VANGUARD
Author:CJ Markusfeld

Now she needed to save one life. Only one. Surely it wasn’t too much to ask.

“Sophie?” She looked up from her wool-gathering. Anjali and Will had packed up the leftovers. “Let us give you a ride home.”

“You can’t drive me to Brooklyn at this hour. Just take me to the train.” Like most New Yorkers, Sophie couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan, so she rented the upper floor of a ratty duplex in Brooklyn.

“You’re staying with us tonight,” Anjali said.

When Sophie started to protest, Will interrupted. “You can’t help him if you keel over from exhaustion before you get to Orlisia.”

She surrendered silently, following them out of the office and into their car.

“Did you have any luck at Interpol today?” asked Will.

“Not much. I got a few new things. Photocopy of Michael’s US passport. The number might come in handy in the future. Some interesting notes in his dossier. I dropped by to see Hallie at the Red Cross before I caught the train.”

“We’ll be there soon,” he said. “The Soviet government will grant us access any day now. If he’s in that camp, we’ll find him.”

Sophie caught his eye in the rearview mirror. “It’ll be at least another month, probably more with Christmas coming on,” she said bleakly. Will looked back at her, troubled. She was right, and he knew it.

She took the tiny guest room that had once been the den in her friends’ condo on the Upper West Side. She’d slept there many nights as of late and kept several changes of clothing in the cupboard. Sophie left Will and Anjali to enjoy a drink in the kitchen, took half a sleeping pill, and went to bed. Oblivion took her fast. She did not dream, for which she was grateful.







January 10, 2014





Friday flew, as always. She felt like she’d just sat down at her desk – a few stray Christmas cards gathering dust there – when Will appeared beside her, his face expressionless.

“Five o’clock already?” she mumbled. Sophie stuffed her laptop into her bag and walked to the door with him. Everyone in the office found other things to look at.

“Let’s have them.” He held out his hand, and she handed him her office keys and security card without a word. He put them into his pocket and hugged her like he always did every Friday. “Have a good weekend. We’ll see you Monday.” Then he gently pushed her out the door, his worried eyes never leaving hers as the elevator doors closed between them.

Will had put his foot down when he’d found her curled up asleep on the floor in the Situation Room one Monday morning, unwashed and wearing the same clothes she’d had on the previous Friday. Now, she couldn’t enter the office on weekends. She was allowed to take her laptop and iPhone home with her, but that was it.

As humiliating as the weekly ritual was, it turned out to be one of the best decisions Will could have made. In retrospect, Sophie realized she should have made it herself, if nothing else than to maintain one of her guiding principles: Always be planning.

Sophie had learned this at the feet of a young development worker to whom she’d been assigned during a volunteer opportunity in China as a teenager. The woman’s name had been Kei-Yee, but Sophie had been startled to learn that the woman also had a Western name – Vivian – that she’d expected Sophie to use because it was easier to pronounce. Sophie had refused to call her anything except her Chinese name. Amused by her stubborn charge, Kei-Yee had relented, but hadn’t hesitated to turn it into a lesson on cultural sensitivity.

“Many Chinese professionals take Western names in addition to the names they were born with,” the woman had explained. “This is the way of business here. Always know the customs of the country you are entering. It creates an atmosphere of goodwill and respect from the start.”

Kei-Yee had shown her how to respond to floods and earthquakes, two of the most common disasters in China. Their refugee infrastructure was immense, designed to work with huge populations of displaced people. Sophie had learned more in that week with Kei-Yee than she had in two months in the classroom.

“Planning, you must always be planning, Sophie. One billion people – always plan. No disaster today, maybe one tomorrow. Plan.”

Kei-Yee had been right then, and she was right now. Sophie needed to be ready to go to Orlisia on a moment’s notice, personally as well as professionally. She put her weekends to good use.

Promptly at seven on Friday evening, her language teacher, Alex, knocked on the door of her apartment. Mugs of tea steamed on the table while they spent two hours in intensive Soviet study. Ninety minutes for language, thirty minutes on culture and social customs. Sophie’s Russian had slipped over the years, and she needed it in top form for this trip. Alex had immigrated to New York from the Soviet Republic just two years ago, and had brought with him an excellent understanding of its rapidly evolving society.

“Use the fact that you are a woman to your advantage,” he urged as they role-played. “Soviet society is historically patriarchal, of course, but there has been a dramatic culture shift in the last twenty years to improve women’s rights, among other things. We’ve had nothing less than a cultural revolution. My country has instituted and upheld strict laws against the abuse of women in all member nations – look at the success we’ve had in ending honor killings in our Muslim societies!”

“Should I be more feminine?” she asked. “Appear helpless?”

He shook his head, grinning. “No. Be more dominating.” Alex reached out to tip her pointed chin higher. “Deep inside, every Soviet solider holding an AK-47 is still afraid of his mama.”