I continued. “Every four, sometimes eight, years all of us have to be prepared to be released by a new administration. That’s the way this particular job works. And that’s what we all signed on for. And if that happens, it happens. It isn’t because we aren’t the best chefs in the world—it’s because the new family has different preferences. And if we tender our resignations to a new First Lady and she accepts them—there’s no shame in that.”
Taking a breath, I plunged on. “There
be shame in our being fired because a guest died. Huge shame. But we would all be in the same boat. We would all be faced with such a damaging mark on our records that we couldn’t go anywhere and hold our heads high. It would be like starting over.”
“But you’re younger—”
“Not by all that much.” That was a stretch. Bucky was at least fifteen years my senior. But aging—like seasoning—was often a good thing. “And if we go down, we go down together. You know that none of us would ever endanger one of our guests.”
“And I believe the First Family knows that as well. I’m convinced that no matter what the medical examiner finds out, we will not be held up for ridicule on our own. I do not believe that the president or the First Lady will throw us under the bus.”
“Listen. You are my second-in-command. If you try to sneak out of here before all this gets settled—”
“The way you’re talking, you’re planning to put your résumé out on the market as soon as they let us out today.”
“I’m being practical. If somebody’s head is going to roll, I know it’ll be mine.”
“Bucky,” I said, and waited for him to look at me again. He was afraid that
would throw him under the bus. But telling him that he was the most valuable chef I had on staff would be pointless now. He wouldn’t believe me. He’d think I was just trying to be nice. “Pick yourself up. Nobody is going to be fired today.”
He gave a snort. “Until they decide we poisoned Carl Minkus.”
“And if they do, then you know exactly whose head will roll. Mine.”
He said nothing, but I could tell by the look in his eyes that I was finally getting through.
“I’m the one on the chopping block here,” I said. “I’m the executive chef and, by definition, everything that is served is done so with my approval. Until they find evidence that we had nothing to do with Carl Minkus’s untimely demise, I can’t even access the kitchen to help prove that we’re innocent. But I’ll be depending on you and Cyan to remember every single detail from the dinner preparations last night.”
“Can’t you figure out some way to get insider information from the Secret Service?” he asked. “I mean, can’t Tom help you out a little bit here?”
I shrugged. “He was ordered to go home. I have no idea what’s coming next from them.”
Bucky wasn’t his normal self again yet, but he did seem to be mulling over the problem. “I’ll write down some notes.”
“Careful,” I said. “Make sure nobody has access to them except you. You never know what can happen when things are taken out of context.”
He rubbed the corners of his mouth downward, kept his hand there as he asked, “What about Suzie and Steve?”
“They’re already on the list to be investigated.”
“You think there’s any chance one of them did something wrong?”
“I certainly doubt it.” My hand covered my mouth as a thought occurred to me. “You don’t think someone did this on purpose?”
“Oh, hell. I never thought of that.”
The door banged open and the two Guzy brothers came in, taking up more than their fair share of space in the small room. Their jaws dropped as they took in Bucky’s startled glance, both our hands over our mouths, and the fact that we were standing in the men’s lounge.
Guzy One looked a little confused, but his voice was brusque as ever. “When you two are finished being sick, we need you out here.”
The two agents pivoted and left the bathroom.
If the situation hadn’t been so miserable, I might have found it funny.
After another interminable wait, followed by questions from every possible branch of law enforcement, Cyan, Bucky, and I were released. I glanced at my watch and my stomach bubbled. Two fifteen. My mom and nana’s plane had touched down hours earlier. I berated myself again for forgetting my cell phone at home. I could just picture them sitting on hard airport seats, dialing me at home, dialing me on my cell, and getting frustrated by the unending shifts to voicemail. They would have given me the benefit of the doubt until about ten in the morning. By now, they would have just felt sad and forgotten.
As we started for the East doors, the Guzy brothers swarmed us. Even though there were only two of them and three of us, their size and authority made us feel small and surrounded.
Guzy One held up a hand. “Not so fast.”
The day’s frustrations had taken a toll and my tone was less than accommodating. I was, in fact, snippy. “They told us we could go.”
“Too many reporters outside.”
“What, you expect us to hang around here all night?”
Guzy Two shook his head. “We’re driving you back.”
“What about Cyan and Bucky?” I asked.
“We’re taking all of you.”
I turned to my crew. Bucky shrugged. Cyan forced a smile. “At least we won’t have to wait for a train.”
As we made our way to the black limousine, we heard shouts from beyond the White House fence. I wanted to shroud my head so that the cameras couldn’t exploit my face on the evening news, but I didn’t. Neither did Cyan or Bucky. The three of us followed one Guzy agent, and his brother brought up the rear.
Cyan had been keeping tabs on my family issues and now she addressed Guzy Two. “You should drop Ollie off first,” she said. “She needs to get home.”
“No ma’am,” one of them said. “We have orders.”
“Orders to take us all home,” Cyan persisted. “But not what order to drop us off, right?”
“No ma’am,” he said again. “We have a specified route. Ms. Paras is our last dropoff because we have another stop to make in her vicinity after that.”
So much for that idea. “Thanks for trying, Cyan,” I whispered.
As Cyan and Bucky loaded into the limousine’s cushy backseat, I realized that was the most either of the Guzy brothers had said to us. I was beginning to see the brothers’ differences rather than just their similarities. Number Two had slightly darker hair, a slight lisp, and, apparently, more willingness to converse.
“What’s your name?” I asked before I got in. “Your first name, I mean.”
“And your brother?”
Jeffrey looked to his sibling for approval, but Guzy One had already slid into the driver’s seat and didn’t acknowledge my question. “Raymond.”
For some reason I expected them to be named Mark and Michael, or Dan and Don, or John and Joe.
“Is there any way at all you can get me back to my apartment quickly?” I asked. “My family is in town. That is, I hope they still are. I haven’t heard from them and I need to grab my cell phone.”
When Raymond half turned and cocked an eyebrow over his recently donned sunglasses, Jeffrey gestured me into the car. “No.”
They’d confiscated Cyan’s and Bucky’s cell phones during the interrogation. Now, using Cyan’s recently returned cell, I dialed my mom’s phone about a hundred times on the ride back. No luck. I wanted to ask Raymond Guzy what his affection for the brake pedal was all about. The drive this morning had been at lightning speed. The trip back this afternoon was so slow, I swore I could watch roadside cherry blossoms blooming.
I’d never been to Cyan’s or Bucky’s homes and I was surprised and dismayed that Cyan lived so far outside of D.C. proper. To save time, I was half tempted to invite them both back to my apartment and then worry about getting them to their respective homes later. Tempting as it was, that wouldn’t have been fair to them.
When it was finally just me in the backseat of the limo, I tried once again, this time in vain, to get Jeffrey to talk.
I sat in silence for the long ride back toward Crystal City, watching the world pass me by—slowly—unable to find beauty in the burgeoning spring just outside my window. Of course, poor Carl Minkus wasn’t appreciating the fresh greenery either.
I thought back to my conversation with Bucky and wondered if someone had done Mr. Minkus deliberate harm. I had to believe the Secret Service and the Metropolitan Police were asking the same question.
I should let it go.
I had enough on my plate figuring out how Carl Minkus died. I had to worry about the Easter Egg Roll on Monday, the welcoming event afterward, and about my mom’s and grandmother’s welfare. Where were they? The fear of not knowing overwhelmed me.
The morning’s weather had shifted and the storms had moved out of the area. Skies were clear without a cloud. Clear enough for takeoffs.
I watched a southbound plane traverse the solid blueness above and gave silent thanks. At least I knew they weren’t on that one. With the direction this one was going, it was probably headed for Atlanta, or Orlando. I allowed myself a small smile.
Find blessings where you can,
I reminded myself.
And then the plane turned. Headed west.
I stared at the back of the driver’s head and tried not to think about missed opportunities.
MRS. WENTWORTH WAS COMING OUT OF HER apartment just as I made it to my door. One of her hands was wrapped, claw-like, around her cane; the other held a covered plate. “Ollie!” she said. “I’m so glad you’re home.”
As neighbors went, Mrs. Wentworth was pretty great. She paid close enough attention to my comings and goings to know when something was wrong, but was shrewd enough not to poke her nose in when it wasn’t needed. Well, not too often.
“Sorry,” I said, holding up my keys. “Can’t talk today, I—”
My door was open. Just a crack. But enough to startle me speechless. I knew I’d pulled it closed behind me this morning. I remembered working the deadbolt, thinking that I’d yanked the door too loudly and that I might wake Mrs. Wentworth up. Although from what I could tell, the woman never slept. Had someone broken in?
I took a step back, putting my hand up to silence whatever Mrs. Wentworth might say next. But she didn’t take the hint. “Ollie,” she began.
“Shh,” I said, then crept forward.
There were voices coming from inside my apartment. A quick laugh. Familiar voices.
Mrs. Wentworth tapped me with the foot of her cane. “They’re here. Your mother and your grandmother.” Still behind me, she called out loudly, “Ollie’s home!”
A thousand questions flew through my mind at once. I knew I’d never given Mrs. Wentworth my key—although that was an oversight I’d meant to correct for years. I also knew that James, the doorman who knew me best, was out of town this week. I couldn’t imagine anyone contacting the building supervisor to allow my family in. They didn’t know my mom and nana, but they all knew I worked for the White House. Nobody would have been allowed in without my approval.
I didn’t have any time to think because just then the door swung completely open and my mother stepped out, wrapping me in a bear hug. I hugged back, surprised, relieved, and completely joyful, all at once. Heat threatened to close my throat, but I managed to croak, “Mom.”
She squeezed tighter, then let me go long enough to hold me at arm’s length. “You look wonderful,” she said, her wide eyes taking me in. “You are even more beautiful than you were last time I saw you.”
I opened my mouth and told her that she looked beautiful, too. And she did. But she was shorter, and older than I remembered. Her hair was cut differently, and she’d let it go gray. The contrast between it and her olive skin gave her an overall wizened appearance. There was still the quiet strength that I remembered in her bearing—for all her disdain of flying, she was one of the most fearless women I knew—but today she looked more vulnerable than she ever had in my life. I’d joined the White House as a Service by Agreement—SBA—chef during the prior administration, and I hadn’t been home in all that time. Sure, it had been a while. But to me, it looked like my mother had aged.
The second most fearless woman I knew grabbed me with both hands, pulling me away from Mom. “Nana,” I said, bending down to give her a hug. A tiny woman, Nana was always wiry, always gray-haired. She hadn’t changed so much. Her bright eyes sparkled and her face blossomed with wrinkled glee. “You didn’t tell us,” she said, shaking a finger at me.
“Didn’t tell you what?”
Mrs. Wentworth knocked me with her cane again. “Move over, honey,” she said. “I’m bringing my biscotti. Your family’s never tried it.”
My confusion was profound. “How did you get in?”
Instead of answering, my mother took me by the arm. “You must be hungry.”