With an almost palpable snap, hot anger shot furiously into my chest and spouted out my mouth. I couldn’t stop myself. “I have helped. I
Tom looked around the room and raised his hands. “Ollie, please.”
“Please what? Please let the Secret Service do its job by itself? Is Craig so insecure that help from the chef unnerves him?”
Tom glanced around. “I think it’s time we leave.” He motioned for the waitress. Mistaking his call for more coffee, she poured eagerly.
When he asked her for the check, she pursed her lips. “Okay,” she said. “Be right back.”
I bit the insides of my cheeks tight, trying hard to hold on to my temper. As much as I wanted to help this investigation—both to clear my kitchen and to satisfy my curiosity—the fact that I’d been banished from doing so wasn’t what was getting under my skin. It was Tom. He wouldn’t admit that I’d been key to preventing some major disasters in the White House. Disasters that, for one reason or another, the Secret Service could not have anticipated. Naturally, the media continued to speculate about what a busybody, amateur-sleuth wannabe I was.
I expected more from Tom.
The lines on his face were deeper than they had been. He seemed to hold himself too tightly—too wound up. A small part of me softened when I looked at him. This had to be hard for him, too. Craig issuing the edict that Tom was responsible for me was mean-spirited. Not to mention unnecessary.
Tom didn’t even look at the waitress when she dropped off the check. He mumbled a “Thank you,” and stood next to the booth, waiting for me.
Tom hadn’t asked for this assignment and I knew, clearly, that he wasn’t happy with it. If we were to get through this, I needed to keep our lines of communication open. I got up and touched his arm. “By the way,” I said, “thanks again.”
He looked at me with total confusion.
“For picking up my mom and nana from the airport,” I said. “For getting them safely to my place.”
His cheeks reddened and he looked away. “They’re nice ladies. I was glad to help.”
“It means a lot to me.”
Still not moving toward the cash register, Tom looked at me. “I don’t want to fight about this.”
“Neither do I.”
He shook his head. “But I know how your mind works.”
I nodded slightly. I had to give him that.
“I’m afraid that you
get involved, Ollie,” he said. “You’ll think that you’re just asking a simple question—just checking the veracity of a small fact—but before you know it, you’ll be in the center of everything.” He shook his head. “Again.”
“No one complains except Craig and the newspapers,” I said. “Doesn’t that tell you something?”
He seemed to consider that, but a moment later shook it off. “Let’s go.”
Outside he walked me to my car. “Do me one favor,” he said. “If something, anything, comes your way that’s even remotely related to this investigation—tell me.”
“I would always—” The sentence died on my lips. There had been a few instances—more than a few, if I were totally honest—I hadn’t remembered to alert Tom to my plans. I forced a smile. “I will.”
The pain was in his face again. “I’ve worked hard to become part of the PPD. This is it—this is all I’ve ever wanted. You know that, don’t you? There’s nothing more prestigious than being part of the Presidential Protective Detail. Not for me, anyway. I don’t know what I would do if Craig dropped me from his team—”
I ran my hand along his shoulder. “I promise,” I said. “Anything comes my way—anything at all—I will tell you.”
“And if I ask you to back off of something?”
“I’ll back off.”
We shared a moment of quiet camaraderie, but then I had to ask, “Do you think there’s any chance of my team getting back into the kitchen soon?”
His shoulders slumped. “Didn’t you hear anything I said?”
I hadn’t wanted to hurt him, but he didn’t seem to understand. “This isn’t about the investigation. This is about our commitments. We have Easter on Sunday, and then the big Egg Roll on Monday. I need to get back.”
“A man died at the White House after eating there. You think they’re not cancelling everything as we speak?”
Exasperated, I stared at the sky. “Something needs to be done.”
He waited until I looked at him. “But not by you. Right?”
I wanted to argue, but that would only cause him more anxiety. “No worries. I promise.”
He leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead. Like an uncle or kindly grandfather might do. Not exactly a clear signal of how things would be between us, going forward.
“I’ll be in touch,” he said.
“BACK SO SOON?” MOM ASKED WHEN I RETURNED to my apartment. She must have read the expression on my face, because when she turned away from the sink, her smile withered. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” That didn’t appease her, and I knew it wouldn’t. So I came up with a white lie. “With this investigation, Tom is under a lot of stress. He and I can only meet if it’s official business.”
“The impression of impropriety?”
I nodded. “Something like that.”
The way Mom studied my face I could tell she wasn’t buying my story. Of course she wasn’t. She knew me too well. “And I hate being banished from the White House,” I said, dropping into one of my kitchen chairs. “The whole point of you coming out here was so that I could show you around the president’s mansion. Now I’m not even allowed in myself.”
She made reassuring noises, the kind she always made when I was disappointed or frustrated and there was nothing we could do about it.
I smiled across the table. “I bet you wish you had stayed home.”
She patted my hand. “Of course not. Nana and I flew out here to see
. That’s the whole reason we came. And you know that this problem will get worked out. In the meantime, it’s nice having you all to ourselves.”
“But the tour I promised you—”
“There will be plenty of time for that. If not this trip, then next time.”
My mom always had a way of looking at the positive side of everything. Even when I didn’t feel like it. I couldn’t shake the sadness, but I wanted to let her know her efforts were appreciated. I traced a finger around on my table top. “Thanks.”
like to take that trip to Arlington, though.”
I glanced up. “Of course.”
“Now you have plenty of time to show us around Washington.” Her eyes were bright and her smile just a little too fixed. She knew how much their trip meant to me. She sensed my disappointment and felt sorry for me. And that made me feel even worse.
Taking care of others always worked for getting my mind off my troubles. If I couldn’t control the White House kitchen, I could at least take steps to improve my mood. “You got it,” I said, standing. “Let’s grab Nana and go.”
Nana took that moment to come into the kitchen. Wearing blue jeans with turned-up cuffs, a black fanny pack, and a sweatshirt that read I ♥ WASHINGTON, D.C., she looked from my mom to me. “I’m ready. Where are we going?”
We took the Metro to the Arlington National Cemetery stop and made our way to the bright visitor’s center. Sunlight poured in through the skylights, spilling onto the floor around us, and dappling the potted ficus trees. I was willing to bet they designed this place with extra cheer to help dispel sadness. It worked—to an extent.
“Let’s take the Tourmobile,” I said, grabbing an information brochure. “It’s pretty reasonable, and we can get off and reboard wherever we like.”
My mom placed a hand on my arm. “Will it take us near . . . ?”
I nodded. “I know just where Dad’s grave is. We could probably walk to it,” I said, “but I’m sure you’ll want to visit some of these other sites as well.”
“Don’t think I can manage it, do you?” Nana asked. She smiled, but I sensed a tiny bit of hurt in the question.
I pointed in the direction of Arlington House. “I know you want to visit President Kennedy’s grave, but that’s an uphill walk,” I said. “That, and the fact that there are more than six hundred acres to explore are just too much for me. But if you really want to walk it . . .”
Telling her I had a hard time making the trek up to Arlington House was stretching the truth a bit, but I knew we had a lot of ground to cover. Literally. The Tourmobile would allow us to enjoy the journey and maybe even learn a little bit from the narration as we traveled.
About fifteen steps away from us, a young man stood, staring out the windows by the front door. He worked his jaw. Handsome guy, from what I could see. Something about his profile seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. I was very good with faces, but I knew that until I got a direct look at him, I wouldn’t be able to make the connection. I wondered if he was here to visit a grave, or just to sightsee. I bit my lip. I sensed a familiarity, but at the same time, a vague negativity. Whoever he was, he reminded me of something unpleasant. I turned away.
Nana spoke. “No, we’ll take that bus of yours,” she said with a grin. “I wouldn’t want you to overexert yourself.”
My mother studied the pamphlet I’d given her and eyed the information desk in the center of the room. “Do you think they’re having any funerals?”
“Arlington averages twenty-eight funerals per day,” I said.
They both gasped. “That many?” my mom asked. “Will we be in the way if we take the tour? I don’t want to intrude on anyone’s grief.”
“We’ll be fine,” I said. “Let’s just not take any pictures of people visiting graves.” I turned toward the east wing. “How about we hit the washroom before boarding?” I asked, moving that way. “There won’t be any others on the tour except—”
I stopped short when a woman emerged from the washroom. She was instantly recognizable: Ruth Minkus. She made eye contact with me as she skirted past and I couldn’t help but notice the hot, red rims makeup couldn’t hide. Ruth gripped a paper tissue in one hand, holding it close to her heart, and I held my breath, hoping she didn’t know who I was. Instinctively I turned to watch the young man who had been staring out the window walk up to her. He took her arm. “You okay, Mom?” he asked.
Joel Minkus and his mother looked exactly as they had on television last night—except yesterday they’d seemed smaller, and somehow less real, less flesh-and-blood. And as much as I had been worried about Carl Minkus’s death, and felt for his family, I had been insulated—at home, away from the immediacy, the fierce reality of their grief.
My mom touched my shoulder. “Ollie,” she said in a whisper, “isn’t that—?”
“Yes,” I said, turning away from the twosome. “Let’s move over there by the trees. We’ll be out of the way.”
Nana had bypassed us to disappear into the ladies’ room. “Damn,” I said, then addressed my mom. “You wait here for her, and I’ll meet you . . .” I looked around, trying to decide whether I should say something to Mrs. Minkus. I didn’t want to apologize, because I knew I wasn’t responsible for her husband’s demise, but as one of the players in this drama, I felt almost compelled to offer my condolences.
But what, exactly, should a person in my situation say?
My mom hadn’t left my side. She whispered again, “I think she recognizes you.”
I turned. Ruth Minkus was staring. The red-rimmed eyes now blazed with anger.
“Oh, God,” I breathed, turning back. I gripped my mom’s arm and guided her toward the washroom. “Go on,” I said. “Take care of Nana. I’ll find you.”
I attempted to slink to out the side doors, keeping my face averted, but an exclamation behind me caused me to stutter-step. “You!” Ruth Minkus shouted. “You’re the chef!”
Her voice echoed loudly, and I wasn’t the only person who turned to see her pointing at me. I closed the space between us, hoping she would lower her voice—hoping the horde of tourists milling about the visitor’s center wouldn’t recognize us. Hoping they would turn their attention away from our imminent and, undoubtedly uncomfortable, conversation.