A Gala Affair

Chapter One

Armand Charest in 2000
Armand Charest in 2000

Against his better judgment Scott Emerson had attended the annual Bar Association dinner where he had met a Grand Duchess. How he had found her had been one of those inexplicable strokes of good fortune that flavors life from time to time. It was a miracle; of that, he had no doubt. On the other hand, Emerson was the kind of man to whom miracles happened. He had parlayed a superior amount of intelligence, breeding, education, facility with languages and just plain luck into a successful legal practice that served him well as he developed his skills at diplomacy and international law.

Urbane, sophisticated, a patron of the arts, welcomed at charity and fund-raising affairs, equally at home in the fashionable salons and other secret places, Scott Emerson was, at the age of forty, on top of the world—or so it seemed. There was a dark side to the man that he never showed the world, however, a side that he disliked but seemed unable to shake off.

  He suffered from a tendency to be cynical, gloomy, and depressed. He had no idea why. Perhaps it dated back to his failed marriage that had culminated in a bitter court fight. That event had certainly not made him less optimistic. There was nothing wrong, physically speaking. He had a great sense of humor, laughed often and loud. When he tried to analyze the condition, it seemed to him that it all went back to his world view. He saw corruption everywhere: in high political offices, in police departments, in his own profession, in business especially international business where all concerns for justice played second fiddle to greed in just every place of human endeavor.

When the black mood struck him, his intelligent face, highlighted by dark brown eyes, a sharp nose, normally smiling mouth, high cheek bones, a full head of dark wavy hair, took on a sinister saturnine expression that sometimes frightened his friends. As a lawyer Scott had taken on a high number of cases involving clients damaged by the police, corporations and even the government and won a good number of them. But those cases he lost tended to bring on bouts of depression that forced Emerson into seclusion at his Big Sur cabin. It was at such a time that the Agency found him and came back into his life.

The sun had turned into a red ball of fire just before it plunged into the Pacific Ocean. Scott Emerson observed the daily ritual without any remorse. It just meant the end of another day, one replete with self-recrimination, self-pity, and self-rejection. He had lost a tough case, one involving police brutality and cover-up in high places all the way to the mayor’s office. He had not been able to sway the jury, a jury of old-time residents of a town obsessed with the belief that the police could do no wrong.

The fact that the defendant had been an itinerant Mexican field hand had not helped matters. No one gave a damn about Mexicans anyway, reflected Emerson bitterly, as he rocked in his old chair with his feet on the front porch railing. He sipped slowly on his third martini. Three martinis should be the limit for any civilized man, he thought. But then he shrugged. The pitcher was half full and the night was young. He smiled at the words. He was mellowing already; he was paraphrasing an old song. As Scott reached for the pitcher, the phone rang. He looked up, startled. The damn thing seldom rang up here. Emerson chuckled as he reflected that the Duchess might be lonely for him. On that happy note, he ambled into the kitchen and picked the receiver off the wall hook. He froze when he recognized the voice. His past had caught up to him.

          He mumbled, “Hello?”

          “Hello, Scott?”

          The silence ran on for several seconds as Scott fought with his instincts. One part of him screamed to hang up. The other part of him, the decent lawyer part, replied, “Dave? Dave Miller?”

          “The same, old buddy. How are you, Scottie?”

          “I once told you not to call me buddy; we are nothing of the sort. What do you want? And how did you find me?”

          “After all I am with the CIA. We have our ways, you know.”

          “Yes, you do. How well I know it. You are violating our agreement. I was finished with you a long time ago. What do you want, if I may ask once again? You’re interrupting my martini ritual.”

          “Sorry about that, really. Something has come up that makes us seek your help. You were an invaluable negotiator for us several times and we thought that you would want to go to the well one more time.”

          Emerson let the silence run on. He had no intention of getting involved again with someone whom he thought had destroyed his marriage. The next words from the agent jolted him.

          “Let me tell you why I called. A group of field workers from the American Human Rights Committee down in the Sudan on a slave rescue mission got itself captured by some bad guys. I would not have bothered you except that you once tangled with the leader—Ahmad ben Fatah. Does it ring a bell?”

          Scott’s heartbeat faster; he clenched his left fist.

          He replied in a strangled voice, “How well I remember him. I vowed to kill him if we ever met again. Give me some details.”

          Miller said in a guarded voice, “Perhaps we should not say too much on the phone. Can you make it to the Federal building on Wilshire tomorrow, say at eleven in room 1219?”

          “I’ll be there.”

So, my old friend is back, mused Emerson as he gulped down his fourth martini and reached for the pitcher again. I wonder why he picked on those people. That coup certainly will not increase his stature in the Islamic community. Perhaps he needs money, a small voice replied. Emerson sat up straight and swallowed his drink. That kidnapping is a ploy, a trap! He wants me down there, in his own backyard. Words from Shakespeare sprang to mind, as Scott jumped up and gave vent to his anger and frustration using theatrical gestures and mannerisms, “You lousy knave, you whoreson, beetle-browed, flap-eared coward, you lily-livered, lying, filthy knave, you ragged beggar.” He laughed uproariously, gave out a shriek that echoed off the surrounding hills. Scott fell back exhausted and yet he could feel himself come alive. At last, at long last he thought, life had become interesting again. The game was afoot, and Scott had the bit between his teeth.

          Los Angeles had not changed for the better as Scott navigated through the snarled traffic on Wilshire. If anything, he cursed, it had gotten worse and more frightening. Road rage seemed to be the main occupation of all drivers along with talking into cell phones. Emerson had never quite figured out what people said in those stupidly designed phones they held next to their ears while driving and smoking cigarettes with the other hand. He shrugged and considered himself lucky not to be in the rat race anymore. Scott found a spot and moved on to the twelfth floor. He was not surprised to see no name on the door. Miller was waiting for him along with a tall, well-dressed woman in her mid-thirties.

          The agent made the introduction quickly. It was apparent he had important matters on his mind.

          “Scott, this is Jane Applebee from the American Human Rights Committee. Let her describe the situation.”

          The woman spoke in a cultured, educated voice. She reminded Scott of Katherine Hepburn but with an English accent. Her composed face showed breeding and education, but her brown eyes and slender figure showed some hostility that Scott was quick to detect.

          “You know about the situation in Southern Sudan. The war between the Islamic North and the predominantly Christian South has gone on for some time. It has come to the point where the Southerners, held captive by the North, are declared slaves. We, along with other groups, collect money and rescue the slaves who then go—“

          “For how much?” interrupted Scott.

          “Fifty dollars per slave, whether adult or child. We have been criticized because, by paying the money, we encourage the North to continue the practice. Our critics claim that it would be better not to give money because the Northerners use the money to buy weapons and by doing so continue the war. No one really knows the best way. We buy back slaves because we believe it is the right thing to do.”

          Scott remained quiet but pensive. If he undertook the mission, he would need a free hand because he wanted to eliminate Fatah once and for all.

          “How many of your people are involved?”

“Twelve: ten men and two women.”

          Scott asked Miller, “Do you know where the hostages are?”

          “They were captured at a place called Malakal, a city about four hundred miles downriver from Khartoum. We have no idea where they are now.”

          “Who’s paying the ransom money?”

          The woman replied, “We are”

          “How much?”

          “$1,000,000. That will just about break the organization, I’m afraid.”

          “What will the CIA contribute, if anything?”

          Miller did not take the bait. He remained serious as he replied, “We are sending a Hostage Rescue Team with the consent of the Sudanese government I may add.”

          “My apologies. If I take the job, I want a free hand. This must be Fatah’s last terrorist job. Do I get it?”

          Miller shook his head in the negative.

          Emerson rose. Anger and frustration put an edge to his voice as he said, “Then you don’t need me. You tied my hands the last time so I could not finish the job. You and the White House made a deal that enabled him to walk away. It was a double-cross to end all double-crosses. That betrayal made me lose my wife since she blamed me for what happened to her brother. I must finish Fatah now or it’s no deal.”

          “You must believe that no betrayal took place, Scottie. The Agency has tied my hands also. I’m in charge and you will be under my jurisdiction. I’m sorry, Scott, but those are my orders.”

          “Then you’ll have to do the job by yourself, if you can.”

          Emerson turned to the Applebee woman and murmured, “Good luck to you and your people. By the way are you part of the negotiation team?”

          “Yes, I am. I’m sorry you will not be with us. You have quite a reputation. If you care to reconsider—“

          “It may work out. Strange things happen in these situations. I should know.”

          He headed for the door only to stop dead with his hand on the knob when Miller said very quietly, “Summer is with the hostages!”

          Scott’s breath lodged in his throat; a cold hand squeezed his heart; his blood chilled; his legs trembled; he blinked his flooded eyes; his lungs deflated; a killing headache ravaged him; he slammed one fist against the door again and again; his head cracked the panel as he slumped over. He stayed that way for some time as the name brought back all the yearnings, desires, and dreams that he once had, that he had once envisioned life could be with the golden-hair girl by his side. He thought back to the days when the world was young, when the world was nothing but laughter, love, and joy.

All that had been destroyed after the last job he had done for his own double-crossing government, a government that had once again come begging for help. He should decline. What was Summer to him now? He had not seen her in four years. She had not believed his version of the story; she had not trusted him; she had not really loved him. Then why should he risk his neck one more time in an encounter from which he vowed only one man would walk away. He sighed heavily, straightened his back, and turned around. The woman was quick to notice the wet eyes but held her silence. The FBI man watched Emerson regain control of his emotions. He also remained quiet.

          Scott stared at the agent who remembered that look from a previous job. Miller shivered. Emerson said in a voice that he did not recognize as his own, “When do we leave?”

          Miller replied, “First thing in the morning. Welcome aboard and thanks.”

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