|A Year and Change|
This morning, the crucial interruption was provided by Jean Lawrence, the Chief of Protocol.
The last Chief of Protocol had been, in the private opinion of Charles Sumpter, a self-important pain. Ms. Lawrence was proving a pleasant surprise, although he felt a bit uncomfortable at times with her. When she came into his office, he thought it was one of those times.
"Aren't you coming to the briefing? For tonight, I mean?" asked the Chief of Protocol, closing the door.
Sumpter glanced up from his work. "I already looked through your plan. I'm sure you'll give the President a wonderful rundown on the guests, but I don't have to know all that stuff." Sumpter picked up another paper for consideration.
Lawrence said, "Oh, I think we'll have a little more for your entertainment . . . Do you have anything new from the FBI?"
Sumpter lowered his paper. "No. Should I?"
Lawrence said, "You might think so. Come to the briefing. The Acting Director of the Bureau is coming."
That was it for the paperwork. Sumpter tossed his work back into the "In" basket, shook his head, and smiled. Then he pressed a button on his intercom and asked, "Mr. Traficante, is Director Kerkorian on the premises?"
"Ahhh . . . she hasn't checked through anywhere. Do you want a call when she comes?"
"No, thank you. That's all." Sumpter made sure the intercom was off, and then turned to Ms. Lawrence. "How do you know she's coming?"
"Her office called a few minutes ago," said Lawrence.
Sumpter said, "Her office called your office," and shook his head. "She wants to see the President. Any idea what about?"
Lawrence shrugged. "Something important enough for her to come herself, I presume. Well, are you coming?"
"Yeah, sure." Sumpter rose. "Thanks for thinking of me."
The Chief of Protocol went to the door, but before opening it, she said to Sumpter, "I want to be sure the Acting Director has a full audience."
The Acting Director (who was such because her predecessor had made the unexpected career move of dying in his sleep some weeks earlier) was not at the briefing when it began.
Sumpter had not been lying when he said he knew what he had to know before the briefing, at least from the Chief of Protocol. He was aware that the guests providing the entertainment were classical musicians, and that they were being indulged an extraordinary number of personal guests, including many children--including infants. The Secretary of State was obviously surprised by this: he had undoubtably pictured an occasion for fine arts and fine feelings, suitable for laying a little diplomatic groundwork. Sumpter had already done his part of the work, as he explained briefly. "We're making the Blue Room into a temporary nursery. So we're shutting down the tours early to get ready."
The Secretary of State spoke up. "Why in the world are we having all these children?"
The Chief of Protocol shrugged theatrically. "We are having all these children to get Michiru. It was a given she would bring her own and her companion's children. Then we approved her guest list, and then we found out about their children."
The President said, "This sounds like the old story about the gypsy making nail soup."
"It must seem very much like that, Madame President," Ms. Lawrence remarked. "Most Japanese mothers I've known weren't much for baby-sitters." Then the Chief of Protocol went on to the most politically important guests: the Foreign Ministers of France and Japan. The Chief of Protocol had met both before; she had served in the Paris and the Tokyo Embassies. Ms. Lawrence did not press her advantage over the Secretary of State, who had smaller experience of France and none of Japan.
As the Chief of Protocol was pointing to the wall display and saying, "And here we have a last-minute addition, one Saburo Hino," the Acting Director came in, along with a man Sumpter had never seen. He sported an FBI badge, one for an Agent, not a Special Agent; Sumpter could spot the difference instantly by now. The Agent was carrying a laptop computer with telltale ease, marking him as a computer age man.
The Chief of Protocol changed her tone to ask, "Do you have something to say now, Director Kerkorian?" There was no mockery at all in her voice, but the politeness had an edge to it that no one there was going to miss, not even Sumpter.
"Please, finish what you were saying," replied the Acting Director. "We can wait."
"Thank you." The Chief of Protocol gestured again toward the wall display. "As I was saying, the last guest I have some concern about is our Mr. Hino here. He's the last addition to the guest list. I don't believe Mr. Hino has ever held a major post in any government I've known of. However, I do know he had a reputation as a good man to see if you had a problem. In other words, he was a fixer. Perhaps he still is." Jean Lawrence shifted her tone again. "Has the Bureau turned up anything interesting about Mr. Hino?"
The Agent had, in the meantime, set up his laptop and connected it under the table. The Acting Director replied to Ms. Lawrence. "Mr. Hino checked out, but Agent Ballin noticed some things about some of your other guests which you might want to know about. Madame President, may Agent Ballin take over the presentation for a few moments?"
The President replied, "I think we are ready to listen. Tell us what you think we need to know."
The new Agent said, "Thank you, Madame President." He typed something, and a new image appeared on the wallscreen: a blond woman. It was a bad photo, but it did not obscure the beauty of its subject, an oriental woman affecting blonde hair. "This is Minako Jones. She has no criminal record, so she passed the background check. However," the Agent continued as the image changed again, "Her late husband here has an arrest record . . . " The display showed a handsome young man of mostly African features making the best of a pair of booking shots; then changed to show another man of similar features but a much more unsettling demeanor. " . . . and his brother Marvell Jones here, also deceased, was reputed to be the head of a very large, very successful criminal syndicate based on drug trafficking."
The room became silent for a moment. Sumpter observed that the Acting Director of the FBI allowed herself just a moment of gloat looking at the Chief of Protocol, and wondered for a moment why the women were enemies. Then, like everyone else, he turned to the President. The President looked around, and looked back at the screen, and said, "Tony, how many reporters tonight?"
"Only four," said the Press Secretary.
The President said, "Let's see her again. Do you have any more pictures, Mr. Ballin?"
The agent brought up the original picture, reduced its size, and added another photo. The woman was wearing black, and was accompanied by a girl also in black. "This is from her husband's funeral. It's the latest I could find in the public domain."
Sumpter spoke up. "Do you have anything from surveillance?"
The Acting Director handled the question. "There is no current Bureau investigation of this woman."
"But you were investigating her?" asked the President.
Agent Ballin began speaking again. "The Bureau was not surveilling Ms. Jones. There isn't any indication in our files that she ever was suspected of any criminal activity despite her family connection."
"Hmmm," mused the President. "Well, bad taste in men isn't a crime . . . I'm inclined to let her alone. Unless, Mr. Sumpter, you think she looks like too much of a threat?"
"I think we can protect you, Madame President." Sumpter would have preferred to disinvite the woman, but he knew this President had already made up her mind.
The Press Secretary said, "Not much chance one of the reporters will catch her."
"More than you might think, Mr. Levine," said the Acting Director. "Agent Ballin?"
The Agent did his magic with his machine again, and a rumpled face took over the wallscreen. "This is John Crawford. He writes a column for a certain Silicon Valley paper. That picture from the funeral is from a story he wrote about it."
There was another silence, which the President broke. "Well, Tony, not much we can do about the press here. Do you have anything else for us?"
The Acting Director said, "That's all our nasty surprises for today." Sumpter thought he saw the Agent tense slightly as Kerkorian spoke.
"Thank you," said the President. "Anyone else? . . . All right, I have some Senators to see." The President rose and left the room. Sumpter, with nothing better than his paperwork to return to, lingered, noticing that the Acting Secretary--who so much wanted the permanent appointment--had abandoned her Agent to follow the President. When there was no one left but himself and the Agent, Sumpter spoke. "Agent Ballin, could I have a word before you go?"
Ballin paused, turned to face Sumpter, and said, "I think I can find time for the Chief of White House Security."
Sumpter said, "Thanks. I'm curious. How did you pick up on this stuff? I mean, when everyone else seems to have missed it?"
Ballin shrugged. "A fresh eye, I guess. And I can do a pretty good computer search."
Sumpter nodded. "And a good presentation. Better than I will ever manage on these things." A deserved compliment, but Sumpter could feel that the Agent was holding something back. "Is there anything you would have liked to add? I thought the Director might have cut you off."
"Nothing important." Ballin smiled, honestly but not wholeheartedly. "Jones--the late husband--is tied in with an angel story. The Director warned me about mentioning that."
"Angel story?" asked Sumpter.
Ballin said, "Yes. The big one, in fact. He was the man in the boat at Lake Merrit. The one with the videotape?"
"Really." The Agent nodded his head.
Sumpter asked, "Were you ever assigned to investigate this Jones outfit?"
The Agent stiffened. "No. No, I've been working out of Miami the last five years. I just transferred in the week before last."
Sumpter knew he had hit a nerve. But he saw he wasn't going to gain anything by pressing this sensitive point; the Bureau had something to cover up here. Sumpter decided to take a harmless tack. "So, what is the Bureau doing about angels now?"
The Agent slowly shook his head, taking a moment before replying. "Not much, I think. There was a report from Orlando a couple of months ago. All we did was get copies of some police reports." He smiled thinly. "No videos; just a few witnesses. None of them had the same story."
"Have you done much work on this stuff?" asked Sumpter.
Ballin said, "Not for the Bureau. I mean, I saw that French video like everyone else. But I didn't connect that with Jones until I started looking . . . at Crawford. He wrote about the Jones, and he wrote about Lake Merritt. In fact, he said he was there . . . " The Agent trailed off for a moment, looking somewhere past Sumpter. Then he collected himself, glanced at his watch, and said, "I'd better get back to the Bureau."
Sumpter said, "Just a sec," fished out one of his cards, and handed it to the Agent. "Could I have yours?"
"Sure." The Agent reciprocated, sounding slightly apprehensive.
"Call me if you come up with anything more on these characters. OK?" He held out his hand, and the Agent shook it. "Can't be too careful when it's the President."
"Right." Then the Agent was away.
Charles Sumpter headed back to his office and his hated paperwork.
Sumpter had spent about two more hours on his morning paperwork, and was contemplating whether a an impromptu walkthrough would be justifiable when the head of the Presidential Security Detachment came in. Sumpter put his work aside and asked, "What's up?" It couldn't be an emergency, of course; he would have heard about such instantly on his ear pickup.
Uffizi answered, "I just came on duty, and I heard the FBI was here in a big way. Anything we should know about?"
Sumpter said, "Nothing serious, I think. One of the Acting Director's boys turned up some dirt on one of the guests for tonight. Seems she was married to some West Coast drug gangster."
"I caught that. Did you get anything else?"
Sumpter was slightly annoyed at this question; it might imply Uffizi didn't trust him to tell the whole truth. Uffizi wasn't directly under Sumpter, since the PSD followed the President wherever she went, in or out of the White House, but Sumpter expected the Detachment to cooperate seamlessly on White House grounds. He paused long enough to let Uffizi get the point that he was a bit out of line, and then said, "That's all Kerkorian wanted to bring before the President. I got an impression from the agent she brought in--Ballin was his name; never seen him before. Anyway, I think the Bureau doesn't want to talk much about this drug gang. He just said that the gangster was connected with an angel incident."
"Angel incident?" asked Uffizi dubiously.
Sumpter said, "Yes, that's what he said. Maybe he wanted to throw me off. But I bet the connection is real." Sumpter shook his head. "Well, as real as these things get. But the important thing is, I believe that he believes she's no threat to the President."
"Which one is she?" Uffizi pulled out a small pad and a pen.
Sumpter strained his memory for a moment; the woman herself had seemed like a minor detail in all this. "She's one of the friends of this Michiru who's performing. Her name is Jones . . . Minako Jones, that's it. Japanese."
Uffizi's eyebrow shot up. He snorted. "Jones?"
Sumpter said, "Yes, Minako Jones. You know her?"
Uffizi scratched a note as he answered: "No, but I think I know why the Bureau doesn't want to say that much about the Jones gang." He re-pocketed his pad and pen.
Sumpter saw a different Uffizi now, the unofficial one. "Well, Hank, are you going to tell me or just annoy me?"
Henry Uffizi paused a moment to monitor his own earpiece, touching a finger to it. Then he said, "The word I got is that the Bureau got burned bad investigating the Jones gang."
"How?" asked Sumpter.
"I heard they had an undercover agent go over, and that they buried it. No official charges to embarass the Bureau. And since the Jones are all dead and their gang broken up, who cares now?"
"That's a remarkable piece of dirt," said Sumpter. "Will you tell me where you got it?"
"From a 'usually reliable source,'" answered Uffizi, his finger again pressing on his earpiece. "I've got to get going. The President just decided to eat lunch out."
After thinking a few moments, Charles Sumpter decided to change his own lunch plans. He fished a card out of his pocket, and made a phone call.
Charles Sumpter put down his fork, rose, and extended his hand. Agent Ballin shook it, and sat down. They were at a table in one of the currently less-fashionable restaurants in the Capitol; it had been favored by the last Administration.
"Like I said, this isn't an official meeting." Sumpter said. "Should I call the waiter?"
"Am I here to talk or eat?" asked Ballin.
"We can manage both, I hope . . . Thank you for coming."
Before anything else passed between the two men, a waiter arrived. Ballin ordered a salad, something else that marked him as a more modernized man than Sumpter. When the waiter moved out of earshot, Sumpter asked, "Do you have any more about the guests yet?"
Ballin asked, "Which ones? There are over a hundred."
"How about the great Michiru's friends?" Ballin punctuated his words with a sip of coffee. "If there is one Minako Jones among them, I wonder if the others have surprises."
Ballin said, "None of them have criminal records. Most of them are rich or married rich. Most of them live in the same house."
"The same house?" asked Sumpter.
Ballin said, "Yes, the same house. It's owned by Minako Jones' stepfather. He's very rich and very discrete. His name is D. A. Alvarson and at the moment he's a Swiss citizen."
Sumpter asked, "Do you think he was working with the Jones organization?"
Ballin stiffened slightly, but noticeably. "I can't give you an official opinion on that. But, this guy is bigger money than the Jones boys ever were. I don't think so . . . and since he isn't on the guest list, why should we talk about him?"
Sumpter readied a bite of steak, but paused before eating it. "So, who's the most interesting one coming? Besides Mrs. Jones, I mean." He chewed and nodded as Ballin opened up again.
Ballin said, "Well, there are a couple of guys who got rich on the Internet before the bubble burst, and their wives--one of them is a doctor. One of the wives, I mean. There's two other doctors besides her . . . Dr. Chiba has to be the most interesting."
"How so?" asked Sumpter.
The salad arrived, and Sumpter listened to Agent Ballin go on as he ate about Dr. Chiba between bites. Dr. Chiba was the biological father of six of the children descending on the White House in a few hours: Three by his wife, one by Minako Jones, one by Dr. Han, and one by none other than Michiru. It was a funny story, but Ballin didn't seem properly amused. "And his wife . . . another interesting co-oincidence with her."
"What?" asked Sumpter.
Ballin said, "Mrs. Chiba was paralyzed in an unsolved shooting . . . which just happened to occur on the same night Mr. Kevin Jones, Minako Jones husband-to-be, was severely burned. Burned by something with wings, according to him."
That made Sumpter stop eating altogether. "Another angel incident?"
"According to him. It's quite a yarn. Posted on a lot of angel sites on the Net. Now, the official report says it was most likely something like a LAWS rocket hitting his car and blowing the gas tank." Ballin poked his salad-laden fork in the air toward Sumpter. "The Jones gang and their rivals were really getting into heavy firepower then."
They went on for a few moments, eating without talking, Sumpter expecting Ballin to go on. When that didn't happen, Sumpter asked, "Is there anyone else?"
Ballin swallowed, took a long drink, and said, "Yes. Her name is Setsuna Meiou. Or Tiggs, maybe. She's a charter pilot. She could have been very useful to the Jones organization. And she married our boy who went bad on us."
After a decent interval, Sumpter spoke his realization. "You knew the man, didn't you?"
"Yes. I never thought . . . " Ballin trailed off into a long moment of silence.
Sumpter said, "You got most of this stuff from your friend, didn't you?"
"No, not most of it. I was telling the truth about most of it being public record." Ballin smiled very wryly. "It was Marty that put me onto the track, though. This guy Hino, they told me to check him out. Well, I knew that was the name of one of the crowd that lived in the house with Michiru. His daughter, it turns out. She's a lawyer. Always arguing, he said, Marty said . . . " Ballin trailed off again, and seemed to be looking far away.
Sumpter said, "I know you had to report, but why do you think Kerkorian told the President about Minako Jones? I mean, your Bureau has a lot to be embarrassed about."
Ballin returned to the here and now. He shrugged and said, "She must have it in for the Chief of Protocol. Why, I haven't got a clue." Then he called for the check.
Shortly after Charles Sumpter returned from his lunch with Ballin the FBI agent, the President held a small function in the Rose Garden. Before it ended, a man climbed over the fence and disappeared into the grounds. The Secret Service detachment hustled the President inside as soon as they got word. It took forty long minutes to find the man, and the rest of Sumpter's afternoon to complete the aftermath, ending with an uncomfortable appearance at a press briefing. The Press Secretary finally got Sumpter off the hook by saying, "That's all for now, ladies and gentlemen."
One reporter, one of the more dogged ones, asked, "One more question. Are you cancelling the performance tonight?"
"No," replied the Press Secretary. "In fact, Ms. Michiru has already arrived." Then he left the room, shepherding Sumpter ahead of him.
As the Press Secretary was just about to go off in an opposite direction, Sumpter asked him, "Did Michiru come with her guests?"
"Oh, yes. Quite a little mob," said the Press Secretary.
"Do you know where they are now?" asked Sumpter.
The Press Secretary said, "Mostly in the Blue Room, trying to settle down all those babies. It's been a long time since you had kids, hasn't it?"
"I suppose. Thanks."
Sumpter had been about to leave, but he stopped to reply. "Yes, Mr. Press Secretary?"
"Don't get Ms. Michiru mad at us."
Sumpter stopped at his office before going on to size up Michiru and her guests. Checking his messages, he didn't find the one he was wanting, so he called Agent Ballin and asked him if there was anything else. The answer was, "No . . . did you get the word about your fence-jumper yet?"
"No, not yet," said Sumpter.
Ballin said, "We got an ID on him from Interpol. His name is Andre Schubert and he's from France."
Sumpter exclaimed, "France? Is he a terrorist?"
"His record says he's a burgler," said Ballin.
"A burgler?" Sumpter mused. "What's a French burgler doing trying to break into the White House in broad daylight?"
Ballin said, "That is an excellent question, isn't it? Anyway, maybe we can start him talking with this. If he isn't just crazy."
Sumpter said, "That's always possible . . . Do you think you can get anything to me before eight? That's when the dinner starts."
Ballin said, "No can do. Our database system crashed out when we were having our lunch. I don't think it'll be up until tomorrow."
"Damn . . . well, thanks for trying, Mr. Ballin."
Sumpter found one of the uniformed guards just outside the Blue Room. When he tried to enter, she stepped in front of him and said, "Sir, some of the ladies are nursing in there."
"Sorry," Sumpter mumbled, stepping back. This was an unexpected obstacle. But he was not held up by it after all. There was a knock, and the door was opened, and out stepped exactly the woman he was looking for: Minako Jones, the gangster's widow. She was pushing a woman in a wheelchair. Sumpter found himself staring directly into her eyes. After an interminable moment, he heard the guard say, "This is my boss, Mr. Sumpter."
"Chief of White House Security, ma'am," Sumpter said automatically.
"I am Minako Jones. This is my friend, Usagi Chiba."
Sumpter spoke again without thinking, and before he looked down at the other woman. "Mrs. Chiba . . . Did your husband come?"
The woman in the wheelchair beneath him said, "No, Mamo-chan had to work at his hospital. You have been well-briefed, Mr. Sumpter."
Sumpter at last looked away from Minako Jones, down at Mrs. Chiba. And then . . .
And then he was watching Minako Jones and Mrs. Chiba moving away. Someone brushed past him, saying, "Excuse, please?" Turning back, Sumpter saw it was a woman with outrageously turquoise hair. She passed by, along with another, who closed the door. They joined Jones and Mrs. Chiba. "Who was that?" he asked the guard.
"The one with the green hair is Michiru herself, sir. The other one, I didn't catch her name. Sorry."
Sumpter noticed that the women were speaking now, lowly, rapidly. As he decided whether to approach, he realized they were speaking Japanese.
Usagi said, "He knows about Kevin and his brother and about the lake. But he does not know we are senshi. He would rather not believe there are senshi."
Minako said, "None of them have known . . . maybe--"
Michiru cut her off. "The President may be keeping it secret from everyone we have met. I will make sure Usagi meets the President."
Rei said, "Perhaps we should get Chibi-Usa to help. They may not want to let anyone get close to the President."
Michiru said, "I will insist . . . but it could be easier if Chibi-Usa helps.
Minako refused to let go of her hope that this was all a false alarm. "Maybe the visions are wrong . . . or maybe this is not yet the time."
Both Rei and Michiru shook their heads. Michiru said, "The mirror showed Titania and Nereid as they are now."
Rei added, "I saw all the babies in a blue room, and there they are in the Blue Room. The time is not wrong."
They all went to the door of the restroom with the handicapped symbol. Usagi said, "You don't all have to help me, you know." But they all did.
Sumpter had kept the women in sight, trying to decide whether or not to approach. But then they closed the door to another no-man's-land, finishing any thoughts of pursuit.
Why didn't he just give up? This was beginning to look silly. But still . . .
Sumpter returned to his office and tackled some more paperwork. But when the time approached for the evening to begin with the Yellow Room gathering, he decided to head up and join Uffizi. He had just a feeling, but it wouldn't go away.
Lorraine had felt extraneous from the start of this White House thing. Setsuna had told Lorraine that she could help out with the other children as well as Persephone. At the time, and up until this hour, Lorraine had assumed this was Setsuna sparing her feelings--it was really damnable how far Martin's new love would go to spare her feelings, though she was never obvious about it. Why bring Persephone at all? Lorraine had looked after her well enough during Setsuna's many absences. The overnight stay at some overgrown Beltway tourist hotel had not made Lorraine feel very included in this affair, because Setsuna and her friends spoke mostly Japanese to one another, and their children who could speak English spoke it to one another, aside from a kindly little soul named Ishtar.
But Setsuna had been right after all about helping with the children. Especially right now, after all the parents had departed. The one in the wheelchair, Mrs. Chiba, had handed off one of her twins to Lorraine, and the little mite was inconsolable. "There, there, little . . . little what's-your-name."
"Ikuko-chan," said a familiar voice.
"Ishtar?" said Lorraine, turning. But it was not Ishtar. It was her almost-twin, her half-sister. Lorraine had barely glimpsed her up until now, but Ishtar had told her lots of stories of their adventures together.
"Call her 'Ikuko-chan' like okasan. That might help."
The girl had been napping in the next room, the Green Room. Lorraine wondered how she had missed her coming in. She had a noisy limp, and used a cane. "You should lie down again . . . Kimi? You're Sarah's sister? And Ishtar's?"
"Yes. It's short for 'Kimberly,' but no one calls me that except for teachers," replied the child. "It will be time for dinner soon. I can't go back to sleep before then." The girl made her way to one of the cribs and peered into it, and waved a hand over it. The occupant, a baby with a head of deep red hair (all these babies had a lot of hair, like Persephone) . . . the baby was awake, but quiet, and looked up with interest. "This is Julie-chan. She's so quiet. I think she will be very brave, like otousan. Ikuko-chan does not like okasan to be gone at all. Only mom or Sarah can get her to go to sleep when she is like this."
"Maybe Sarah should have stayed," said Lorraine, despairing of ever settling down this child.
"She had to help okasan," said the little girl in a way that sounded eerily grown-up. She stopped talking after that.
The old French maid that had come with Michiru offered to take Ikuko-chan. This did not turn out well, and soon Lorraine was walking around the oval room, rocking and singing to the stranger's child, wondering where she had got her blue-black hair and deep purple eyes.
One floor above the oval Blue Room is the oval Yellow Room--a room which is not on the White House tours because it is on the floor where the President and his (or in this case, her) family actually live. However, for a few of the few invited to the Executive Mansion for formal occasions, the President sometimes meets and chats with these lucky people before proceeding down the Grand Staircase to formally begin the activities and join the rest of the guests.
The current Chief of Protocol had planned a modest gathering: The President, the Ambassadors and the most honored members of their parties, and the families of Roland Descartes and Michiru. However, as Uffizi explained to Sumpter, a decent distance from the Yellow Room, "Michiru said if her friends couldn't come, she would rather stay downstairs."
Sumpter said, "And that was that? Just why do we all have to jump through hoops for this woman?"
Uffizi, "She has the cojones for now. The French guy, Descartes, is tied up in some gawdawful traffic mess near Dulles. The State Police keep pushing back the time for clearing it. I don't think he'll make it at all. So, Michiru is the one and only attraction. Well, and maybe Titania."
"Titania?" asked Sumpter.
Uffizi said, "Descarte's kid. Maybe another Midori, I've heard."
"Midori?" Sumpter was clueless.
Uffizi said, "Damn, Charlie, you have got to listen to something besides Country and Western one of these days."
They were near the elevator. The door opened. It was Mrs. Chiba. This time a young teen was pushing the chair, one that looked quite like the woman except for the colors of her eyes and hair. Michiru was with her, again. Minako Jones was also with her. All the women smiled politely as they passed, saying nothing. The girl did not smile, politely or otherwise, but she gave Sumpter a knowing glance. Sumpter watched them as they made their way to the Yellow Room, following just far enough behind so not to be too obvious. Uffizi kept pace with Sumpter, and murmered, "Michiru goes in last, and she goes in just after your special friend there. Interesting."
Kaidou Goro (or Goro Kaidou to the Western gaijin) was not the official interpretor for these occasions, but the man who held the post spoke so lowly that only the Ambassador and perhaps his wife could hear him, so Kaidou usually would up translating anyway for everyone else. This particular scion of the family Yamashita was an idiot, but he was of the family Yamashita and, like Kaidou-san himself, he had married into an even better family. So Yamashita stayed on and on at his honorable post in the Washington Embassy, where they thought back in Japan he could safely be an idiot, and his wife stayed mostly in Japan and hoped the children wouldn't pick up any of their father's idiocy.
Kaidou's wife asked with her usual sharp authority, "What is she saying? What is Michiru saying now?"
Fortunately Kaidou had good ears and good French, and he said, "She is telling the French that she is sorry Descartes is not here now . . . The other one says that he called and said he is still tied up in traffic near the airport. Some kind of toxic spill that is taking forever to clean up, and nothing is moving."
"Who is the other one?" Yoko snapped.
"That is Descartes' wife."
"Oh . . . I thought she always dressed like a man. Everyone says that." Kaidou's wife edged up, pushing him slightly, clearly urging them to get closer. But Kaidou ignored that, and concentrated on Michiru and the Ambassador, who was beside the President now. Now Michiru moved on, and there was some commotion . . . a wheelchair was pushed out from the guests clustered on Michiru's side of the room. Yoko gave him one of her invisible rib-pokes, a painful one, and said "What's happening now?"
"Michiru is beginning to introduce her friends. This one is Chiba Usagi."
Yoko instantly retorted, "Who on earth is that?"
<Usagi . . . Rei had had a friend named Usagi.> "Ne, who knows, a friend of Michiru."
The President took a step forward, almost touching the woman in the wheelchair, and stood there for a very long, very awkward moment, long enough for everyone in the room to grow quiet. Then there was a crash, and everyone turned to see what it was. A man had fallen down near the curved wall. Red-faced, he was helped up by another man in a dark suit--also in a plain dark suit.
"One of their Secret Service men," muttered Hino-san, Kaidou's old patron, who had been very quiet until now.
With the exception of Gerald Ford, one does not become President of the United States without a certain ability to pass awkward moments gracefully. This President had sufficient and more of that ability, and within a few moments she was managing the occasion smoothly again, and to someone who had not witnessed the events, it might seem they had not happened. But the President did not believe for an instant that the others had forgotten it. Still, it was part of the diplomatic game that no one would officially remember.
Uffizi took the agent who had fallen outside the Yellow Room. Sumpter waited for Mrs. Chiba and Minako Jones to leave--not long at all. Once Michiru had introduced her friends, most of them quickly slipped out. Sumpter slipped out himself, in time to hear Mrs. Chiba bark something to the girl. She answered, starting as loudly, but immediately quieting. Then the elevator arrived, and they were gone.
Sumpter had edged up to Uffizi and the agent who had fallen; they both were quiet too, until the hall was empty. Uffizi said, "Wilson, you said you could speak a little Japanese. What did they say?"
"I couldn't make out all of it. All I heard was 'This thing could have been worse.'"
"Anything else?" asked Sumpter.
"Well, I think the rest of it wasn't Japanese."
Usagi's patience finally cracked, and she demanded in the Old Tongue, "Why did you knock down that man?"
Sarah replied, "I had too . . . he was thinking about drawing his gun."
Minako said, "It could have been worse."
Usagi said, "Yes . . . I am sorry, Chibi Moon. I am so tired . . . I am sorry."
If the President was more than competent at handling life's awkward moments, Kaidou-san was a master, usually. But not now. Yoko had, fortunately, still been distracted by the clumsy Secret Service man when Michiru had introduced Rei. But any hope of getting free and clear was dashed when old Hino-san pointed out the beauty near Michiru and said, "That is Rei, my daughter, and my granddaughter Deja. A strange name, no? Deja is going to perform a piece tonight. She practices with Titania often. Michiru is telling the President about this." They were still a polite distance from the Ambassador and the President, and Rei was on the other side of Michiru; she didn't seem to take notice of Kaidou. However, Hino gestured, and got Rei's attention . . . and she came over. What was in her eyes, Kaidou could not read, but it was not good.
Rei said, "Otousan . . . and Kaidou-san. I still remember you. And you are his wife?"
"Yoko," came the icy reply. "You have a lovely daughter. What is she, eleven years?"
"Twelve years . . . here they come. My husband, Kumada Yuuichirou, and Deja."
The husband and daughter mouthed polite, correct phrases that Kaidou barely registered. <The girl couldn't be . . . but she was just the right age.> He was caught up, and he was innocent, for once. He could say nothing of importance, and nothing to stop Yoko from going on and on with subtle, biting questions. It seemed like forever, though it was actually only a few minutes until it was time to go down for the dinner. Mercifully, Rei was seated far away for this, and she left the meal early.
Usagi left before dessert came, an event that would once have been taken as an omen of the end of days. Rei immediately followed, for she had not been able to speak privately and she was burning to know. She thought she would explode as she waited for Chibi-Usa to lead off the unknowing nurses. Finally she was able to ask, "Does she know? Does the President know about us?"
Usagi answered, "No. She does not believe there are senshi. Like so many, she does not want to believe . . . The last President did believe, I think; he told her a lot. But this President does not believe."
"Then why are we all here?" asked Rei.
Usagi said, "The President wants to clear up the trade problems between Japan and France. She hopes that Japan will be grateful to the United States for this. Michiru is here to make the Japanese and the French officials happy. They wanted Michiru so much for this. They gave her what she said she wanted." Usagi, looked down and saw Ikuko-chan was going to sleep, though she was, as usual, fighting it. Usagi yawned enormously. "I am so tired . . . do you think the others would mind if I took a nap for awhile?"
Rei almost said something sharp about Usagi's laziness, but stopped herself. "You must have drained yourself using your powers so much."
Usagi said, "Yes, it was silly of me . . . I should have just waited for the President instead of reading all the others . . . Sleep, Ikuko-chan, sleep for Mama? Look, Julie-chan is asleep."
Rei said, "There's no place to sleep here."
Usagi said, "I could use the couch in the next room, like Kimi-chan."
Rei shook her head. "That couch will do for Kimi-chan, but not for you. You need a bed. I'll get you one."
"I'll get you a bed!"
Sumpter shook his head. "The Lincoln Bedroom? She's in the Lincoln Bedroom?"
Uffizi nodded. "Come on. The performance is starting in a couple of minutes."
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