I’d assumed we were headed to Paul Vasquez’s office, but instead wound up in the State Dining Room, where it appeared the authorities had set up a command post. The prior evening’s dinner had been served in the adjacent Family Dining Room. That, to me, was a misnomer because when the First Family dined together, they tended to congregate upstairs in the private quarters. This Family Dining Room was on the main floor and the Campbells often used it for intimate business dinners, like last night’s had been.
There were dozens of Secret Service agents in the State Dining Room. Several folding tables had been brought in and computers set up. There were uniformed agents as well as PPD agents, and I quickly scanned the room, looking for Tom.
Being short is a major disadvantage because I was lost in a sea of broad shoulders and hurrying clerks. Tom is tall, and I aimed my gaze upward, but Guzy tugged me toward the northwest corner of the room, near the pantry.
“Paul!” I said when I saw our chief usher.
Urgency must have been apparent in my voice because he left a group of agents, and hurried over to me. “Ollie, how are you holding up?”
I managed to squirm out of Guzy’s grip. “I don’t know.”
Paul winced. “This is a bad one.” He turned to Guzy and nodded. “Thank you.”
Guzy seemed perplexed by the dismissal, as though not quite sure how to take the directive from Paul. As chief usher, Paul didn’t control the PPD, but there was an understanding between him and veteran agents. Paul controlled the residence, and if he was taking responsibility for the executive chef, then Agent Guzy needed to find something else to do.
“You’re free to go.”
Raising his voice to be heard above the din, Guzy tried harder. “But, sir—” He reached out a hand, as though to ensnare my elbow again. I sidestepped him.
From behind us, a familiar voice. “It’s okay. I got it.”
We both turned.
“Tom!” I said. Paul Vasquez rolled his eyes. Although Tom and I had tried to keep our relationship quiet amongst the White House staff, it was getting to be a joke that the only people truly unaware of the situation were the president and the First Lady themselves. And apparently Agent Guzy, too.
He looked dumbfounded. Which was quite a sight from this expressionless behemoth. “Agent MacKenzie,” he said, his tone deferential.
Tom stepped between us. “I’ll take it from here.”
I leaned up to whisper: “Bucky and Cyan.”
Tom smiled down at me, then addressed Guzy again. “Would you please see that Ms. Paras’s assistants are escorted to the Library?”
Guzy nodded. “Right away.”
When he left, Tom turned to me, asking the same thing Paul had. “How are you holding up?”
I started with my topmost concern. “My mom,” I said. “I forgot my cell phone at home. In all the excitement—”
Paul looked confused.
Tom ran a hand through his hair. “They’re arriving today?”
“They’re supposed to touch down at eight fifty this morning.”
He looked at his watch. It was just after five our time, which made it four in Chicago. “Early. Are they at the airport now?”
“They should be.” I shrugged. “But I have no idea.”
Paul cleared his throat. “The investigators need to talk with Ollie.”
Tom shepherded us toward the pantry, where I’d expected it to be quiet. Instead, there were paper-booted, latex-gloved technicians taking apart every inch of my workspace. They were covered, head to toe, in Tyvek jumpsuits and wore masks over their faces and shower caps over their heads. I could only imagine that the scene downstairs in my kitchen was worse. I groaned.
“It’s standard operating procedure, Ollie,” Tom said. “They have to examine everything.”
We both knew that before this episode was over, my kitchens would be turned inside out and upside down. Which was exactly the state of my stomach at the moment.
The door between the pantry and the Family Dining Room had been propped open and I could see more technicians in full protective gear. President Campbell stood at the doorway leading to the stairway and Usher’s Room. He was having an intense conversation with Agent Craig Sanderson.
At that moment, the president looked up and made eye contact with me. His mouth was set in a grim line and I thought I could detect disappointment, even across the crowded room. I was sorry to see it there, even if I had done nothing to cause it. He nodded in acknowledgment, then turned slightly away from me, to continue his conversation.
“What is going on?” I asked.
Paul urged me back into the center of the pantry, then called for quiet. The busy technicians stopped what they were doing and turned to face us. I was glad to have Tom behind me.
“This is Executive Chef Olivia Paras,” Paul said in a clear voice. “If you have any questions, she will be available in the Library.”
From behind their obscuring getups, I could make out that three of the technicians were male, two female. One of the men wore glasses behind his safety goggles. Why were they dressed so protectively? Did they think Minkus died as a result of an airborne contaminant? If so, then wouldn’t the other guests have been affected? Wouldn’t we all be at risk? I wanted to get out of this room with its suddenly close quarters and heavy, stale air.
“You’ll be happy to cooperate, right, Ollie?” Paul said, nudging me forward.
“Yes,” I said. I caught his hint and spoke assertively to the group. “I know you have a job to do and I’m here to help in any way I can. My staff and I are at your service.”
Paul nodded, then moved us back out the door, through the State Dining Room, where activity had grown to fever pitch. I wanted to stop, but Tom and Paul kept moving me forward.
“We’ve got to get you out of here,” Tom said under his breath. “They’ve got Metropolitan Police here and we can’t be sure of leaks.”
“Leaks?” I asked, as the two men escorted me to the stairs adjacent to the East Room. “But what could be leaked?”
“That’s the thing you learn in the world of politics,” Paul said. “You never want to give out information you don’t need to share. Anything that
be misconstrued, usually is.”
I’d expected our path to take us to the Library, where Tom had told Guzy to take Cyan and Bucky, but as we reached the bottom of the stairs we walked across the hall to the China Room.
The door opened as we approached. The third agent from this morning, Agent Snyabar, was there, as were two Metropolitan Police detectives who proffered their badges for my inspection. A male/female team, their names were Fielding and Wallerton. Tom and Paul escorted me in and led me to one of the wing chairs. I declined, not wanting to be the only seated person.
Just then, the door opened and Craig Sanderson came in. Craig was a tall agent, handsome and crisp. As Tom’s supervisor, he was aware of our relationship, but had enough regard for Tom that he preferred to remain “officially” uninformed.
Craig and I were cordial to one another. There were times his Appalachian drawl sent shivers up my spine. This was one of them. “Ms. Paras,” he said slowly. “Why am I not surprised to discover your involvement in this terrible tragedy?”
“Hi Craig,” I said, striving for informal. The less formal, the less intense our conversation would be. At least, that was what I hoped.
“Please, have a seat, Ms. Paras.”
This time, I sat.
Craig took the wing chair opposite mine and the two detectives came around to flank him. They both held open small notebooks—a lot like the one Craig now held poised, waiting for me to speak. But what could I possibly say?
Tom and Paul stood on either side of my wing chair, and I twitched against the nubby fabric. I didn’t want to stain the armrests, so I wiped both hands on the front of my slacks. I’d thrown on white canvas pants, a white T-shirt, and a light gray hoodie this morning. Although the day was cool, I was itching to remove my sweatshirt. The fireplace next to me wasn’t burning, but I felt what it was like to sit in the hot seat.
“Agent Brewster talked with me this morning,” I said to break the silence. Too late, I remembered the old adage “He who speaks first, loses.”
Craig arched his brows. “And what did Agent Brewster have to say?”
“Not much,” I said, wondering why I’d even brought it up. “He seems to think my kitchen—or I—had something to do with Agent Minkus’s death.”
I blinked. “Of course not.”
Craig’s mouth twisted sideways. He wrote nothing, but the two detectives scribbled furiously. The forty-something woman—Wallerton—was tall and thin to the point of emaciation. I’d characterize her features as skeletal, and her wispy blonde hair did nothing to contradict that observation. The other detective, Fielding, was older. He had the look of a man who’d seen a lot in his day, but rather than fit the stereotype of paunchy veteran detective, he was trim and good-looking, with dark hair that was just beginning to go gray at the temples. Neither of them smiled.
Craig eased back in his seat, slightly. “We have a preliminary report from the medical examiner,” he said.
I held my breath. “Already?”
Dumb question. This was the White House. Everything was done expeditiously. When something was needed, all stops were pulled out until it was accomplished.
“What did they say?” I asked, inching forward. “Do they think it was a heart attack?”
Craig’s mouth turned down in a way that made my own heart drop. “It was not a myocardial infarction.”
The two detectives glanced up at me, then continued to write.
“What was it?” I asked.
“We expect to have more information within a day or two.”
I wanted to scream, “Just tell me!” but I pulled my hands together on my lap and clasped my fingers, hard. “My kitchen is clear, right?”
Craig did that thing with his mouth again. When he fixed me with a stare, I felt my insides turn to jelly. Hot, slippery jelly. Like the kind Polish bakers fill their
with every Fat Tuesday. “No,” he said.
My voice came out in a whisper. “What do you mean, ‘no’?” I felt a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t know if it was Paul’s or Tom’s. My vision telescoped, focusing solely on Craig’s angry stare, and after the whoosh in my head silenced, all I could hear were pens scraping against notepaper.
“The medical examiner believes that Carl Minkus ingested something at dinner that killed him.”
I sucked in a gasp. “ ‘Ingested something that killed him’?” I repeated the words, but my brain couldn’t accept the meaning.
Craig continued. “The medical examiner is doing very in-depth toxicology screenings today. They’re waiting on results, but we won’t have answers for a while.”
I shook my head. This wasn’t happening. “But that doesn’t mean it was something he ate . . . something we served. Couldn’t he have eaten something at lunch that did this?”
Craig wasn’t budging. “Doctor Michael Isham is one of the finest pathologists in the country. We will have to wait and see what he says.”
“But . . .”
“Until we can prove that food served at last night’s dinner was not responsible for Carl Minkus’s death, you and your staff are banned from the White House kitchen.”
“But the Easter Egg Roll,” I said. “It’s a week from today.”
“The Easter Egg Roll is not my concern.”
“We have a lot of work to do. I mean . . . this is a big deal. Surely the president and First Lady understand that. How can we prepare for the Egg Roll if we aren’t allowed in the kitchen?”
Craig licked his lips, but I interrupted before he could answer.
“And what about preparing regular meals!” I was growing indignant. I knew we could probably keep the house running by utilizing the family kitchen on the second floor, but that would certainly not give us enough space to prepare for the entire Egg Roll extravaganza. “We need the kitchen,” I said pertly. The cafeteria on the basement-mezzanine level was an option, too, but I much preferred working in the kitchen I called home—the main kitchen on the ground floor.
“Until you are cleared, you won’t be preparing any food at all.”
“But the other kitchens . . .”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “It isn’t just the kitchens we’re investigating. We’re investigating all of
My mouth dropped open. Again I felt a hand on my shoulder. I was pretty sure it was Paul. “You can’t be serious,” I said.
“When the safety of the president of the United States is at stake, I’m dead serious.”
I pulled my lips shut—tightly, to prevent an outburst. Then: “What about the other guests?”
My question seemed to take Craig aback; the two detectives, too. They stopped writing long enough to send me quizzical looks.
“So far, the other guests are unaffected,” he said. “But I understand you prepared a separate entrée for Carl Minkus. He was served food that the other guests did not touch.”
“That’s true,” I said. “Mr. Minkus is vegetarian, and we made sure to follow his dietary guidelines exactly.” I raised a finger and shook it for emphasis. “I made certain to personally oversee everything that went out that night.” I knew such a statement put me at higher risk for investigation, but it was true. Nothing went out without my approval. “But if he had an allergy that we were unaware of—”
“His medical records indicate no such allergy.”
“Maybe he recently developed one.”
“Maybe you’re grasping at straws.” Craig consulted notes for a brief moment, then met my eyes. “You told Jack Brewster that you had two guest chefs in the kitchen yesterday.”
“Suzie and Steve,” I said. “The SizzleMasters.”
The female detective shot a questioning look at the handsome older detective. He supplied the answer, and I heard his voice for the first time. “It’s on the Food Channel,” he said. “Suzie and Steve are big into steaks and barbecue. They have their own show.” He shrugged. “It’s pretty good.”