did. I read you the story on the plane to London.”
“Oh, that!” Michael looked at Carla. “That was you?”
“Yes,” said Carla.
“She actually left with us on Air Force One,” June said. “The catch was my brother wasn’t supposed to know until we were in the air. That way he could honestly deny knowing what was going on.”
“Plausible deniability,” said Inez. “Okay.”
“Well, Sharon was part of it and Mark got a little annoyed,” June said. “He was also worried that we were letting our emotions get the better of us. Which we weren’t.
“Right,” said Carla. “I just hope I didn’t get Sharon in trouble.”
June groaned. “Not that much in trouble and it looks like they cleared the air a little while ago.”
“Yeah,” Michael said. “I found her at the edge of the village and him coming from that direction. She said she couldn’t talk about it.”
“Maybe she didn’t think she could,” June said.
“Or maybe she didn’t want her big brother to know what was going on,” said Inez, nudging Michael.
Michael just looked at June. “So, does she have a thing for your brother? Matt seems to think so.”
June laughed. “Actually, they both have it bad for each other. But they’re not going to do anything about it. I’m not sure what Sharon’s reasons are. She says she doesn’t want to be a public figure.”
“She really doesn’t,” Carla said. “It scares the snot out of her.”
“Then why does she keep falling for guys in the limelight?” Michael asked.
Inez shoved him again. “It was only that one time with your drummer. Her other boyfriends have been fairly low-profile.”
“Not that kid she was dating while in grad school. The one that became the big tech CEO,” Michael said. “He was all about the publicity and that’s when Sharon dumped him.”
Carla shoved Michael from his other side. “Her past history is irrelevant. It’s what’s going on now and June is right. Sharon has it bad for Mr. President and definitely does not want to be the First Girlfriend.”
“And Mark is equally hung up on her,” June said. “I’m serious. Half the West Wing staff is in on the conspiracy to get those two together because they can tell they like each other. And really, they just fit. You can tell.”
“Really?” asked Carla. “This could be fun. How do I get in on this?”
“Wait,” Michael said. He paused. “You sure they really like each other? I mean, I’ve had that vibe from her for a while now, but after the past day or two, I was getting worried.”
“They’ve definitely worked it out,” said June. “I caught them glancing at each other before Mark went to his tent. I mean, I know she isn’t in there, but I saw the look.”
“I did, too,” said Carla. “And it said she wanted to be in that tent with him.”
“Voice of reason here,” said Inez. “Maybe we ought to let them work it out.”
The others groaned.
“That’s no fun,” said Carla.
“We’ll just have to be subtle, that’s all,” said June.
“That lets Michael out,” Inez said, getting up. “Which means it’s time we were in bed. Come on, honey.”
“But,” Michael looked up at Inez and sighed. “You’re right. Good night, Carla, June.”
“Good night,” Carla said.
“Good night,” June echoed then got up, herself. “And really I need to go to bed, too. You coming, Carla?”
“Sure.” Carla got up and followed June.
By Rebecca Cooper
While we have been given official permission to speculate, it was on the condition that it’s clear that is all we are doing here. We do not know anything, officially or unofficially.
But my best guess is that something was going on as early as last August and the trip to Africa. For one thing, they’d had a fight in Nigeria, and it had that couples vibe all over it. They didn’t make it up until Kenya, either, late at night, when we were having that party in the bush.
Even then, I might not have paid it any mind, but Aunt Sharon and I had a talk that night in our tent.
She and her brother had been jamming with a couple of the village drummers, which was amazing, so we were still a little wired when we finally got into our sleeping bags.
“I can’t believe I got to see that,” I said. “You guys were so good.”
“Not really,” Sharon said. “Michael blew me away, as usual.”
“No, seriously. You could play professionally.”
“No, I couldn’t,” Sharon said. “I’m good but not that good. And, besides, you have to eat, sleep and breathe music to make it in that business. I love music, but not that much. My brother does and that’s one of the reasons he’s successful.”
“That’s like what Uncle Mark says about politics.” Then I couldn’t help myself. “Do you like Uncle Mark?”
“Yes. He’s a good friend.”
“Not that way.”
“Oh, come on, Rebecca. We’re both too mature for that kind of high school nonsense. In fact, it’s time to go to sleep. Good night.”
Funny thing is, she didn’t answer my question, so you kind of have to wonder.