Jules had been nervous since Ambassador Pederson’s secretary had called. More than twenty-four hours had passed, and she still felt the urge to vomit, partly because she had no idea what to expect. It was one of those terse, pithy calls…a borderline warning wrapped in awkward phoniness. “Miss Bailey, please come to Ambassador Pederson’s office for a nine o’clock meeting tomorrow. She needs to discuss something very urgent with you, and she’d like to do it after her eight o’clock country team meeting. Do not be late. The ambassador’s schedule for tomorrow morning is full. She is very busy.”
That type of unfriendly call, from a cold and lonely secretary in an ambassador’s office, can keep the recipient guessing for days. What have I done now? Who did I piss off? Why me? Why now? But this time, nothing came to mind. Since she’d arrived in Zagreb fourteen months earlier, Jules had been nothing but the perfect Foreign Service officer, give or take points for her radical get-used-to-it dreadlocks.
She’d learned a lot from her experience in Riga, Latvia, and the top lesson had to do with baggage. American ambassadors can make or break you; it doesn’t matter to them. You’re only a small token in their larger-than-life world. You just have to accept the truth as it is shoved down your throat. You joined the Service voluntarily, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. If you want to survive, you have to work hard, take the hits as they come, and do whatever it takes to keep your ambassador happy. The best way to keep the ambassador happy is to keep her bosses—the big shots back in Washington—happy. So, for peons like Jules, it was all about figuring it out as quickly as possible…and getting to work.
Complicated as it might sound, this truth of the matter came to Jules fairly easily. The past is the past and the present is the present; forget the past and present, and focus on the future. And, as she’d learned the hard way, it’s not so hard to do once you drop the baggage and accept the truth.
When Jules entered the ambassador’s office, the ambassador was already seated on her sofa. She was reading her briefing papers for the day—and already looked bored. As usual, she spoke in a kind, yet professional voice, a tone that told you that you were getting the truth. Jules knew what the ambassador kept just below the surface in her communications. Don’t take my kindness seriously. It only lasts so long, and then the real me comes out. Keep your guard up and…please…don’t expect me to ask how your weekend went. I don’t care about your weekend.
“Good morning, Jules. Please come in and sit down,” the ambassador said, in that same kind voice. “This should only take a few minutes.”
Jules was anxious, and she could hardly keep from blurting out what she felt. What did I do? Just tell me, and I promise I’ll never do it again. But please, don’t send me home, back to Washington. I can take almost anything, but I can’t take that. Jules tried to read what she could from the ambassador’s tone, energy, and persona. But she got zilch. The ambassador was a big, fat rock of a person, and didn’t seem to have any chinks in her armor. Jules finally gave up and let the ambassador do all the talking. Unlike previous such meetings, this one was surprisingly brief.
“Let me just get to the point, Jules. I need an officer to go down to Dubrovnik for a few days. An American citizen—a teenager, actually—needs our assistance.”
The first thoughts that came to Jules’ mind were obvious, and associated with chain of command. Why don’t you ask one of the consular officers to go down? They handle American services issues, right? Her next thoughts related to her assignment. Croatia, particularly in the south along the Adriatic Sea, was a popular spot for high school and college students during school breaks. It was late fall, but that didn’t matter. It was always peak season for young tourists seeking to enjoy another Eastern European/former Soviet country where the rule of law had not yet caught up with the West. All they did was drink, party, dance, smoke Turkish hashish, and maybe do some sightseeing on the side. She saw it all in the Baltic north and was quick to realize the Balkan south was probably no different, albeit a little more on the beaten path, warmer, and expensive.
Since she didn’t know where the conversation was going, Jules was eager to put out a feeler. “An American tourist arrested? High school kid? Did someone get in trouble with the locals down there? Bad drugs? Too much alcohol?”
“No one is in trouble like that yet,” Ambassador Pederson answered. “That seems to be the situation…at least right now.”
“Then what is this about?”
“We have to be careful and keep this under wraps. State’s Congressional Affairs office has asked that we not discuss this outside the American staff here, particularly not in front of the local staff. I haven’t even raised the matter with any of the government folks here in Zagreb. It could be a big embarrassment for the girl and her family.”
“Did you say Congressional Affairs? CA back in Washington is involved?” Jules asked. “Exactly who are we talking about?”
“Before I go further, I want to make sure everything is clear on this one, Jules. We cannot let this get out of control.”
“I will not say a word. I promise.”
“Okay, very well. Senator Will Dunston and his family left Zagreb three days ago. They’re in Croatia for a holiday, and Dubrovnik is their last stop. They arrived in Croatia on the Friday after Thanksgiving, November 23, and they plan to leave on December 8. They made it to Dubrovnik this past Friday, November 30, one week after they arrived and everything was fine.”
“Okay…” Jules prodded her for more.
“Unfortunately, the embassy switchboard received a frantic call last night that was passed to Post One. Something had happened, and Senator Dunston needs someone to go down there and ‘fix it,’ whatever that means. That’s why the political side is handling this instead of consular. If it needs to be kept private, then it’s best not to involve the consular side. We all know how much they talk back in Washington.”
“Did the senator say what happened?”
“No. The Marine on duty at Post One, Jose, remembered him saying his teenage daughter was in some kind of trouble, and he needed to fix it and get her out of this country now.”
Of course. They all need to “fix it” and get the hell out—after they’ve gotten into some type of trouble. That’s the problem. They come to play in lawless countries like it’s nobody’s business. Then, when the party’s over, they want the embassy to “fix it all.” They’re all the same, especially the privileged ones. Jules thought about this while also wondering why the ambassador had selected her for this special, hands-on project. She’d never been to Dubrovnik, but was eager to go. Still, Jules was wary because easy assignments like this always fell into others’ laps, not hers.
“Did Senator Dunston say where his daughter is and what’s wrong with her?” Jules was intrigued, yet perplexed. “Did he say why it’s an issue for the embassy to handle?”
“The only thing he said was that his daughter is holed up, with a number of others, eleven strangers, in an old church. I don’t know how many strangers are there now, but the number is growing.”
“And Senator Dunston’s daughter is…?” Jules asked.
When the ambassador didn’t answer the open-ended question, Jules pressed for more. “Is she a mental case, or did she just get in with the wrong crowd?”
“I don’t think she got involved with the wrong crowd. They just arrived a few days ago.” The ambassador paused before continuing. “Jules, I chose you for one reason.”
“What is that?”
“The senator told Jose his daughter has never been in trouble before. He believes she’s been brainwashed by a religious cult. That is pretty much it; the senator didn’t have anything else to share.”
“A religious cult in Dubrovnik…in Croatia…is responsible for this?” Jules asked, a confused look on her face. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes. That’s what Jose said, and that’s what we’re going with. I have not spoken with the senator yet. If this is just a private issue and this senator wants someone else to come in and discipline his own child, I will not get dragged into his mess. I need to know more before I speak with him. That’s why I’ve brought you in to help on this…because you seem to be the right fit. Is that a problem?”
“No problem at all, Madam Ambassador. May I ask another question?” When the ambassador nodded, Jules proceeded. “Did you meet with Senator Dunston when he was in Zagreb?”
“No. That’s why I think something is definitely wrong. According to those who know him back in Washington, he’s the quiet type. He believes in no fuss and no footprint when he travels with his family. His colleagues said he wouldn’t bother the embassy unless he genuinely needed our help.”
“Who’s his control officer in Croatia?” Jules asked, knowing that an American senator could not just come in and roam the Croatian countryside without having someone at the American Embassy in Zagreb designated to watch over him…without any fuss or footprint, and however distant that might be.
“I was the senator’s control officer,” the ambassador answered. “He wanted to come in and go out quietly, so I told folks back in the State Department I’d watch him.”
You agreed to do this, Jules thought. That makes no sense. Why would an ambassador agree to do this kind of routine work when she’s got six or seven officers waiting in line? The surprised look on Jules’ face showed she needed more.
The ambassador explained, “I could have asked Nathan or Jen, but they’re too busy. And, the senator’s stay with his family was supposed to be a routine in and out; there was no need for any close monitoring or handholding. He was to come in and leave without bothering anyone, but apparently that didn’t happen.”
. . . .
They’re too busy? I’m busy, too! Jules so desperately wanted to say it, but never would. What am I, chopped liver? Do I look like sliced bologna to you? Jules knew the ambassador didn’t intentionally add the insult, but the constant reminder—everyone else is too busy, but Jules Bailey is always available no matter what—was getting old. Jules let the ambassador finish. Her last point made Jules even more uptight. “In any case, the senator asked for someone with a religious background. I thought of you first. I think you’re the right fit for this.”
“Why? Why would he want someone with a religious background?” Jules asked. “He just needs someone from the American Embassy in Zagreb to go in, unite them with their daughter, and get them all on the first flight back to the States. Right?”
“The senator told Jose one other thing.He said he knows where his daughter is. It’s an old church, and he and his wife will never go back inside. He said it was creepy and smelled like death.” After the ambassador made this point, she paused before beginning again. “And he said…”
“And? What else did he say?”
“And he said people down there think the Messiah just walked right in through one of the Dubrovnik gates.”
“The Messiah just walked right in through one of the Dubrovnik gates? Is that what you just said to me?” Jules asked. She didn’t expect much of a reply from the ambassador, and she didn’t get one.
“Yes, that’s what he said.”
“Are you sure Jose heard this right? Verbatim?”
“He got the gist and that’s all that matters,” the ambassador answered definitively. “I have no idea what it means, or what the senator meant to say. That’s why I want you to go down there and find out. Meet with him and his wife. Find out what happened to their daughter, and brief me as soon as possible. As soon as I have the background from you, I will talk with him personally.”
The ambassador ended her instructions with a typical pep talk. “Don’t waste any time. Go to the travel office now to get your ticket and arrange a hotel. Then go home and get ready; I want you there tonight. There is a point of contact down there…a priest; you should meet with him first. And please be safe.”
“I have to work with a priest?”
“Yes,” the ambassador answered bristly. “His name is Father Tomas.”
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