Assignment Sahara: Chad and Sudan
By Anne Kimbell
Janine Simms, a slim and unusually elegant CIA officer, struggled down the ramp of the Air France Airbus that had just delivered her to the N'Djamena airport. The breeze hit her overcooled body like a blast from a furnace as she looked in vain for someone from the American Embassy to meet her.
Pushing back her silver blonde hair with one hand, she grabbed her briefcase and her red flight bag with the other. By the time she reached the bottom of the ramp, her beige linen suit was clinging to her slender body and the panty hose) that she already regretted wearing, were climbing down her legs, damp with perspiration. She squinted against the brilliant sunshine and was sorry not to have a hand free to reach for her sunglasses in her voluminous, black kid purse. A gust of hot wind swirled around her, carrying sand and debris and further hindering her vision. She felt a rough hand steady her, and turned to see a tall bearded man in dust colored fatigues glaring down at her.
"Mind where you're going," he said gruffly, with a slight British accent. "We’ve gotten here just in the midst of one of their famous dust storms. Turn the wrong way and you’ll end up walking around in the Sahara.”
Janine nodded. Too preoccupied with wiping her streaming eyes and heading for the shelter that the low roofed waiting room offered, to respond. Where in the hell was cl1e embassy driver she wondered, as she struggled with her carryon luggage. The call from Chad had been so urgent that she had only had time to pack a few essentials, having been assured by the officer who had assigned her to this god forsaken place, that whatever she found she needed, would follow.
Desert boots and a shovel, she thought grimly, as she hurried into the dimly lit airport. She was immediately surrounded by teen-age boys in shorts and well-worn tee shirts, offering her assistance with her sparse luggage. “Imshi, imshi," go away, she said briskly in Arabic. The youngsters looked surprised and backed away. Just then, Janine caught sight of a bald headed, portly little man, pushing his way through the crowd toward her.
He stuck out a perspiring hand, after carefully wiping it with a crumpled handkerchief. "Joe Bottoms, from the embassy," he said apologetically. "Sorry to be late, but this damn refugee thing in the Sudan has got us all tied up. We're really a very small staff and not set up to cope with this sort of thing. Is that all you brought?" he said curiously, eyeing her red carryon bag.
"The boss said that I could get anything else that I needed here. I was sent off in quite a huff," Janine answered, wondering why she felt that she owed this small perspiring man any explanations. He was nodding and smiling at her like a Kewpie doll whose head might falloff if he didn't stop wagging it at her.
“Well, you won't find much here in the way of dress clothes. But there is some rough stuff in the market from time to time. Depends on what your assignment is?" he asked curiously.
"I'm here to back up our aid mission to Sudanese refugees," Janine responded
glacially. "I don't imagine that...l will have to dress up very often to do that."
The little man looked dubious as he led his way to a battered embassy car that
looked exactly like a checkered cab painted black. Which is exactly what it was. "Well, the ambassador's wife likes to keep up the side, so to speak. Can't let the French outdo us here in this God forsaken place."
"I would think that we were here to do more than attend embassy parties, and get sloshed," Janine said, climbing into the car after him. It was completely devoid of air conditioning and smelled of very old leather.
The chubby man mopped his brow again and nodded anxiously. Their car was now surrounded by the very same teenagers who had tried to carry Janine's bags. But now they stood
in front of the car demanding payment for guarding it. Joe rolled the window down just enough to toss some coins out of their reach. While they scrambled for them, he gunned the motor, which was surprisingly powerful, and sped away down the dusty tree lined streets.
Janine got her first look at N'Djamena, the Republic of Chad, Central Africa. What she saw was discouraging. She had wanted a respite from her job in Paris, but this was ridiculous. The town was a collection of white washed, low-lying stucco buildings and bazaars. This late in the afternoon, the streets were crowded with donkeys, goats, bicycles and a few old cars. Women in gaily-colored cloths strolled regally, balancing huge baskets on their heads. The sound of loud music came from a million transistor radios turned on full blast. The heat was stifling. But Janine reminded herself firmly that she was here to do a job. Two jobs in fact, and neither heat nor dust nor politics here in the dead middle of Africa, was going to stop her.
Joe asked politely if she minded stopping by the embassy first to meet the ambassador. "He's been on pins and needles waiting for you to arrive, and we usually work from five to seven p.m. after the heat of the day. He should still. be in the office, if you're not too tired to stop by for a minute."
Why should she be tired? Janine thought. She had been up since four a.m. and with security as tight as it was, had been in airports and in the air for about ten hours. She felt dusty and grimy and greatly in need of a shower. But she was also very curious to meet the ambassador who would be her immediate boss while she was in the country. His attitude toward her was going to add or detract greatly to the success or failure of her mission.
The taxi, nee embassy car, pulled to a stop in front of a white stucco building very like the others in town. A somewhat relaxed security guard lounged outside of the building, but stood to attention as the car stopped, and Janine and her chubby escort got out. Joe nodded to him as they mounted the short steps to the front door. "We’re still pretty lax about security here," he said under his breath. "Probably not what you are used to in Paris."
Janine stifled a retort. This was certainly not what she was used to. But then N'Djamena was pretty far off the beaten track. Most people hadn’t even heard of Chad until the refugees from the Sudan began to pour in, attracting the world's attention. That was the given reason for her coming here, to help facilitate shipment of food from the USAID mission to the refugees. And to make sure that it wasn't being siphoned off and sold in
the open market, as a great deal of relief goods were. The real reason she had been sent was somewhat different and a lot trickier.
Ambassador Nicholson was seated at his desk witl1 the door open. He wore a white formal shirt with no tie and was glaring down at some papers on his desk, being ruffled by an annoying breeze from a large overhead fan. He was a slight man with thinning gray hair and a somewhat sour expression. He glanced up as Janine entered. His pale gray eyes seemed not to register her presence. Then he coughed once or twice, wiped his mouth and stood up to greet her, covering the papers on his desk with his hand. "Priority telegrams," he said by way of explanation. "Didn’t expect you quite this soon.”
Janine nodded smartly and glanced at Joe who was hovering by the door and looking chagrined.
"Well, as long as you are here already. Let's get down to business," the ambassador said, motioning Joe to leave. "We've waited long enough to get some help with this mess. I hope that you are up to it."
Janine took a deep breath and told herself to play it cool. Ambassador Nicholson was just one man in a long series of men, who resented Washington "sending a woman to do a man's job," as they usually put it.
"Well, I guess that I was the only agent free to take this assignment," she said politely. "And since I speak French and some Arabic, have served in Tunisia and know something about the Arab world, I suppose the head office felt that it might work out for us both," she continued calmly. “Now why don't you brief me on the real reason why I'm here." Then, without being asked, she took a seat, crossed her legs and leaned forward as if expecting an immediate answer.
The ambassador was somewhat taken aback by her directness. He poured himself a glass of water from a carafe, remembering belatedly to offer her one. Then he launched into his story. “About three weeks ago we got a cable from Washington that the daughter of one of our most prominent senators was miss- ing from the refugee camps here in Chad. She had come with a private religious organization to bring food and medical supplies to the refugees. Her father hasn't heard from her for over a month. Not being able to reach her through any of the regular missionary channels, he asked us to make inquiries."
He glanced at Janine over the top of his glasses. “Her father is a very prominent senator, and a veteran, I might add." He paused to sip his water, looking directly at Janine. “All we were able to find out through our sketchy contacts with the refugee camps, is that a girl, answering to her description, was there for a few days, ostensibly helping out. But that no one has seen her in over a month. The group that she was working with returned to America without her, several weeks ago. That's when the whole mess got dumped into our laps," he sighed regretfully.
"She didn't want to stay here in town more than a few days after she arrived. None of the group did. Wanting their
'independence from government regulations', I suppose." He pronounced the latter phrase with obvious distaste. “But we get the job of finding out where she is, or at least what happened to her. But now you're here, that's your job, Ms. Simms. Are you up to it?" He paused meaningfully, “It will also give you an opportunity to find out who the local dissidents are. Your office indicated that you were good at that sort of thing."
Janine eyed him wearily. Just once it would be nice to work for an ambassador who was on her side and had read her vitae: career CIA operative for fifteen years with top security clearance and a law degree from Harvard. Black belt in Judo and a crack shot. But it wouldn't have mattered to this one anyhow. He just wanted her to save his ass, do it quickly and go back to where she came from. In other words, make him look good, be quick about it, and let him take the credit. She was used to the drill but that didn’t mean that she liked it any better.
"It would help if I could see the file," she said glancing at the papers on his
He covered them protectively. "I'll have my secretary put copies of them together for you in the morning. In the meantime Mrs. Nicholson and I would like you to join us for dinner, when you've had time to see your quarters and freshen up a bit."
Janine nodded. "It would be a pleasure," she said gritting her teeth. The sooner she could get out of town and start looking for traces of the missing girl, the better. She had a feeling that the attractions of N'Djamena were limited and that this was going to be hard, dusty duty. Dinner at the ambassadors residence on her first night didn't sound too bad, for a start. She might as well start getting the lay of the land.
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