Melanie recognized Paula’s extension, and exhaled sharply. She smoothed her voice the way a widow adjusts her dress during an unseasonably hot funeral. “Hi, Paula.” Sincere but solemn.
“Melanie, hi. Mark can’t do the trip. Jim wants you to come.”
Melanie, after ten years as a diplomat, had the grace not to offer her opinion of what Jim did or didn’t want, but her forehead made a graceful arc onto her keyboard.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“You sound – muffled.” After twenty years as an office manager, Paula had mastered the subtle art of the stiletto phone rebuke.
Melanie restored verticality, one vertebra at a time, her residual muscle memory of one long-ago yoga trial. “Sorry. Right. Of course, if he needs me, I’ll go.”
“He wants you to come upstairs.”
Melanie glanced at her calendar. By the grace of God and Microsoft Outlook – ! “I have an appointment.”
Melanie had omitted any trace of a sigh. She was nearly sure. Except that Paula said, a little too gleefully, “Should I send you a meeting reminder?”
The peace process in Xanadu had gotten an unexpected jolt after the rebels’/Exxon Mobil’s discovery that their offshore oil explorations had been a $100 million exercise in futility. Now, the island was undergoing the beginnings of a reverse-coup: the civilian administration was retaking its be-webbed and dusty seats, there were rumors about extending the curfew past the dark, and public utilities were functioning for as many as four to six hours a day.
The Embassy of the United States of America in Xanadu, in an abundance of caution, was reserving judgment. “I’ll believe it when the Xanadu United Front hands back the keys to the TV station,” Jim had said, during the last country team meeting.
A few of the men in their blue suits and white shirts chuckled sycophantically; Jim had only been at the mission for two weeks, and they knew he had been handpicked by the Ambassador.
Melanie remembered not to roll her eyes.
“Maybe DAS Delaney can preside over the event,” he added. The newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary who minded their bit of the world at State – recently unearthed from the bowels of a conservative think tank – demanded results from his first overseas trip. In Jim’s expert view, the transfer of those skeleton keys in the presence of an American official would count. “Should I summon the press?” Melanie replied, sardonically.
“Would you?” Jim replied, with a disarming smile.
Melanie remembered what he had been like in Lagos, and gave him a tight-lipped nod.
Flights between the capital and the rebels’ stronghold had been officially restored three weeks before (actually beginning the previous day). The advance team was six. There were three Americans: Jim, the embassy’s second-in-command, participating as much to hobnob with the soon-to-be-former rebels as to prepare for Delaney’s visit; Melanie, to visit the long-since-looted American Center and reassure/support its staff; and Keith, the Assistant Regional Security Officer. And there were three local staff – Jim’s bodyguard Amadou; Melanie’s press specialist, Blandine; and Keith’s senior security specialist, David. On the way to the airport, Blandine whispered, “La reine des neiges ne vienne pas?”
The Snow Queen in question was Jim’s wife, Regina. She had a sort of Scandinavian hard prettiness and her J.D.; in Xanadu she was assisting a local women’s group fighting for passage of a national anti-sexual harassment law. But she had scandalized the local staff by wearing a miniskirt to the embassy’s 4th of July event. When greeted with soft Bonjour madames and How are you's? from the local staff, her nostrils flared, and she said only, “Hi.”
Blandine, a friend of their son Milo’s nanny, said, “She snapped her fingers to summon Zahra. Comme ça. Comme un chien.”
Like a dog.
Melanie had done all of her mandatory supervisory training and was well aware of how she ought to respond. She had also recently completed forty hours, over several weeks, and entirely between five and eight p.m., in which she and Blandine had been the last two in the office. Melanie had discovered another staffer, Adnane, selectively “losing” Fulbright applications. And Blandine’s assistant Amira had performed a feat miraculous in America: she had taken six months of maternity leave.
So Melanie and Blandine had spent evenings application-reading, Facebook posting, I’ll get the lights-ing.
“No, she’s not coming,” said Melanie.
“Good,” sniffed Blandine, in English.
Melanie did successfully stifle a smile.
Even Jim had to scramble for a seat aboard the prop plane, which looked, Melanie thought, exactly like a prop plane – a set piece borrowed from a mediocre production of Miss Saigon. Blandine, respectful of protocol/eager to avoid sitting next to le chef, cheerfully shoved Melanie into the middle next to Jim. Melanie’s arm accidentally brushed his.
“My elbow isn’t offended.”
Were he not her supervisor of record, Melanie might have offered a riposte; instead, she liberated her Sudoku from her bag.
“You’re still into those.”
Melanie imagined a follow-up question hanging in the air, rather like an aspiring sword of Damocles, but Jim took out his iPad and started reading an op-ed about Xanadu’s peace process in Le Monde.
It was not the first time. When Jim had arrived at Embassy Xanadu – mere weeks after Melanie had – she had been duly summoned by Paula to see him. He was still in the suitcase-rumpled phase of his tour, while she had already received a princely 250 pounds of extra clothes and American-brand detergent. So, she was gentle with him. She briefed him creditably on her Public Affairs Section’s plans for supporting the peace deal and palatably promoting American policy. He thanked her, then said, “What’s your vision for this tour?”
Is that diplomatic code for ‘What do you want?’
She said, “My predecessor was a little light on basic management controls.” He hired Adnane, for starters. “I want to make sure my office is functioning properly by the time I leave.”
Ten years of training, for a lovely non-answer. “I want to represent America.”
A half-hour before landing, Jim’s iPad ran out of battery. Melanie asked, “So, what is Colonel Michel like, as a person?”
“A generalissimo in every possible sense,” said Jim. “Fortunately, he prefers a charm offensive to the other kind.”
Melanie nodded. “So he also wants this press event to happen.”
“That’s why I brought you.”
I thought it was because Mark is only on step one of twelve and is on a plane back to his parents’ house in Houston, Melanie mused.
The plane landed in a more-or-less continuous motion, and they arrived to the sight of finely wrought young men in képis sporting a rather striking camouflage, accessorized with vintage AK-47s. Jim re-knotted his tie, introduced himself in franglais as Madame l’Ambassadeur’s deputy, and handed out his wilting business cards.
The embassy delegation turned as one. Colonel Michel smiled, extended one hand, and clapped Jim a bit too chummily on the shoulder with the other.
Keith and Amadou relaxed the hands near their holsters.
Jim introduced the others, starting with Melanie. The colonel looked her up and down in a curious, but nonsexual, manner, and then smiled broadly when she said, “C’est un plaisir de vous rencontrer, Colonel.” He complimented her accent very particularly, inquired about the dreary details of longtime-love-of-French and study abroad, and then said, in English, “Come. We will discuss the visit, and then we will do a small tour.”
In Melanie’s experience, the said tour would last two and a half to three hours longer than necessary and would end in extravagant gifts that the Americans were unable to refuse (protocol) and unable to keep (ethics regulations).
The Xanadu United Front had occupied the eastern half of a colonial-era building, sensibly maintaining the other half as an extortionate B&B for visiting dignitaries and self-important stringers. Jim, whose six months of French training had failed to sand down his American vowels, turned to Melanie to relay America’s requests. There were some frenetic negotiations about the order of proceedings and the press component, and everyone drank too much mint tea, then exchanged tissue packets and hastened to the restrooms, and then regrouped to shake hands in the dazzling sunshine.
“Farid!” bellowed the Colonel. Farid materialized, as if the Colonel’s voice had summoned him into being. He was a gangly youth of perhaps twenty in an undersized uniform; Melanie suddenly wondered whose idea it had been for him to join the rebel movement. He was instructed to “show our friends the Americans our local treasure.”
Moments later, they were standing at the once-manicured, now crumbling, pier, as Farid hurtled into the boat.
Melanie remembered: another day, another dock, before, watching a well-loved figure sail from the Embassy’s own island in Lagos back to the mainland…
Amadou took in Farid and the vessel and said, to Jim, “Monsieur, I would not advise this.”
Jim looked from Colonel Michel, who ordered a boy to put a case of bottled water into the boat for the foreigners – to Farid, who was squinting at them with – indifference? disbelief? amusement? – and then to the boat, which had been recently promoted from aluminum can to seaworthy (?) vessel. “I don’t wish to insult our host,” he mused. “But each of you is at liberty to decide.”
Amadou said, immediately, “I will go with you,” while glaring toward Michel.
“Me too,” said Keith.
Melanie considered. There was a dingy café with good pastries and better coffee next to the American Center…but duty, unfortunately, kept hitting redial. “I’m in.”
Blandine and David signaled their agreement, and they were off, bobbing across the lake. Blandine grimaced.
“What the hell is that?” cried Keith, pointing toward a serpentine log near the shore.
“Caïman,” said Farid, unconcernedly, trailing his fingers in the water.
“Crocodile,” said Melanie.
Keith muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “I sure as shit didn’t sign up for this.”
Their destination came slowly into focus: an erection from a different civilization and a different era, transplanted here, among the glorious palms and mango trees. Formally billed as Elysée House, its local alias was la maison de folie, which Melanie thought would have looked much better on the brochures.
Farid mechanically recited the known facts of the misplaced European palace, and Melanie interpreted for Keith’s sake. “It was built by the first French administrator, who wished to be located as far as possible from the people he was governing.” Keith shook his head – in disbelief, disgust, or dissatisfaction, Melanie could not have said. “The government of Xanadu seized it in 1960, but abandoned it in 1961, citing logistical challenges.”
The motor coughed; everyone started.
“What do you think?” Jim murmured to Melanie. “Citizen Kane meets Heart of Darkness?”
She debated whether to take up this gambit. “Too erudite. How about the house in Ten Little Indians where the guests are murdered in succession?”
“Too on the nose,” said Jim.
“This looks like some Scooby Doo shit right here,” muttered Keith.
“No, I’ve got it,” Melanie said. “Grimm Brothers meets Tomb Raider?”
They pulled around to the front of the house, where they glimpsed – of all things – a drawbridge, slowly rotting into the tropical grass. “No, it’s something else,” Jim said, slowly.
“Neuschwanstein,” Melanie supplied, automatically.
They had finished the puzzle depicting that castle – a Bavarian king’s Wagner-induced hallucination – after the Marine Ball in Lagos. Neither of them had felt quite ready to go home, even after the last chair had been stacked and the lonesome Marine on duty handed a piece of the cake behind his bulletproof-glass station. So, still be-tuxedoed and be-gowned, they had completed a 500-piece “casse-tête” left behind in the Community Liaison Office, sometime around four.
“Ah,” said Jim, and removed his glasses to polish them.
Those were new.
“What?” asked Keith.
“Do you remember the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyworld?” asked Melanie.
“Nailed it,” said Keith.
They stepped off the boat. The house’s many windows observed them narrowly from beneath its furrowed liana brows.
The caretaker, Monsieur Claude, gave them the full date-and-apocrypha tour. Melanie considered the fading mosaics of an alien eyesore that had displaced a holy site. Blandine pointed out the window and said, “Vingt-quatre.”
“Twenty-four what?” asked Jim.
“Morts. Les pauvres.”
Indeed, there were twenty-four crude stones marking the graves of the men who died in the construction. Claude skirted over the “ghost stories,” thus extinguishing the only flicker of interest his listeners had displayed, and instead noted that Princess Grace had once visited, as had a Chinese Vice Foreign Minister and a notorious American boxer.
Jim must have tipped Claude handsomely, because he helped them into the boat and pumped each of their hands six or seven times.
Farid pulled the motor’s starter rope. The motor offered the mechanical equivalent of Five more minutes, Mommy, then went quiet. As did the travelers.
He pulled it again. And again. And again, a non-Arthur attempting to wrench Excalibur from the stone. Or, Melanie thought, Wile E. Coyote yanking an Acme-brand boulder off a cliff.
Keith said, “Does anyone mind if I smoke?” as Blandine wrinkled her nose.
They waited, playing the part of good guests; finally, Farid let loose one unprintable word, and they wordlessly filed back ashore.
“Claude must have a boat,” said Amadou, sensibly.
That’s why Jim brought Amadou.
Claude explained that he did indeed have a boat, as a few raindrops tickled Melanie’s nose. It was undergoing repair at a shop three doors down from Melanie’s favorite café. Meanwhile, he was haunting the former butler’s quarters. Melanie wondered if that was simple pragmatism, the rebels’ orders, or colonialism gone amok.
“Well, they must have dropped him off, or come here to tow his boat away,” said Keith, “so they must have a boat. Can’t we call them?”
Claude explained that the crumbling mansion had not maintained service since those six months of occupancy post-independence.
“I’ll call Michel,” said Jim, pulling out his cell phone. “Ah. Zero bars.”
Keith said to David, “Ask him when his friends are due back.”
Amadou said, “Sir, we have the sat phone.”
Jim said, “Amadou, remind me to nominate you for an award when we get back.” He dialed Colonel Michel on the satellite phone. The conversation, a tortured mélange of French and English, indicated that the Colonel was quite desolated, and apologized very much for the inconvenience his friends the Americans were having, despite it being rather their own fault for having taken so long on the tour. But, unfortunately, it was growing dark, the weather was not convenient and sailing inadvisable, and – hélas! – it was certainly not possible to swim. Ho, ho.
Keith proclaimed, with near-religious fervor, “Fuck.”
Colonel Michel then asked to speak to Claude. Neither Keith nor anyone else needed any translation of Claude’s orders to treat les Américains like treasured, possibly moribund, members of his own family, or else. Then he strove to reassure Jim that he, personally, would certainly come in a superior boat in the morning, God willing.
Or the day after.
Jim said, “Thank you, Colonel,” then dialed the Ambassador.
“What did she say?” Melanie asked, afterward.
“She asked how the meeting with Michel went. Then she noted that she’d prefer to be on adventure travel with us rather than doing conference calls with Washington. She said she’d let our families know where we are. And then she said we should all enjoy this break from our email.”
Claude said, “I will try to have dinner ready at eight,” then headed back toward the pier, leaning into the wind, fishing rod in hand.
“He’s not fucking serious,” said Keith, as lightning forked alarmingly near the north tower, but he followed Claude outside and took up another pole.
Claude’s stores were minimal, but the perpetually-snacking Americans were better provisioned. Dinner consisted of a few bites of fresh fish (Keith’s and Claude’s), rice (Claude’s), several fresh mangoes gathered from the grounds, peanuts (Jim’s), two sticks of beef jerky (Keith’s), and M&Ms (Melanie’s). They were none of them satisfied (no Snickers), but it was better than nothing.
Most of the palace rooms were empty, so Claude assigned rooms based on the availability of any furniture. Jim received the gouverneur’s own room, of course. Melanie was given the library and the others were tucked here and there. Claude produced a pack of cards, so they played poker for grains of uncooked rice, until the power went out.
Seven cell phone faces glowed. Claude followed a trail of rice grains to the pantry to locate candles and matches, and to see if he could start the generator (short answer: No.).
The conversation limped along, and finally collapsed by eleven. David and Keith excused themselves first, then Claude apologized for being “un peu fatigué," then Amadou yawned widely. Jim said, “Go on; I think we’re safe until morning.”
Blandine gave Melanie a strangely pointed look and then she, too, drifted off.
The candles flickered in the cavernous dining room as the thunder produced a dramatic drumroll. Jim broke the silence, and said, “Phantom of the Opera?”
“No. Definitely Miss Havisham’s house.”
But, unhappily, she was actually picturing Molly Ringwald. On a window seat. On her birthday.
“Thank you for the brilliant interpretation today,” said Jim.
“You’re too kind.”
“It was an honest and impartial assessment.”
Jim had offered an honest and impartial assessment of the situation four years before, when he had approached Melanie, and announced, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
“Please remember that for my next performance review,” Melanie answered. “Exemplary use of foreign language skills before accidentally marooning supervisor, akin to plot of third-rate horror film –”
“Mel,” he said, wiping his glasses.
“I just –”
“Jim.” There was no point in dredging anything again. “You’re my boss –”
The lightning bolt hit a palmier so close that it lit up the room, enough for Melanie to see the furrow in Jim’s brow and the – was that hurt? – in his eyes. And then – time slowed, dilated – they saw the great shadow of the ancient palm outside rushing toward them – they both realized, and leapt back –
The top of the palm tree smashed through the French doors, shattering the glass and destroying part of the wall, raising a choking cloud of plaster smoke. The tree hung half-suspended on its trunk; the fronds reaching as far as the foot of the dining table, fashionably late to dinner.
The noise caused the entire company to reassemble. Jim and Melanie reassured the others, and each other, that they were unhurt, just startled, thank you, merci.
Claude disappeared for a few moments and returned wet and windswept, but with an ancient bottle of red. Jim murmured, “I should have tipped him better.” Everyone except Amadou and David had a little; it had notes of rancid pear and fetid chocolate; it burned pleasantly.
“He was holding out on us,” smiled Keith.
“And rightly so, because…we wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly enough before,” said Jim, solemnly.
“I’d better get to bed,” announced Melanie. She had enough battery left in her phone to light her Sudoku puzzles; maybe she’d be able to ignore the tornadic hamster-wheel behind her eyes long enough to fall asleep.
But she had forgotten to bring a bottle of water upstairs with her. She ignored her rasping throat for an hour, until she decided that it was beneath her to hide in a library like some latter-day Marian. She crept down toward the dining room where Keith had deposited the other half of the case, only to find Jim doing the same thing. He extended the first bottle to her.
“Thanks.” He had always had good manners. Even when breaking regrettable news.
She tried to think of something to say, to sound less curt. Not one diplomatic Melanie in the multiverse could devise a sentence that resembled normal small talk, so she said, “So…I imagine you’ll be doing Congressmen Bluff and Hooker’s visit prep right after this.”
Jim shook his head. “I’m going back to the States for a bit.”
Melanie’s eyebrows arched, but she recovered herself, and in her best funeral-dress voice, said, “Business or pleasure?”
The dip at the corner of her mouth deepened. “How long will you be away?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Is it just you?”
“The whole family.”
Melanie sighed, tapped her water bottle against his in an ironic toast, and turned to go upstairs. Then she turned back.
“I want to ask you something. I know you’re trying to be fair, giving all of us a chance to be acting deputy when you’re away. But – it was Tyrone the last two times, and Mark the time before that (And Mark wasn’t even at step one yet) and – I thought you and the ambassador were pleased when I did it last November.”
“We were,” he said evenly.
“Look, I know my shop went through a difficult period there, so maybe you were – taking it easy on me –”
It was his turn to look surprised. “I am not treating you with kid gloves.”
“First of all, Melanie, it is going to be you. Second, I suggest you take it up with the ambassador when we get off this rock –”
If we get off this rock.
“ – because I’ve suggested to her, and she has agreed, that she should become your new supervisor.”
Melanie’s mouth fell open; her jaw sounding a cartoon cash register ka-ching. “What? Jim, this isn’t – I thought we’ve been getting along…well enough –”
She drew herself up. “If I’ve…made you – uncomfortable…or if you had concerns about my performance –”
“Please,” he said. It was neither mendacious nor sarcastic. It was the same tone that Westley must have used when he said that word to the Dread Pirate Roberts, and so regained his life. “As the saying goes, it’s not you.”
“You’ve put your finger on the problem.”
He said, finally, “Regina and I are getting divorced.”
“I’m – I’m so sorry.”
Some long-lost shard of Catholic conscience re-surfaced and cut her. Hadn’t she at least imagined this, four years before?
A mere week after Jim’s arrival in Lagos, an American citizen, one of the oil workers, had died in the kind of circumstances normally found in the prologue of a pulp fiction novel. Jim phlegmatically described the venue in his report as an “entertainment/room rental facility” owned by the President’s daughter. Melanie, as the head of the American Citizen Services unit, offered the man’s wife a dignified facet of the truth: “He suffered a heart attack. From…exertion.” Jim, as a political officer, was trying to both privately uncover, and publicly minimize, the picture’s scandalous angles. They worked the case together, in between trying to locate a refrigeration unit open on the weekend and glimpsing the President’s daughter patronizing her own facility.
He was engaged, after all.
But as they sat in their finery at two in the morning, assembling a tatty old jigsaw, they reached for the same piece.
They went home, separately.
And came into the embassy Sunday morning, separately; Jim drafted a cable to Washington, and Melanie processed several passports, because things had been put on hold when the man had died, and because they were capital-P Professionals. Jim called Melanie at her extension.
“I’m going to fly back to the States on Friday, to see Regina,” Jim announced. “I’ll – do the right thing.”
“OK,” said Melanie.
“It’s amicable. Regina’s old firm has an opening, and she still has a chance to make partner. We’re just different, and…the Foreign Service life isn’t for her.”
Melanie suppressed several thoughts that would have interested Alice Roosevelt.
“We need to sell the house and settle custody issues. I think Milo will be staying with me.”
Melanie’s eyebrows shot up again; then her squeamish liberalism re-surfaced and she remembered that she shouldn’t feel, or look, surprised.
“He’s a great kid.”
“He is.” Jim’s mouth crumpled for a moment.
But Regina had arrived, unannounced, on Tuesday. And Wednesday morning Jim had signaled Melanie to follow him into the classified conference room. He shut the door, took a deep breath, and announced, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
“You have?” Melanie asked, as neutrally as she could manage.
“Regina’s pregnant,” he said, and blushed. “Mel, I can’t – there is no perfect path in this situation, but there is an honorable one.”
Jim, with his Regency sensibilities…
“I understand,” she said.
And she did. Because he would have sunk in her opinion, otherwise.
“Take all the time you need.”
What to say, that wasn’t fraught? “That doesn’t mean I’m trying to take your job.”
He smiled a little.
“So that’s why you wanted to make the ambassador my supervisor – since you’ll be gone.”
Melanie found there was a seat handy and took it.
Jim sat too, not too close. “Suffice it to say, it’s me.” He took his glasses off and found that he had mislaid his handkerchief. “Anything further and I risk a fireable offense.”
Melanie considered. “Jim.”
“What if I told you that there are puzzles in the library?”
Jim polished his glasses on his shirt, even though it was dark and it couldn’t possibly make a difference.
“I think Claude left some candles and a box of matches in the kitchen,” he said.