Craig didn’t look at him. “Why were they in the White House kitchen?”
“This is what I was trying to tell Agent Brewster,” I said. “We were filming a segment for the
show. It’s kind of like one of those challenge cooking shows where the TV personality shows up and challenges the competitor. We were working on the filets for last night’s dinner and the network planned to air the segment about three weeks from now.”
Paul interjected. “I approved this because Mrs. Campbell was very much in favor of giving viewers an intimate look inside the White House kitchen.”
Craig looked confused, so I said, “We were not only being challenged by the SizzleMasters, we were serving the food prepared during the challenge.” I waved both hands in front of me to ward off an anticipated argument. “But we weren’t filming the guests actually enjoying what we’d prepared. We made extra for our judges.”
“We enlisted a couple of the butlers to sample the steaks. It’s part of the schtick for the TV show.”
Craig held up a hand. “I do not care about ‘schtick.’ What I do care about is the fact that we have a dead guest on our hands. A very prominent, very dead, guest. And I believe we are trying to find out what he may have ingested that took his life. Carl Minkus was a vegetarian, correct?”
“Then I do not see the relevance in discussing this television challenge. I do not see what bearing any of this has on our investigation.”
Exasperated by the slow deliberation of his cadence, I rushed to get my words out. “We had cameras rolling the entire time. They were supposed to send me a copy. I’m sure if you contact the production company, you’ll be able to get one, too.”
Craig glanced up to the female detective. She nodded, and Paul accompanied her out of the room.
Chalk one up for me.
“Did anybody else have a vegetarian meal at dinner yesterday?” Detective Fielding asked.
“No,” I said. “We made Mr. Minkus’s dinner especially for him.”
My stomach dropped when I realized what I’d said. Why not just take out a full-page ad, announcing that the White House kitchen killed Carl Minkus?
Fielding flipped a page in his notebook. “What about side dishes? Salads? Desserts? Was there anything that all the guests ate?”
“Sure,” I said. I rattled off the prior evening’s menu, and told him that in addition to Carl Minkus’s sesame eggplant entrée, he’d been served a lemon-broccoli side dish, a salad with homemade dressing, and he’d shared in one of Marcel’s spectacular desserts. “That you’ll have to get from Marcel. I know it involved spun sugar and ice cream, but beyond that—”
Craig interrupted. “He is being questioned as well.”
“But no one else has gotten sick, right?” I asked hopefully.
“As of this moment,” Craig said, “that is correct.”
“You have the entire guest list?” I was pushing it, I knew, but I wanted to be sure they knew I was willing to help in any way I could. “We added Philip and Francine Cooper at the last minute yesterday.”
“We have the entire list,” Craig said.
Fielding grimaced, but dutifully wrote it down. “I didn’t have that.”
Craig didn’t like to be one-upped. He went through the entire guest list with Fielding, ticking off names as he spoke.
“Ruth Minkus was in attendance with her husband. Additionally, we had Philip Cooper; his wife, Francine; and Alicia and Quincy Parker,” he said.
At the mention of Alicia Parker’s name, Craig winced. Everyone knew our fiery defense secretary.
“Don’t forget the president and First Lady,” I said. “They were there, too.”
Craig gave me a lips-only smile. “Yes, we are aware of that.”
Detective Wallerton returned, and together with Detective Fielding and Craig they questioned me about everything that went on in the kitchen yesterday. I remembered almost every detail, but told them I needed to consult my files for a few of the ingredients used to prepare Mr. Minkus’s meal. After listening to my exhaustive recitation and taking plenty of notes, the detectives seemed satisfied with my answers.
Craig surprised us all by turning his attention to Tom. “Agent MacKenzie, how long have you been on duty?” Before Tom could answer, Craig continued, “You have been here for over twenty-four hours. More than thirty, in fact. Am I correct?”
Tom nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Go home, Agent.”
Tom started to argue that as a ranking Secret Service agent during a crisis, his place was at the White House, but Craig cut him off. “You are relieved. Get some sleep. And don’t come back until you do.”
Tom left without further comment, but I knew how disappointed he must be. I was disappointed as well. His silent presence had been a comfort.
By the time they were done asking me everything fourteen times each, I was sticky and clammy and wished I could race home and shower. Then I remembered Mom and Nana.
I glanced at my watch. Eight thirty. I’d never make it to Dulles in twenty minutes. Even if I were cleared to leave right now.
“Are we keeping you from something?” Craig asked.
Drained from the nonstop queries, I didn’t even bother to explain. “No,” I said, hoping that when I wasn’t there to meet them, my mother didn’t hustle Nana on the next flight back to Chicago.
Finally dismissed, I was led to the door. “So who will take care of the First Family’s meals?” I asked.
Craig sniffed. “Several of our agents have agreed to take on that responsibility. They are working out of the second floor kitchen and the Mess.”
My face must have telegraphed my disbelief, because he added, “Some of our agents are quite talented in the culinary arts. One of them was a full-time cook in college. He knows what he’s doing.”
I closed my eyes. This was worse than I thought. “What about us?” I asked. “Should I just stay home and twiddle my thumbs until you guys give me the all-clear?”
Craig’s face remained impassive. “Do whatever you like, Ms. Paras,” he said. “But plan on doing it here. You aren’t going home anytime soon.”
WHEN I GOT TO THE LIBRARY, BUCKY AND CYAN were waiting for me. Bucky stood up. “How long do we have to stay here? We’ve got work to do.”
“No,” I said, “we don’t.”
Cyan opened her mouth to question, but I held up a hand. “We’re out of the kitchen until further notice.”
“Here’s where we stand,” I said, lowering myself into the wooden armchair Bucky had just vacated. “Until it can be absolutely proven that Carl Minkus didn’t die as a result of our kitchen’s negligence, we are forbidden to prepare food in the White House.”
Bucky paced. “We couldn’t have done anything. I mean . . . there’s no way. We read his dietary requirements.” He dragged the back of his hand against his forehead. When he turned to me, his face was pale and his voice cracked. “This has never happened before.”
I stood and placed a hand on his shoulder. Surprisingly, he didn’t move away. “We did nothing wrong.”
Bucky shook his head. “This is terrible.”
For the first time, I actually let the truth sink in. A man was dead, possibly as a result of something we’d fed him. Although we’d followed every protocol, the fact remained that our kitchen could be guilty of negligence. I’d been adamant about our innocence, but what if we
been negligent? Then Carl Minkus was dead prematurely. And, as executive chef, blame fell squarely on me.
Bucky practically choked his next words out. “Did you think about botulism?”
I was about to answer when he pushed me aside. He covered his mouth and hurtled himself through the adjacent door.
Cyan jumped to her feet. Disregarding the fact that he had disappeared into the men’s lounge, the two of us followed Bucky in. He’d made it to the lavatory and into one of the stalls just in time. The sound of retching carried through the door. I tapped on the wood paneling. “You okay?”
We heard him cough and spit. “Yeah.”
“Bucky,” I said, “this wasn’t your fault.”
He sniffed, noisily. “I know.”
I held up my hands in a helpless gesture. Cyan shrugged. “Then come out.”
There was a long moment of silence, where we heard nothing but the faint rushing of water through nearby pipes.
Finally, Bucky said, “This is my life.”
I leaned toward the stall door, not knowing how to answer that.
“We’re always so careful,” he said, his voice plaintive. “I’ve never worked anywhere with such stringent guidelines. And I like it that way. I want to stay here.”
“Nobody’s kicking us out, Bucky,” I said, trying for levity. “Yet.”
When he spoke again, his voice was a whisper. “What if they let us all go? What if they say we were negligent—even if we weren’t? Then I’ll never get a job anywhere. My entire career will be down the tubes.”
To punctuate his words, he flushed the toilet. Cyan and I exchanged a glance, and stepped a little farther away from the door when we heard the lock turn.
Bucky emerged, looking less sweaty and pale. He wiped a handful of bathroom tissue across his forehead and offered a wobbly smile. “I’ve worked my whole life to get here,” he said. “When I think of how easily it can all be lost . . .”
Bucky’s eyes glistened and he turned away from us toward the sinks, where he turned on the tap and avoided looking into the mirror.
“Listen,” I started to say.
He shook his head. “The two of you don’t understand. You can’t. I worked hard to get here. I put in the best years of my life—before either of you came to the White House. And I thought I would be named executive chef someday.”
I stood behind him to his right, and in the mirror I could see the weak smile turning sour. He gave me a quick glance. “Instead, they gave it to you.”
There wasn’t much for me to say. This position wasn’t a “gift.” I knew I had earned it and I knew exactly why Henry had chosen me as his successor over Bucky. But I couldn’t say that. Not now.
“Being the first female White House chef is a coup,” he continued. “I get that. I understand that the First Lady had a point to make. But now I see the writing on the wall.” This time his glance was for Cyan. “Ollie is grooming you to take over when she gets rid of me, isn’t she?”
Cyan looked to me for answers. I had none. It was true that Cyan had really come into her own over the past year, but Bucky was a valuable member of my team. I said so.
“I’m not planning to let you go, Bucky. We’re a team.”
“After this fiasco, maybe we’re all gone.”
His face went pale and damp again and he looked like he wanted to make another mad dash for the stalls. Squeezing his eyes shut, he held tight to the countertop for a moment before splashing cold water onto his face. He turned off the water, then patted himself dry with one of the nearby linen hand towels.
Once he calmed himself, I asked Cyan to excuse us. She left the men’s lounge and I waited until I heard the door close.
“Bucky, I have no intention of ‘getting rid’ of you. None whatsoever.”
He stared down at the draining water. “Henry favored you from your first day on the job. And now you favor Cyan.” I watched his hands flex. “I’m a middle-aged white guy. Nobody wants me. Maybe I should resign. But . . . where could I go?”
With Bucky’s talent, and his White House résumé, he could go almost anywhere he chose. Instead of saying that, however, I assured him, “You’re not going anywhere.”
“You just keep me on because you haven’t figured out my replacement yet.”
“Not true,” I said. “Bucky, damn it, look at me.”
When he did, my heart broke for him. Bucky, my acerbic, temperamental, yet brilliant assistant was terrified of losing his life’s work. I’d never seen him this vulnerable, and for possibly the first time, I understood that Bucky wasn’t ornery because he wanted to be. He made things difficult because he felt he didn’t fit in with the rest of us. And it was true. His personality kept us distant. But for him to think that he didn’t belong in our White House family was anathema. He was as much a part of the team as anyone, and more so than most.
In that split-second I realized I hadn’t been as effective a leader as I’d hoped to be. Henry had tolerated Bucky’s occasional tantrums and quick criticisms, and I’d been trying to emulate Henry since I’d been promoted. But maybe this was an opportunity to do even better.
“What?” he said when several seconds passed and I hadn’t said anything. “Feeling good about yourself now that you made me admit my failings?”
I kept my voice low, but strong. “You want a guarantee that you’re not going to be fired? I can’t do that.”
If he had expected me to speak soothingly and to bolster his ego, he was mistaken. I read the surprise on his face. Bucky knew my need to keep people happy as well as he knew that his prickly nature kept most people on guard. But I decided the best way to get through to my first assistant was by speaking the language he knew best.