My mom shook her head. “They should leave the poor woman alone.”
“My husband,” Ruth continued, “would have been overwhelmed by all this attention. He was a determined man who loved this country very much. If there was one thing he always told me, it was that he hoped to die in the service of the United States.” Tears streamed down her face. “I . . . I suppose he got his wish.”
The tension in my living room was tight. No one spoke.
An off-camera voice shouted: “Do you think he was a target because of his investigations?”
Ruth’s eyes widened as she turned to her son. “Target?” she asked.
Joel stepped up to the microphone again. “Please. Let’s wait until the medical examiner gives his report.” He licked his lips and made pointed eye contact with audience members. “Have some compassion. My father just died. He was the finest man I’ve ever known. He was strong, well-loved, and most of all, patriotic. Let’s not make assumptions until all the facts are in.”
The news anchor interrupted to resume commentary. “The White House has prepared a statement.” With that, the scene whisked away from the grieving family to a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room. White House Press Secretary Jodi Baines stepped up to the microphone. I felt for her. There wasn’t a rule book for this situation. As she expressed the White House’s condolences for Special Agent Minkus’s demise, the elderly people in my living room fidgeted. Caught up in the story, myself, I’d almost forgotten they were there.
Jodi said: “Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Isham just finished briefing President Campbell and will now take questions.”
Slim, though not particularly tall, Isham had a long, pleasant face, and dimples so deep they looked like implanted studs. The dimples stayed prominent even though he didn’t smile. Another somber face in a day of sad solemnity. He blinked several times, canting his head slightly to avoid the bright lights’ glare.
like a morgue doctor,” Mrs. Wentworth said.
I turned, wanting to ask what she meant, but thought better of it. Stan patted her on the knee. “Shh.”
“Good afternoon,” Dr. Isham said, with a deadpan gaze into the audience. “As you all know, Special Agent Carl Minkus was declared dead at approximately one fifteen this morning. His body arrived at the morgue shortly thereafter and we immediately initiated an autopsy. The cause of death is undetermined at this time. We are waiting for test results.”
“What kind of tests?” a dozen reporters shouted.
Isham held up his hands and both rooms fell silent—the briefing room and my living room.
“At this time,” Isham continued, “we cannot share that information.”
An explosion of questions: “Could Agent Minkus have been a victim of bioterrorism?”
“What do you expect to find?”
“Is the president at risk?”
Jodi leaned toward the microphone. “Ladies and gentleman, please. One at a time.” She pointed. “Charles, go ahead.”
The reporter stood. “We’ve heard conflicting rumors about Carl Minkus’s behavior just before medics were summoned. Do you believe he might have suffered a heart attack?”
Isham licked his lips. “Again, we have not determined cause of death at this time.”
A voice piped up: “Didn’t Minkus complain that something was wrong with his food?”
I sat forward.
Isham answered, “I can’t answer that.”
Jodi sidestepped toward the microphone. “Mr. Minkus did not say anything specific about food,” she said. She raised her hands when the group began to protest. “Witnesses did report that Mr. Minkus’s speech became slurred. Before he collapsed, he said that his lips were stinging and that his tongue was numb.”
As she stepped away, the shouts rang out again for Dr. Isham: “Could a poison have done this?” And following up: “Is there a danger to the president?” “Is there danger to the general population?”
Isham held up both hands. “The problem with certain poisonous substances is that they are very difficult to identify. While we test for several known toxins, there are many we can’t identify unless we know what to look for. At this time we’ve done preliminary tests, but we can’t even speculate until the specimens we’ve sent out to special labs have come back.”
“How soon can we expect results?” a reporter in the front asked.
“It may be a couple weeks.”
After another eruption of questions, Isham held up his hands again. “This isn’t
,” he said. “We work in the real world. This is a painstaking process and we need to be patient.”
The man in the front stood up. “Was it something Agent Minkus was served at dinner last night?”
Isham licked his lips. I held my breath. “As I said, we cannot speculate until we receive certain test results.”
The front-seat reporter stared at the medical examiner, still pushing. “Did the White House kitchen staff kill Special Agent Carl Minkus?” He tilted his head for the follow-up. “Inadvertently, or on purpose?”
Isham shook his head. “It is much too early to make that determination. We will be looking into . . .”
The television screen changed and again we were treated to the grave face of the news reporter. “The White House has only commented to express its sorrow at the passing of one of its most dedicated citizens. When questioned regarding the kitchen staff’s responsibility in this terrible tragedy, the White House had no comment.” The news anchor raised an eyebrow. I hated him for it.
“We have footage of Executive Chef Olivia Paras, who was brought in to the White House for questioning in this matter.” His gaze shot off-screen and the scene shifted.
“Ollie, that’s right outside our building,” Mrs. Wentworth said.
“Yeah.” I knew what was coming.
The handheld camera lent an air of panic and immediacy to the dark, early morning scene. Guzy One—Raymond—emerged from the front of my apartment building, his right hand raised in a way clearly meant to stave off reporters. Instead, the microphone- and camera-wielding crowd clamored around his side where I had a hand up to block the bright glare. The garish lighting made it look like they were bringing out Public Enemy Number One. Our little three-some moved in relative silence—the network didn’t broadcast the angry shouts from the piranha-like reporters who dogged our every step—and the television news anchor, in a voiceover, said, “When asked by our news crew if she’d inadvertently served a toxin to Special Agent Minkus, the current executive chef had this to say.” His voice faded and they brought up the sound on the scene outside my building’s front door.
My face was an angry glare. “No, I didn’t!” I heard myself shout.
In my living room, I winced. Taken out of context, my indignant exclamation made me look like the bad guy.
“Ms. Paras refused to answer any of our questions,” the news anchor said, “before being taken away in the custody of government security agents.”
“Taken away in custody? They made it sound like I was arrested!”
Everyone in my living room said, “
The anchor was finishing up. “There you have it, the latest update in the shocking death of Special Agent Carl Minkus. Please stay tuned for updates as we find out more about the White House kitchen’s role in the unexpected death of one of our most revered public servants.”
“Oh, Ollie,” my mom said.
I got up. “Turn it off.”
The news anchor had referred to me as the “current” executive chef. As though there was another chef waiting in the wings for my head to roll. But I knew I couldn’t have been responsible. I knew no one on my team could have been responsible. We were too careful, too determined for that.
My home phone rang. I started for it, but stopped myself when I didn’t recognize the number.
“Maybe it’s Tom calling you,” my mom said.
I shook my head. “He would use my cell phone.”
As though wakened by my words, the little phone buzzed. I checked the display. Another number I didn’t recognize.
“Are you going to answer that?” Mom asked, then amended, “I mean, either one of them?”
“I have a feeling . . .”
The house phone silenced, waited a few beats, then rang again.
This time the display read “202.”
I shoved the vibrating cell into my pocket and picked up the home phone. “Olivia Paras.”
“Ollie, it’s Paul.”
I nodded. I’d figured as much.
“How are things going over there?” he asked.
“As well as can be expected,” I said, glancing around the room at the four sets of concerned eyes staring back at me. “My family is here and that’s helping take my mind off things.” That was a lie, but I was determined to sound strong. The sadness in my mom’s face almost made me falter. “What’s up, what can I do for you?”
“Don’t answer your phone if you don’t know who’s calling.”
“Got that,” I said. “The calls have already started coming in.”
“You may still be hounded in the morning, so try to stay home as much as possible.”
“What about coming in to work? Can I take the Metro?”
Paul’s tiny delay in responding caused my stomach to flop. “Ah,” he said slowly—too slowly, “let’s hold off on that for now. We’ll let you know when the time is right to come back.”
That hurt. “Understood,” I said as bravely as I could muster.
His voice was tight. “This is a bad one, Ollie. But, believe me, it will be over soon. And you and your staff will be back in the kitchen before you know it.”
“I hope so,” I said. But for the first time, I detected insincerity in Paul’s tone.
The minute I hung up, the phone rang again. Another unfamiliar number. I waited, but the caller didn’t leave a message. Two seconds later the phone rang again. As did my cell. Again.
I hit “ignore” on my cell, and unplugged my house phone. My mother, Nana, Mrs. Wentworth, and Stanley stood looking as helpless as I felt. “It’s okay,” I said. “We’re still not allowed in the kitchen for now, but the chief usher says that we’ll be back to normal in no time.”
The looks in their eyes told me they didn’t believe my halfhearted cheer. That was okay; I wasn’t sure I believed it, either.
“What about Easter dinner at the White House?” Mom asked. “Don’t you have to prepare for that?”
“And that big Egg Roll the day after,” Nana added. “How are you going to boil all those eggs in time if you can’t get back into the kitchen?”
I thought. Too bad I didn’t have an answer.
I GUESS I SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN SURPRISED BY the headlines the next morning: MINKUS DEAD AT WHITE HOUSE, followed by an in-depth examination of his life from his boyhood home in rural Maryland to his exalted position as a Special Agent with the NSA, where he excoriated terrorists like St. George slew dragons.
As I read, I wondered how they gathered all this information so quickly. It occurred to me that newspapers and television networks must keep fat dossiers on every public figure in anticipation of the day that figure’s obituary comes due. There was a lot here about Minkus. More than any normal person would care to know. His whole life, starting on page one and continuing on pages eight and nine. Complete with pictures.
My mom came in from her shower, poured herself a cup of coffee, and helped herself to one of my still-warm honey-almond scones. “Why are you putting yourself through all that?” she asked, gesturing toward the newspaper.
“Can’t help myself, I guess.” I pointed to the picture of Carl Minkus as a prodigious ten-year-old. “He was kind of cute as a little kid.” I looked at the most recent shot they published. “I wonder what happened.”
“Good morning,” Nana said, then looking at us, asked, “What’s with all the glum faces? I figure that we should look at Ollie’s mandatory time off as a vacation. Maybe we can do something today.”
Leave it to Nana to find the silver lining.
She came over to stand behind me, reading the newspaper over my shoulder. “He was an angry man,” she said. “You can see it here.” She pointed to the small space between his eyes. “He made a lot of people angry, too.” As she took a seat at the table, she made a
ing noise. “They compared him to Joe McCarthy. He died young, too.” She fixed me with a look that said he deserved it. While I appreciated the support, I didn’t feel as though that was an appropriate outlook, particularly today.
“He was trying to combat terrorism,” Mom said as she poured a mug of coffee for Nana. “Minkus, that is. I don’t really remember McCarthy.”
. A poor excuse to invade a person’s privacy if you ask me.”
Mom and I made eye contact. I wondered what had caused this outburst. As though I’d asked the question aloud, Nana licked her lips and leaned toward me. “Look, I’m sorry this Minkus guy is dead. Not for his sake, mind you, but because of how it’s affecting you. I saw what Joe McCarthy did to this country, and this Minkus guy was doing the same thing—all in the name of national security. He was making a name for himself by making other people’s lives miserable. That’s a hell of a thing.” She reached out to grab another section of the newspaper as she gestured to mine. “I’ll take that when you’re done.”