The next night was Jodi’s party with her father’s family. Everyone had gathered in Orange County at the Wheatly home for supper and music. There was singing, with the dogs howling along, there was bickering and plenty of eating and wine. In the middle of it, the phone rang.
“I’ll get it!” hollered Toby, grabbing the kitchen phone. “Wheatly residence.”
“Office of the president calling for Ms. Sharon Wheatly,” said Mark’s voice on the other end.
“Which president?” asked Toby.
There was a pause as Mark tried not to laugh. “President of the United States.”
“Bugger!” Toby yelped then yelled loudly. “Aunt Sharon, it’s your boss!”
“I’ll take it upstairs,” Sharon called, heading for the stairs.
“What am I supposed to do?” Toby screamed back.
“Uh, hello,” Toby said hesitantly into the phone. “Um, I’m Toby.”
“I’m Mark Jerguessen.”
“Oh, my god! You really are the president!”
There was a soft click.
“I got it!” Sharon called from her parents’ bedroom.
“Bye!” Toby said quickly, then slammed down the phone.
“Good evening, sir,” Sharon said into the phone.
Mark laughed. “Your family is good.”
“That was my niece, Toby. She’s Michael’s kid.”
“Sounds about right. Is she the birthday girl?”
“No, that’s her sister, Jodi. She turned fifteen yesterday. It’s gotten to be a family tradition that we all get together for Jodi and Toby’s birthdays. Not sure why. We don’t get together for anyone else’s birthdays.”
Sharon reached for the door to the bedroom and closed it, but it didn’t help. The music floated upstairs nonetheless.
“It sounds like a fun tradition. And noisy one, too.”
“We do like making music together.”
“Cool.” Mark sighed.
“Yeah. Just wishing I could spend time with my nephew like you’re spending with your nieces.”
“So you doing the cake and presents thing?”
“The cake, yes. Presents, sort of.”
“I don’t get it. That’s only two nieces. And if I remember correctly, three aunts and a pair of grandparents without other grandkids. Jodi should be making out like a bandit.”
Sharon laughed softly. “You’d think so, I guess. But we’re kind of funny that way. We don’t do a lot of presents, and Jodi, this year, decided she wanted to save the planet and asked us all to donate to her favorite charities – like science foundations and books for the poor, stuff like that.”
“You sure that kid is human?”
“It’s not all that surprising,” Sharon said. “We’re just not very materialistic as a family. I think it’s because we spent so much time moving from place to place when we were kids. When you have to pack up all your belongings every few years, you get the idea pretty quickly that less is more. Things are nice, but they’re not that important.”
“You having trouble understanding that?”
“Actually, no.” Mark mused. “Not at all. It’s kind of weird. Most people are surprised that I don’t tend to collect things, either.”
“Aside from your gadget habit.”
“Aside from that. But even then, unless it’s actually useful, I don’t keep it around long.”
Sharon thought about all the toys on Mark’s desk. “That’s right, you don’t. I don’t think I’ve seen anything on your desk that you don’t use. How did that happen?”
“Um. It’s a long story. I just learned at a very young age that the people who were giving me all sorts of stuff weren’t the people who cared that much about me. Whereas, the people who really cared about me didn’t give me a lot of stuff, but did give me their time and their love. After a while, it was pretty easy to figure out how important stuff was. Or wasn’t.”
“Sounds about right. Interesting.”
Mark chuckled. “How do you mean?”
“That we share that kind of life value, I guess,” said Sharon. “It’s not real common. Most folks are surprised that I don’t really own anything.”
“What about all that stuff in your townhouse?”
“It’s not my townhouse. It’s my friend Carla’s. That’s mostly her stuff. Except for the kitchen tools and my cast iron skillet.” Sharon finally plopped onto the bed. “I had a condo for a while, but I was traveling so much that I was hardly ever there. I barely had a table and chairs, let alone any real furniture in it. So I sold the darned thing. Although that is one nice thing about Carla’s place. It doesn’t look like corporate housing. I’ve done more than my share of that, thank you very much.”
“Ugh. Me, too. All those hotels on the campaign trail. And actually, the place I had in DC while I was in Congress and the Senate was pretty bare. It horrified June.”
“I’ll bet.” Sharon chuckled. “Anyway, is there any business you need to discuss?”
“Uh, not really. You covered it in your last email. I guess I’ll say goodnight, then.”
“Good night, sir,” said Sharon.
As she hung up, she paused. The noise from downstairs was still pretty intense, but something else was nagging at her. It wasn’t until quiet finally descended on the house and Sharon went to bed that it hit her. The president had called just to chat.
The conversation hadn’t been all that deep, although the fact that they seemed to have the same values about material things wasn’t exactly glossing the surface. But there was something… Sharon shuddered. If only she and Inez hadn’t been talking about biological clocks and if only Sharon hadn’t had that image of Mark Jerguessen as daddy.
Groaning, Sharon flopped onto her side and threw her covers over her head.
Another late night in DC, Yasmin Sollette hefted herself upstairs out of the Metro station and onto the street. With the president and his sister gone for the week, there really hadn’t been much to do in the White House kitchen, beyond supervising the lunchtime cafeteria service for the staffers remaining behind. So Solly had spent her afternoon doing research at the Library of Congress, then had spent the evening at a very long briefing at the State Department.
She was hungry as she walked toward the brownstone that held her apartment. As she passed St. Augustine’s, she crossed herself, then smiled. Across the street, a new restaurant had opened up – Joe’s Creole. It was late, but Solly decided a bowl of gumbo was just what she needed.
The restaurant was small and packed with rickety tables and red vinyl seats, most of them occupied by couples or small groups. The smells from the kitchen behind the counter at the back were encouraging. Solly placed her order and was presented with a steaming bowl and some fresh bread in minutes.
It was hard to miss the man in the black suit and shirt when he walked in. He was the only White person in the place. Solly glanced up then turned her attention to her soup. But she wasn’t terribly surprised when the man sat down across from her.
“Ms. Sollette?” he asked, presenting his hand.
Solly looked at the hand but didn’t take it.
“Depends on who’s asking,” she replied, casually tearing off a piece of bread.
“Someone who’s interested in helping you.” The man’s smile was slightly off, but that could have been his exceptionally thin lips, Solly thought. His dark hair was slicked back and made his white skin look even whiter.
Solly chewed on her bread. “What do you want?”
“The same as you – to help our president.”
“Funny. You don’t look like someone who wants to help the president.”
The man shrugged. “I can’t help what I look like. But there’s a very interested party who can do a lot to make the president’s personal life… easier. Problem is, this person needs information to do it.”
“Uh-huh.” Solly shook her head and dug into her gumbo. Joe – or whoever his cook was – had put enough chili sauce in it to sear her nostrils before she even tasted it.
“You help me, I can help you,” said the man. He pulled a white envelope from his inside suit pocket and dropped it on the table in front of Solly.
Solly shook her head and chuckled. “Are you crazy? This is the sweetest gig I’ve had in my life and you want me to risk it all to spy on the president?”
“To help the president,” the man corrected. “He’s a lonely guy. And let’s face it, there are an awful lot of lonely women out there who can and will take advantage of him. We need to know who’s seeking him out and what’s going on so that we can protect him.”
“Uh-huh.” Solly took another bite of soup. It was thick and the perfect melange of peppers, onions, sausage, and okra. Solly guessed it had probably been thickened with file powder, as well. “So, who is this person that wants this information?”
“Someone who prefers to keep a low profile.”
“You mean someone who don’t want to get into trouble.” Solly took another bite and chewed, debating whether the bit of meat she was chewing was really duck. Or maybe it was goose.
The man spread his hands. “Think what you like. Either way, there’s a lot of money there and plenty more for whatever you can give us.” He got up. “Keep that as our gift. We’ll talk soon.”
“Uh-huh.” Solly waited until the man had left to reach for her cell phone. She dialed quickly.
“Security office, Dickens,” said the voice on the other end.
“Hey, Randy. It’s Solly. I got approached.”
“No kidding. By who?”
“Didn’t say, but it sounds like that guy you warned us about – pasty white face, slicked-back black hair. No lips. How you gonna kiss a guy like that?”
“Don’t know,” Randy answered jovially. “See, I got lips and you can come kiss them anytime.”
“You be kissing my backside first,” Solly replied pleasantly. “He left an envelope.”
Solly reached over and looked inside the envelope. “Hoo-ee! There’s five thousand dollars in here. Think that’s enough to turn me?”
“I guess he thinks so. You sure you want to do this?”
“He’s just gonna keep trying ’til he gets someone. Better me than someone who really will turn.” Solly thumbed through the cash. “What do you want me to do with the money?”
Randy chuckled. “The boss said to keep it. Called it combat pay. ‘Course you could always share it with me.”
“And get you booted right outta the Secret Service. I know they keep an eye on you guys.”
“And how. So I guess you’re on, then. We’ll talk again in the next couple days, come up with some names to feed Mr. No-Lips.”
“Sure. Sounds like fun.” Solly chuckled and hung up.