He looked up.
“I don’t think of myself as a ‘hub of information’ as you put it,” I began, anger bubbling up. “I’m only suggesting that if I’d been notified last night that Mr. Minkus had collapsed, maybe I could have started looking into things
.” I emphasized the words. “And by now we would have determined the kitchen’s role—or lack thereof—in Mr. Minkus’s demise.”
He leaned toward me, thumping meaty forearms on the desk. “They told me you were a handful.”
I bit the insides of my mouth. “I prefer to think of myself as proactive.”
“Call it what you like.” He massaged his nose again. No wonder it was so wide. “I’ve assigned a group of agents to determine your staff’s culpability in this situation. You are to cooperate with them. Fully. Do you understand?”
“Of course,” I said, bristling. “But I can guarantee that Mr. Minkus did not die as a result of anything that came out of my kitchen.”
“That remains to be seen.”
Brewster asked me a few questions about my employment at the White House—information he could have easily gleaned from my personnel file. Then he asked me about the meal we had prepared for Agent Minkus at last night’s dinner. Whenever I tried to add commentary, he held up a hand and reminded me to “just answer the question.”
When he finally finished, I wiped fingers along my hairline, and grimaced at the perspiration there. Brewster had that effect on me—he probably had that effect on everyone he met.
As though silently summoned, one of the matching-bookend agents came in.
“Agent Guzy,” Brewster said. “Ms. Paras is ready for her interrogation with the Metropolitan Police. Take her downstairs.”
My interrogation? What had
I had turned when Agent Guzy arrived. Now I twisted back to face Brewster. “I don’t have time to be questioned right now,” I said, pointing to my watch. “I have to get breakfast ready for the president and the First Lady.”
Brewster blinked. Like a bored cow.
“And my staff,” I continued. “They won’t realize why I’m not there. I need to talk with them.” I was perched at the edge of my chair, leaning in toward the desk, as though the proximity of my speech would make my words more meaningful to Brewster. “You don’t understand—”
“No, Ms. Paras,” Brewster said slowly. “It is you who does not understand. Until we know what caused Agent Minkus’s unexpected death, there will be no food coming out of the White House kitchen. Especially not to be served to the president or his family.”
I sat back. “You can’t actually believe that—”
Still speaking slowly, he licked fat lips. “You will cooperate fully with the team assigned to you.”
I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t decide what to say.
Brewster fixed me with an impatient glare. “Now, I will ask you again. Do you understand?”
I rubbed my forehead. “I’m beginning to.”
Brewster turned to Guzy. “Have your brother bring in Buckminster Reed from the other room.”
Bucky. My second-in-command. One by one, they would bring in everyone from the kitchen. Probably the sommelier and the butlers, too.
Suddenly I felt the weight of it all. Someone had died on our watch. This had never happened before. Although I understood the need to find out why—and how—I knew no one on my staff would have made such a tragic mistake with food. Minkus could not have died as a result of our preparations. He must have died naturally, or in some non-food-related way.
Brewster brought his face close to mine, interrupting my chain of reasoning. “You’re dismissed.”
As Guzy and I headed out the door, I remembered something.
I rushed back to Brewster’s desk. “We had guests yesterday.”
The way Brewster raised his eyes made it seem as though his lids weighed a thousand pounds. Each. “Yes,” he said. “And one of them died. We have established that.”
“No, I mean in the kitchen.” The man’s bored expression urged me to talk faster. “I can
that no one in the kitchen did anything wrong. We had cameras rolling yesterday. All day. We had guest chefs in the—”
He held up his hand. “Guest chefs?”
“A TV special,” I said. “Suzie and Steve.” I wanted to make the point that I could prove that nothing had been handled improperly. We could get this whole thing cleared up if only someone would take the time to review yesterday’s recordings.
“Suzie,” he repeated without interest. “And Steve.”
“You know, the SizzleMasters.”
He rubbed his nose, then scribbled a few notes on the pages before him. With another impatient look at me, he turned to Guzy. “Get me everything you can on this Suzie and Steve. And round them up, too.”
“Round them up?” I asked in horror.
Guzy tugged my elbow.
“You misunderstand,” I said. “I’m not saying they did anything wrong. I’m saying I have proof that—”
“Lot of that misunderstanding going around here today, wouldn’t you say, Ms. Paras?” Brewster pointed to the door. “Thanks for the tip. You think of anyone else who might be suspicious, you let us know.”
LOOKING SMALL AND SCARED, CYAN WAS SEATED on a white plastic folding chair when Agent Guzy brought me into the next room. “Cyan!” I said, rushing toward her.
She jumped to her feet. “Ollie.”
We stopped, startled—feeling like criminals. Did they really believe we killed Minkus?
Taking a seat next to Cyan, I realized, belatedly, that that’s exactly what we were up against.
Agent Guzy walked to the far end where his twin stood, staring straight ahead. Brewster had mentioned they were brothers, so I hadn’t been too far off when I assigned them the monikers of Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Guzy One spoke in low tones to Guzy Two, and the second man left the room.
My chair wobbled. I tried to sit very still to prevent it from making noise in the silence.
Hard to do in such a chilly place,
I thought, suppressing a shiver. White unadorned walls prevented me from finding anything of interest to focus on. The only thing in the room I could watch was the agent, who stood unmoving, except for the occasional blink.
Cyan and I shared a look. She shrugged. Since we were forbidden to speak, there wasn’t much else to do except try to put together what I knew. Carl Minkus’s death was unfortunate, and I felt bad—the way you feel bad whenever you hear that anyone has died—but I didn’t have any particular affection for the man. In fact, I don’t think I’d actually ever met him. The closest I’d gotten was when he’d been a guest at the White House. And that had only been maybe twice before.
Third time’s the charm.
Ooh. Bad thought.
“How long are we going to be here?” I asked.
Guzy One directed his gaze to me, but didn’t speak.
Cyan whispered, “Isn’t your mom arriving today? And your grandmother?”
I nodded. “I sure hope we’re out of here by—”
Just as Guzy One said that, the door opened again and Bucky was ushered in, accompanied by Guzy Two. Brewster must not have had very many questions for my assistant chef. “That was quick,” I said to Bucky.
He yanked himself out of the agent’s grasp. “What the hell is going on here?” Bucky asked.
Guzy Two pointed. “No talking.”
Bucky, Cyan, and I shared a look that spoke of our disbelief at the way we were being treated. I’d never met either of these Guzy brothers. They clearly hadn’t been on the Presidential Protective Detail for very long. Then again, they might have just been brought in for the day. After all, it wasn’t every day that a White House soiree ended with a dead guest.
The third agent from this morning’s car ride came in. The weak link. I fixed him with a smile before he had a chance to join his comrades. “Hi,” I said. “What’s your name?”
He looked perplexed by the question, but answered. “Snyabar.”
The Guzy brothers exchanged a look as I stood up. “Agent Snyabar,” I began, “I think we’ve gotten off to a bad start here.”
Snyabar moved closer to the Guzy brothers, who stepped apart to allow him into their midst. I advanced, noting that the little chef was causing the big Secret Service agents to circle their wagons.
“Please return to your seat, Ms. Paras,” the first Guzy said. “You will be summoned by the investigators soon.”
“Really, is all this necessary?” I asked.
The way the three men stared straight ahead, without even acknowledging that I’d spoken, scared me most of all. We were trusted White House staff members. At least, we had been yesterday. Right now I felt vulnerable—and guilty. I even started to doubt myself. Could there have been some combination of spices, foods, or beverages that was toxic to Carl Minkus? Was there some way I could have known this?
I was about to try breaking the Secret Service barrier again, when the door opened, and Peter Everett Sargeant III strode in. “Ah,” he said. “Here you are.”
I found it unlikely that he’d been looking for me for any valid reason. Peter Everett Sargeant and I had never gotten along. I’d say that we didn’t see eye to eye, but I believed the fact that we were almost the same height was exactly the problem. Peter was an incredibly short fellow, obsequious and ingratiating to everyone in power, but condescending and obnoxious to those below him, and especially staffers who were shorter than he was. Which was . . . me.
“Is there something you need, Peter?”
Our Secret Service guards, surprisingly, didn’t scold me. Apparently talking among ourselves was verboten, but conversing with the angry chief of cultural and faith-based etiquette affairs was not.
Sargeant paced in front of Cyan and Bucky, his hands clasped in front of him. “Well, well, well,” he said. “How the mighty have fallen.”
I folded my arms. “Care to explain?”
The agents shifted their weight, in sequence. Guzy One stretched his neck, then glanced at the door.
Sargeant’s little eyes narrowed as he came close. “Do you have any idea the trouble we’re dealing with out there?” He gestured vaguely toward the residence. “The trouble you’ve caused?”
That got my back up. “I don’t believe it’s been proven that the kitchen had anything to do with Carl Minkus’s death. And until that time, I’ll thank you to stop pointing fingers.”
One corner of his mouth curled up. “Just wait, Ms. Paras. I’ve heard things.”
I must have reacted, because Sargeant’s smile got a little bigger. “Yes, it seems Agent Minkus commented about his meal, right before he collapsed.”
We were talking about a person’s death here, and yet Sargeant seemed almost gleeful in his explanation as he continued. “Something was most definitely wrong with the meal and it won’t be long before every finger points at you.” He sniffed, glancing as he did at Cyan and Bucky. “At all of you.”
I couldn’t stop myself. “What did Minkus say?”
At the far end of the room, the door opened and someone called for me.
Sargeant didn’t reply, but before I could ask him again, Guzy One stepped between us. “Ms. Paras, you’ve been summoned.”
“But . . .” I sputtered.
“Now,” Guzy said. He nipped my elbow between his thumb and forefinger and guided me toward the door.
I wasn’t done with Sargeant. Even though I was sure he was baiting me, I couldn’t stop myself from asking again. “Minkus said something about the food?”
“He most certainly did.” Sargeant’s eyes glittered.
What kind of person found enjoyment only when someone else was suffering?
He raised a hand and gave me a little finger wave. “I’ll fill you in later. I’ll be here,” he said. “And with any luck,
GUZY ONE SHUTTLED ME OUT OF THE EAST Wing into the main residence and up to the first floor. The walk through the majestic entrance and cross hall—which I’d done hundreds of times—should have felt comforting and familiar. But all I could concentrate on were the echoing squishes of my shoes against the marble floor and Agent Guzy’s brisk clip-clip-clip beside me.