When Sharon first saw the vicious email, she knew she should have reported it to security. But since it didn’t actually threaten her with anything, she chalked it up as yet another disadvantage to fame, although, in retrospect, she’d come to realize it was more her own denial operating at that point.
Max’s article was embarrassing enough as it was. The last thing Sharon wanted on the Monday morning after it ran was to hear about it. Which of course meant that the entire Advisory Board, including part-timers, had to send relentless emails, both congratulating and teasing her. Her family wasn’t much better, especially Michael, who had taken plenty of heat from her at various times in his career.
However, Sharon put most of it behind her and focused on her work. Until Tuesday, during the Advisory Board meeting, when Karen Tanaka made a point of running some video feeds from the latest late night comedy shows. Sharon had been featured on every one, and unlike Max’s article, the jokes were not about how smart she was.
“I don’t know,” chortled one comic. “Is it really a good idea to try to make peace with a woman hot enough to start a war over?”
“I finally figured out why I can’t get any hot women,” crowed another. “You gotta be president to get a woman that hot.”
Sharon sighed loudly, during one particularly obnoxious rant.
“Can I just crawl under the table and die now?” she asked plaintively.
“So that’s it,” another comedian continued. “If our former president had kept a hot chick on his arm, we’d still have our allies.”
“I think we can turn that off,” said Mark quietly.
Karen shrugged. “I know it’s sexist and demeaning, but everyone is talking about how well our foreign policy changes are going.”
“Better yet,” said Augie, “it’s all on our message.”
“Right,” grumbled Sharon. “Trust our new president because he’s a babe magnet. That really lends authority to negotiations.”
She glanced over at Mark, who was smiling softly.
“I guess I’d better use some of that authority then to bring this meeting back to order,” Mark said. “What else is going on today?”
Coop immediately took up his report.
When the late night talk show jokes about the president’s girlfriend still hadn’t let up after Tuesday night, Sharon decided it was time to take steps. Unsure at first who she should call, she found a business card on her desk from the week before. He’d started the trouble, he could help her fix it.
That Max Epstein was a little startled to get Sharon’s call would be an understatement. But he readily agreed to meet her at the latest happening watering hole Friday night. Fortunately, Mark did not have any embassy soirees that week, either.
Which meant that it should have been a smoother week for Sharon, except that Wednesday after lunch, she got a call from June.
“Sharon, I hate to ask you, but I’m not sure who else to call,” June said, somewhat anxiously. “Johnnie won’t touch it and Karen would totally blow up.”
“What?” said Sharon.
“It’s Solly, the chef.” June sighed. “She’s having another hissy fit and I’m stuck in New York. Can you go down and find out what’s going on?”
“Don’t you know?”
“All I know is that she’s trying to fire the entire staff again. Something about some theft. I’d call myself, but I don’t want to get Major Wills’ back up again.”
“Why can’t he handle it? He’s the chief usher. Isn’t that his department?”
June groaned. “Are you kidding? He’s terrified of her. All he’d do is fire her and that would break Mark’s heart. And Wills doesn’t want me talking to the domestic staff unless he’s present because that will undermine his authority, so you can sort of see his point.”
“Okay. I’ll see what I can do.” Sharon sighed and hung up.
Yasmin Sollette was a woman whose height alone made her an imposing character. Add in an ample (though not huge) waistline and a temper that could run as hot as a broiler on high, and it was understandable why she was a rule unto herself. Her incredible talent as a cook, not to mention the ability to run a kitchen that faced the unique demands of the White House, made the temper worth dealing with, at least as far as June was concerned.
Solly’s mother was Lebanese-Asian, her father Creole-Hispanic. Her face bore the wide nose and round features of the African American side of her heritage, but her skin was very light with a slightly olive-brown hue that spoke to her Middle Eastern and Spanish roots. More often than not, her disposition was sunny and she laughed loudly and easily.
Sharon found her fuming in her office.
“Who are you?” Solly demanded when Sharon knocked on the open door.
“Ms. Jerguessen called me,” Sharon said. “I’m Sharon Wheatly.”
“Oh. I know you. Why’d she call you?”
“She’s stuck in New York. She asked me to find out what was going on.”
“What’s going on is I need to be able to fire folks what need it. That’s what’s going on.” Solly jumped to her feet and began pacing. “You can’t keep order in a kitchen when you can’t fire nobody. There’s stealing going on and I can’t fire nobody? How am I gonna find out who’s doing the stealing if I can’t scare ’em? How am I supposed to do that?”
“I’m not sure.” Sharon swallowed. “What was stolen?”
“My quail eggs!” Solly snapped, her eyes glittering angrily. “I had two dozen for the President’s luncheon on Thursday and half a dozen are gone. Not to mention some premium Serano ham. And let me tell you, somebody’s been dipping into my natural lard pretty regular, too. You think it’s easy to find this stuff? You think I can just pick it up at the local supermarket?”
“I’m pretty sure you can’t.” Sharon sighed. “I’m sure there’s some sort of procedure, though. Why don’t I talk to Major Wills?”
“That old poop?” Solly threw up her hands. “He’s not gonna do anything! I need to fire people, put the fear of God in ’em. That’s how you get to the truth. I got a whole list of ingredients that have gone missing since the day I started. I can’t put nothing nice in the upstairs pantry without somebody helping hisself. And I sure as hell ain’t putting it down here. Good semolina flour and somebody took the last pound right before I needed it. I need to fire people.”
“How about if we find some other way to put the fear of God in them,” Sharon said.
“Well, you better or I am walking. No point sticking around if I can’t control my own kitchen. No point at all.”
Sharon retreated, trying to remember who the luncheon on Thursday was for. She debated talking to Major Clive Wills, who as Chief Usher, oversaw all the domestic and event staff at the White House. But Wills was a stickler for protocol and domestic issues went through the First Lady’s office, never mind that there really wasn’t a First Lady. And Sharon had already ruffled the man’s feathers when she’d had her office look over the arrangements for the French foreign minister’s visit the month before.
Wincing because she knew June had other better things to do, Sharon nonetheless dialed June’s number.
“So what did you find out?” June asked.
“Well, the theft triggered it,” Sharon said. “She wants to fire the staff so that she can control the kitchen. Make everybody afraid enough that someone will snitch, presumably.”
“What got stolen?”
“Nothing that serious, just ingredients, but it seems to be ongoing. She mentioned half a dozen quail eggs, some Serano ham, and some natural lard. She seemed more concerned with keeping her people under control.”
June groaned. “Half a dozen quail eggs? Cripes. I think I know who her thief is. Figures the one person we won’t be able to fire without a lot of due process.”
“My brother. He made quail eggs benedict for brunch last Sunday, with Serano ham.”
Sharon remembered some ravioli made with semolina the Thursday before.
“That’s right. Your brother cooks,” Sharon said, hesitantly, hoping she wasn’t giving anything away. Not that either she or Mark had explicitly decided to keep their few dinners together a secret.
June hadn’t noticed. “What a headache. And I can’t talk to her directly.”
“You can talk to your brother.”
“That I can.” June sighed. “I hate asking, Sharon, but can you talk to Solly in the meantime?”
Sharon sighed as well. “Sure. Why not?”
She hung up and went back to Solly’s office where the chef was pacing again.
“Maybe I just oughta get out of here now,” Solly grumbled, barely noticing that Sharon had returned.
“Do you really want to break the President’s heart?” Sharon asked. “He really does love your work.”
Solly harrumphed. “That’s the only reason I’ve stayed this long. But, dang, I can’t keep doing what I do if someone keeps stealing. From the President, hisself. What kind of person does that?”
“Well…” Sharon grimaced. “You know how he cooks for himself a lot. And according to Ms. Jerguessen, umm… Well, he served her quail eggs for brunch last Sunday. With Serano ham.”
“What?” Solly turned on her.
“I think your thief is the one person we can’t fire.” Sharon shrugged. “At least not for another four years.”
Solly sank into her desk chair. “I put that stuff upstairs so it wouldn’t get taken.”
“That’s probably why he thought it was okay for him to take.” Sharon smiled weakly at her. “He’s not immune to reason. Maybe we could work something out.”
There was the sound of a throat being cleared loudly and meaningfully at the door to Solly’s office. Sharon turned.
There were those who said Major Clive Wills had served at the White House since Ulysses S. Grant. That the man was old and an old school Southern gentleman there was no doubt. He was of medium height with bright white hair, faded blue eyes and the ramrod straight spine one associated with dancers or the military. He was technically retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, which is where he began his White House service and why he kept his title. It was generally accepted that the only way he was going to leave the White House was feet first.
“Good morning, Major,” Sharon said, pleasantly. “How can I help you today?”
“Good morning, Miss Wheatly,” he replied, his Southern drawl lengthening with his displeasure. “I was not aware that we have any foreign dignitaries on the schedule in the immediate future.”
“Next month, I believe,” Sharon replied. “The reception for the new Nigerian ambassador. But that’s not why I’m here.”
“Oh, come on,” Solly growled, getting up. “The woman can come down here and consult with me on a dinner party she’s having, can’t she? Last I checked, it’s a free country.”
Major Wills looked at both women, nodded and left.
“You better get him off my back, too,” Solly grumbled softly to Sharon. “He is getting on my last nerve. I bet you anything, if I could’ve just talked straight up to Ms. Jerguessen or the President, we wouldn’t be having no problem with me not knowing what he’s taking for his own cooking. And I’d rather be talking to you about them foreign dignitaries than him any day.”
Sharon nodded. “I’ll tell Ms. Jerguessen about your concerns. But you’ve got to stop threatening to fire everybody. This is the White House. It’s due process.”
“But how am I—”
Sharon cut her off. “You can write them up. I’ll make sure you have the forms. And they will get read, and not by Major Wills. Okay?”
“Okay. But what are we going to do about the president? It’s awful hard to plan when you don’t know what’s going to turn up missing one day to the next.”
“Isn’t there someplace in the main kitchens down here where you can stash stuff?”
Solly frowned. “Hell, no. It’s too crazy and cramped down here. There’s barely room for the pastry station. Last big dinner we had, we were plating the salads in the hall. I tell you, if this weren’t the White House, I would not be here.”
Sharon thought. “It’s a pretty crazy place to work. Tell you what. Can you stick around ’til, say six-thirty, seven tonight?”
“Think so.” Solly looked over the schedule pinned to the bulletin board at the back of her office. “Ain’t nothing scheduled and the president usually likes his dinner around then, anyway. Lessee if he sent down his order yet.” She glared at the computer on her desk, then hit a couple buttons. “Nope. Nothing yet. He might be planning on cooking hisself tonight, but Major Goop says I still gotta be around, just in case.”
“Let me send an email or two.” Sharon began pressing buttons on her Blackberry. “I’ll give you a call as soon as I get an answer.”
Sharon hurried back to her office, texting as she went. June was delighted that it looked like things were resolved. Mark agreed to meet with Solly in the upstairs kitchen at 6:30 and invited Sharon to join them, which Sharon was hoping he would.
Solly, of course, already had clearance for the upper floors of the White House, since she or whichever of her cooks was on duty usually used the upstairs kitchen to prepare meals for the president and his sister. Sharon had to wait for an escort, and at 6:25 precisely, Major Wills showed up at the door to her office to take her upstairs.
Mark arrived at the same time and dismissed the major for the evening. The major glanced at Sharon and left with a slight smirk on his face. Sharon started.
“Don’t worry about him,” Mark said. “It doesn’t matter what he’s thinking, he’s not going to say anything about it.”
“Still,” grumbled Sharon.
“Let me put it this way, the Major hinted that my predecessor had some preferences that would have totally blown his moral compass image and not a hint of it leaked.”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “Are you sure said Major didn’t make some rash assumption?”
Mark chuckled. “I, uh, found some independent confirmation in the desk.”
Solly was waiting for them in the kitchen.
“Mr. President, this is Yasmin Sollette,” Sharon said, beckoning Solly forward.
“Oh, just call me Solly,” she said, blushing.
“Solly, it’s about time we got to meet.” Mark pushed forward and grasped her hand. “I tell you, I have been thoroughly enjoying your work. The food is just fabulous. I’d love your recipe for that gumbo you made the other night.”
“That’s gumbo – a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
Sharon cut in. “We do have an issue to work out, sir. As I mentioned in my email, Solly has been rather frustrated by the way certain ingredients have been disappearing.”
“I am so sorry, Solly,” Mark said, charm oozing from every pore. “I had no idea. I just saw all these cool ingredients.”
“Apology accepted, sir.” Solly blushed again and let out a little giggle, then collected herself and grew stern. “I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d’a known what was going on.”
“We are definitely going to have to establish some boundaries here, aren’t we?” said Mark, relaxing a little. “By the way, where are you getting that pure lard? That stuff is wonderful!”
Solly grinned. “I got an organic pig farmer down in Virginia that renders it. Cain’t really sell it, cuz of all them FDA rules, but I got some pull. I’ll get you some.”
“So I suppose, then, the issue is primarily about storage,” said Sharon. “Shall we lay out whose stuff goes where?”
Mark pulled off his suit jacket and loosened his tie while he and Solly went to work re-organizing stock and deciding what could be shared, what needed to be kept separate and how to tell when Solly was stashing something for an upcoming event or meal. Then there was the debate over who would actually cook dinner, with Solly insisting that it was, in fact, her job to do the cooking and Mark countering that after the grief he’d caused her, cooking for her would be the least he could do. Then Solly said that if he wanted to do some penance, he could play sous chef for the evening, to which Mark agreed.
Fortunately, there wasn’t an issue over the knives. Mark’s had always been kept in a special butcher block. But Solly did have to send a page downstairs for hers. In the meantime, she stood over Mark, nodding as Mark expertly minced a shallot.
“You got the technique down, but you are slow,” Solly observed. “Good thing you got this president job, cuz you wouldn’t last five minutes in a real kitchen.”
Sharon, who had been invited to stay for dinner, laughed.
Solly glared at the refrigerator, then called downstairs for some pork tenderloin, and a variety of mustard, turnip and beet greens. The ingredients showed up within minutes and Sharon was put to work, as well.
Solly saw to slicing the tenderloin into paper-thin slices, while Sharon washed spinach and mesclun for a salad. Mark washed the other greens and chopped them down for steaming, then chopped a couple small mushrooms. Solly slid slices of tenderloin into a frying pan with a little bit of butter and oil and had much of the meat ready in a few short minutes. To the pan, she added another bit of butter, then sauteed the chopped mushrooms, shallot, and some garlic that Sharon had chopped. A dollop of Dijon mustard went in with a little chicken stock from the fridge. Under Solly’s direction, Mark plated the steamed greens on a platter then arranged the tenderloin slices while Sharon dressed the salad with a little olive oil and red wine vinegar.
The only other conversation going while the food was being prepared was what wine to serve with the food. Mark finally won out and pulled a New Zealand sauvignon blanc from the refrigerator.
The meal, itself, was filled with laughter as Solly told horror story after horror story of kitchen mishaps. As Solly remarked to Sharon later, “I know he’s the boss and all, but I really like that he can be a friend, too. Know what I mean?”
“Yep,” Sharon replied, smiling to herself as the two rode down in the service elevator.
“He ain’t bad in the kitchen, either,” Solly said. “Slow, but not bad.”
“Amateur,” said Sharon.
Solly chuckled. “Yeah, but that’s a good thing. Keeps me employed.”
Sharon’s Blackberry buzzed. “What?” She burst out laughing. “It’s the boss. He sent me a shopping list.”
“I think we’re going to get along,” Solly said, grinning.
Mark, for his part, finished washing the dishes under the baleful eye of a member of the housekeeping staff. He wasn’t supposed to be cleaning anything. But old habits died hard and his paternal grandmother had always insisted that he take responsibility for cleaning up after himself. That meant he made his bed the second he left it in the morning and when he cooked something, he washed the dishes, all of which irritated the housekeeping staff no end.
He was also feeling rather pleased with himself. He’d been wondering how to invite Sharon upstairs for dinner. With Solly around to aid and abet, it wasn’t likely to cause scandal. Not that Solly would sell out. Mark paused. He hoped Solly wouldn’t sell out. He scribbled a note to check on her salary.
Matt Jerguessen thought he heard the doorbell ring as he flipped through the channels on the TV in his room. It was late afternoon and there wasn’t much on. Several channels had the news on, most of them showing his dad talking to the press about some bill the state legislature was supposed to be passing. Matt sighed. They’d talked about the bill earlier that day in his political science class – it was supposed to fund drug treatment for non-violent offenders, based on a successful program that a couple other states had instituted. But there were a lot of politicians, his father included, who didn’t want to pass it because they didn’t want to look soft on crime.
“Criminals belong in jail, not the hospital,” Harold Jerguessen intoned from the TV. “This is about justice and good stewardship of taxpayer money.”
Matt changed the channel again quickly, wondering if his dad would change his tune about the bill if he knew about his daughter’s drug habit. Never mind that the bill would actually save the state taxpayers a fortune.
His mother’s voice drifted up from downstairs. Matt quickly turned on a video game and put his headset on. With luck, she’d assume he hadn’t heard her.
Shawna Jerguessen sighed and excused herself to her guests with a smile. Of course, Matt hadn’t heard her. Climbing the stairs, she braced herself. The boy was getting more difficult and moody every day. There had to be a way to get him to socialize more.
She knocked on his door, knowing she wouldn’t get an answer. She opened it and shook her head. Matt was busy spraying some monster with gunfire. Perhaps it was time to take those horrible games away from him. She didn’t want him shooting up his high school – she didn’t think she could take the humiliation, not to mention what it would do to Harold’s career.
But Matt didn’t seem like a misfit and he didn’t seem to have any interest in guns. He didn’t even email that much and his web surfing seemed innocent enough. She made a point of keeping track of Matt’s computer and cell phone activity. Now, if only she could do something about him being such a loner. It just wasn’t healthy.
“Matt,” she announced. “Matthew?”
He didn’t answer, absorbed in his game. Sighing, she went and stood in front of the television.
“Mom!” he groaned. “I was just about to get to the next level.”
“Marissa and Brittany are here,” she said, sternly. “They’ve come to see you.”
“Why?” Matt grumbled.
“Matthew, would you please go downstairs and be sociable for a change?”
Heaving a tortured sigh, Matt got off the bed and followed his mother downstairs.
Even though the house had a colonial exterior, it had a thoroughly modern and open floor plan. Marissa and Brittany, young, thin, brown-haired and giggling, were waiting in front living room – a bright space with elegant beige furniture and walls that had been featured in a local luxury magazine.
Matt mumbled a greeting at them, thanks to a prod from his mother, who was standing right behind him.
“Matt, this is so important,” Marissa said. “You heard about Jimmy Langstrom getting arrested?”
“Yeah,” Matt said. Langstrom had tried to get Matt to deliver drugs to Matt’s sister DeeDee and then offered some to Matt, explaining that was how he’d gotten DeeDee hooked. The senior had been arrested the day before on drug charges and as far as Matt was concerned, jail was exactly where Langstrom belonged.
“You know he’s innocent,” Brittany chimed in. “So we’ve got this petition, see? And everybody’s signing it.”
“What’s a petition going to do?” Matt asked.
“Matthew,” his mother laughed gently. “Don’t be so silly. Jimmy needs your support.”
Matt shrugged. “I’m going back to my room. See you guys.”
Matt went back upstairs knowing full well he was in deep trouble with his mom. He had to get out of there. He listened for the door with one eye out his window, which overlooked the front of the house as he packed his backpack with his laptop and a couple notepads. Grabbing his parka and his car keys, he headed to the staircase in the hope that he could escape the house before his mother tracked him down.
But she was waiting for him in the living room.
“Matthew, we need to talk, young man,” she said sternly.
“What on earth is the matter with you?” Shawna continued. “Did you have to be so rude?” She waited as Matt shrugged. “Why, in Heaven’s name, couldn’t you have signed that petition?”
Matt glared at her.
“Obviously, darling, a petition will have no effect on Jimmy’s case, but you could have at least shown your support.” Shawna looked away, then got a better grip on her anger.
Matt snorted. “Support what? A drug dealer?”
“You don’t know that. Innocent until proven guilty.”
“Yeah, just like Ramon Gutierrez. Except he really was innocent.” Matt watched his mother take the hit with dull satisfaction.
Shawna hated being reminded of how her bigotry had cost their gardener his livelihood and all because some jewelry had turned up missing the day he’d been working on their yard. She’d had the gardener arrested, very publicly, only the jewelry turned up three days later, in her car. If Matt hadn’t found the jewelry and called the police, she would have let Gutierrez take the fall. Only by the time Gutierrez was released, all his customers had decided he wasn’t a safe risk.
“I’m outta here,” Matt announced, pushing past his mother.
“Where are you going?” Shawna demanded.
Feeling beyond helpless, Shawna watched her son stalk out of the house. His older sisters hadn’t been that difficult. There had been Tracy’s abortion when she was 12, but she was in college and seemed to be okay, dating a different boy every week. DeeDee’s behavior had been a little hyper the past couple years, but her grades were fine. Boys were different.
Shawna paced for a couple minutes then went into the kitchen and pulled an empty water bottle from the cupboard. It was getting close to dinner time, and the housekeeper was busy putting together a salad.
“It looks like it’s going to be just me tonight, Marta,” Shawna told her sadly.
“Very good, Meez Cherguessen,” Marta replied.
Shawna took her bottle into the dining room and after checking to see that Marta was fully occupied in the kitchen, Shawna opened the American Colonial style breakfront and pulled out a bottle of vodka, and filled the water bottle with it.
Swheatly531: Got a minute?
Gloryhg: Yep. What can I do for you?
Swheatly531: Nothing much. I just wanted to let you know that I picked up your groceries. Had to substitute shiitakes for the chanterelles. But the produce guy said morels should be in season soon.
Gloryhg: Cool. Thanks. Now, how do I pay you back?
Swheatly531: Don’t worry about it.
Gloryhg: Not worried about it, per se. But I’d prefer to keep things on the up and up if you know what I mean.
Swheatly531: It’s a little low-tech, but you could just write me a check. The total came out to $146.28. But I got the Sevruga caviar and a half dozen of the clochettes.
Gloryhg: Yum. I’ll go down now and drop the check in your office. Any place special you want it?
Swheatly531: The desk is fine. Hold on. Something weird is going on with my email. Catch you later.
Gloryhg: Catch you later.