Affairs of Steak
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White House chef Olivia Paras and her arch nemesis, White House Sensitivity Director Peter Everett Sargeant, must work together to solve the double murder of one of the First Lady's assistants and the Chief of Staff-before they become the next victims of a merciless assassin with a secret agenda.
Peter Everett Sargeant and I walked east on H Street as fast as our short legs would carry us. Though the cold April day was overcast and damp, it wasn’t the threat of sleet that kept us moving briskly on our trek through the heart of Washington, D.C. What spurred us on was our unspoken agreement. We both wanted to put this morning’s task behind us as quickly as possible.
The First Lady intended to throw a lavish birthday party for Secretary of State Gerald Quinones. That was unusual enough, but having the executive chefmeand the sensitivity directorSargeantvisit potential venues together to choose the best site for the event was even stranger.
“How much farther, Ms. Paras?” Sargeant asked me. He knew the answer as well as I did, but he never missed the opportunity to throw a zinger my way. I knew this was his attempt to chastise me for suggesting we walk from one location to the next.
He huffed as he strove to keep up. “I still don’t understand,” he said for at least the fifteenth time since we’d left the White House, “why on earth Mrs. Hyden insisted you and I work together on this.”
At this point I didn’t care if my exasperation showed. I turned to him long enough to roll my eyes. He missed it. The collar of his Burberry trench coat was turned up against the chill, and his cheeks were pink from exertion. As for me, my dark hair was flying free in the wind. I wished I’d worn a hat.
“Peter,” I said to the little man, “I don’t know what great insight you might be expecting, but we won’t learn anything new until we meet with Patty at Lexington Place.”
Patty Woodruff, the First Lady’s newest assistant, had engineered this unique collaboration. I’d have to remember to thank her personally.
Sargeant’s grimace deepened. “I am the White House sensitivity director,” he said unnecessarily. “I should not be required to traipse all over the city to look at available meeting spaces for a party. What’s wrong with holding it at the White House?”
I didn’t bother to acknowledge him. He’d ranted on this topic from the moment we’d set out this morning. So far, we’d visited three prestigious banquet halls, all within easy walking distance. The fourth and final venue, a brandnew standalone location in a refurbished building just a few blocks farther, promised a gorgeous space, LEEDcertified efficiency, and plenty of room for all of the invited guests.
Patty had made it clear that this was Mrs. Hyden’s frontrunner, which is why it was the final visit on our agenda today. Patty wanted our approval, but I wondered how much impact our opinions would really have. Unless something drastic happened, it was Lexington Place’s gig to lose.
I didn’t know what had prompted Patty to put the two of us together on this project. Anyone else on staff would have known better.
Even though the First Lady was hosting the event, this party was not considered an official function. That was another reason I hadn’t expected to be included. At the White House, I was in charge of the menu and all food preparation. As the first female in the role of executive chef, all State and official dinners were my responsibility. I was proud of my position and my accomplishmentseven those that had resulted from me poking my nose in where it didn’t belong. Still, I was surprised that Mrs. Hyden had asked me to oversee the food preparation for the Quinones party. After all, she’d brought on a family personal chef, Virgil Ballantine, shortly after they’d moved in. He was a thorn in my side, and would have jumped at the opportunity to oneup me.
“We’ve entertained thousands of guests onsite before,” Sargeant continued. “Why should this be any different? Why can’t we set up tents on the South Lawn like we did for the Easter Egg Roll last week?”
I pointed skyward. “Patty’s worried about rain. There’s no guarantee the weather will be any better for the party than it is today. We can get away with using tents for the Easter Egg Roll because it’s a casual event. Plus, the weather cooperated.” I thought about the gorgeous spring day last week, with sunny blue skies and temperatures in the seventies. Where was that great weather today? “This event is blacktie. For more than a thousand guests. We can’t fit half that many in the residence. And what happens if it rains all next month? I can’t imagine the president and Mrs. Hyden squishing across saturated grass in their finest clothes.”
“How many of that thousandplus are coming for dinner?”
Hadn’t he read the update? “One hundred and ten for dinner. One thousand four hundred and twentytwo for the entertainment.”
“Protocol nightmare,” he said. I didn’t say a word.
“I thought President Hyden and Quinones were sworn political enemies,” he said. “I was surprised enough when he appointed someone from a different political party to the position of secretary of state, but to throw a birthday bash for him?” Sargeant fixed me with a look that made me believe he’d just sucked on a lemon. “I don’t understand that at all.”
Not only did Sargeant not read the memos, but he apparently didn’t pay attention to White House scuttlebutt. “It’s an olive branch. You do know what that is, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
Might be nice if you offered me one once in a while, I thought. But what I said was, “Secretary of State Quinones has had some early successes in his position. There’s a tenuous truce between both political parties right now. An event like this could help cement that.”
Glancing at Sargeant, I noticed perspiration breaking out over his angry brow and I slowed to accommodate him. I was at least fifteen years younger than my companion and clearly in better physical condition. Rather than appreciate my efforts, however, he tapped his watch. “No dawdling. Let’s just get this over with.”
“Fine,” I said, resuming my former pace. We were at least twenty minutes ahead of schedule. There was no need to rush.
“I still don’t know why we didn’t take a cab,” he said.
Though the comment was clearly rhetorical, I answered him anyway. “It’s less than six blocks from our last stop. Plus, it’s healthier, not to mention greener, to walk.”
“Green, maybe. Colder, definitely.” He tugged his collar
tight around his neck. “Hmph.” We walked in silence for a short while up New York Avenue, passing the National Museum of Women in the Arts, among other notable spots in the city. “Not much farther,” I said.
At the next intersection, Sargeant slowed his pace. “Let’s cross here.” I pointed. “But Lexington Place is on this side. Next
block, in fact.”
“Have it your way.” He pulled his collar up higher and hunched his shoulders as he started walking again, this time even faster. “Let’s keep moving.” We passed a couple of stores and restaurants, their bright lights cheery beacons in the cold gloom. I glanced insideas we passed Tous le Mondeone of the places to see and be seen in D.C. For his part, Sargeant didn’t seem to want to be seen at all. He tucked his head deeper into his coat and, if it were possible, grew smaller.
“Okay, fine,” I said and hurried to keep up. The gray sky threatened, though I wasn’t sure whether it would deliver rain or snow. We weren’t the only pedestrians braving this miserable day, but the sound of tires slicking against pavement, the echoes of car horns in the distance, and the wind whistling between buildings were lonely sounds just the same. A gust of cold air shot past as we crossed a dark corridorwider than a gangway but narrower than an alleybetween two restaurants. About halfway down the dark space, three men stood outside a side door to Tous le Monde, taking a smoke break. All three wore kitchen whites and surly expressions. One also wore a shabby trench coat. He looked up as we hurried past.
The icy wind lifted my hair, creating goose bumps that danced across the back of my neck. I shivered. I was glad Lexington Place was our final destination for the day. As much as I didn’t want to credit Sargeant, taking a cab back to the White House might not be a bad idea.
We were a few steps past the alleyway when I heard a shout and the unmistakable sound of someone running. Too many unwelcome surprises in the past few years had made me wary of anything even slightly unusual and I spun defensively, turning just as the intruder emerged.
The man in the shabby coat looked harmless enough. Short, with a full head of dark hair streaked with gray, he stopped long enough to focus before scurrying over. He, too, held his collar tight against his neck. His unbelted open coat flapped as he ran. Nothing about him would have been the least bit remarkable except for the fact that his full attention was focused on us. On Sargeant, to be specific.
“Petey!” he shouted.
Sargeant had continued walking without me. At the man’s
shout, his shoulders dropped and he turned. His face went
through a series of contortions I’d characterize as pained.
“Petey?” I asked.
I swore he snarled at me. In the two seconds it took for
the man to reach us, Sargeant jammed his fists into his sides.
The guy was breathless. “You told me you might stop
by. But you just rushed right past without even looking in.”
“’Might,’” Sargeant said through clenched teeth, “I said ’might’ stop by. Something came up.” Pointing at me, he added, “I’m with a colleague. I’m busy.” Sargeant referring to me as a colleague? Would wonders never cease? “I knew you’d try to blow me off,” the man said. “Good thing I was keeping an eye out.”
Fresh cigarette smoke wafted off his body, surrounding our little group. I took a step back. Milton, whoever he was, didn’t seem to notice. Beneath the ratty coat, his kitchen whites were badly stained. I hoped to heaven he wasn’t a cook. His fingers were tobacco brown and the whites of his large, droopy eyes a sickly yellow. Red veins spidered across his cheeks and nose, leading me to believe he and Jack Daniels were close personal friends. Sargeant was clearly not happy to see him. “We’ll talk later,” he said, backing away from the man. With an uneasy smile, Milton moved in closer toward Sargeant, clapping the other man’s upper arms, looking ready to pull him into a bear hug. Visibly repulsed, Sargeant flinched. “Kindly remove your hands.”
Milton’s cheeks darkened slightly, but he shrugged and backed off. “It’s been too long, Petey.” Prissy as ever, Sargeant brushed down the sides of both his arms as though to flick away germs. Silently I watched their interplay, slowly realizing that Sargeant and Milton shared more than just short stature. Though less pinched and certainly more friendly, there was something in Milton’s face that reminded me of Sargeant’s. Agewise, they were close. “Are you two brothers?” I asked.
Milton brightened, but Sargeant bristled. “No.” “Pete’s my uncle,” Milton said.
I couldn’t hide my reaction. “Uncle?” I repeated. “But” Sargeant practically chewed the words before spitting
them out. “My sister was much older.”
“Pete was a bonus baby,” Milton offered with a grin.
“We’re only six months apart, but I’m his nephew. We went to school together, even. Kind of like growing up as brothers. Well, except for fifth grade, when he made me call him Uncle Pete.” Milton laughed at the memory.
Sargeant was not amused. He looked at his watch. “We have to go. We’re late.” We weren’t, but I wasn’t about to correct him.
Milton rubbed his fingers, as though itching for a cigarette. He had a hopeful look on his florid face. “Did you get a chance to talk to the chief usher for me? I sent my resume weeks ago, but I haven’t heard from him. A good word from you would”
“I haven’t had time, Milton. I’m very busy, you know.”
“Please, Pete. Just this one time. A word from you and
I’m set. I’ll make you proud of me again. I swear.”
This was more family drama than I should be privy to.
I took that moment to step back. Pointing in the general
direction of Lexington Place, I said, “How about I meet
A man hurried toward us, head down. Not seeing him,
Sargeant took a step closer and answered my question with a vehement thrust of his arm. “No!”
Just as he did, the man rushed by, crashing into Sargeant’s outstretched appendage and knocking our sensitivity director off balance. Milton grabbed his uncle to keep him from falling. “Hey!” Milton shouted. The man didn’t stop, didn’t turn, didn’t apologize. “You just bumped a White House official. You know, you could be arrested for that.”
The guy stopped in his tracks and turned fully around.
He was too far away for me to notice much beyond his dark
jacket, blue jeans, athletic shoes, and thick head of hair.
I expected him to deliver some hand gesture in response to Milton’s shouts. Instead, he hunched his shoulders and turned away again, disappearing around the next corner.
“I really wish you hadn’t said that,” I said. “We don’t like to be outed in public. It’s not good for the image. Not good for security, either.”
“Some people have no respect,” Milton said. “They ought to be taught a lesson.”
Sargeant shrugged off his nephew’s protective hold. “You’re hardly in a position to do the teaching. For once Ms. Paras is right. There have been far too many skirmishes in the past involving staff members”he glared at me“to take our personal security for granted.” He tapped his watch. “Don’t you need to get back to work? Tous le Monde isn’t a dive, you know. These people won’t stand for your shenanigans.” His gaze roved up and down, assessing his nephew’s appearance. “It also wouldn’t hurt if you tried a little harder to at least look professional.”
Sargeant started away without a backward glance. I turned to Milton and raised my hands helplessly as though to apologize for his uncle’s behavior. Like an abandoned puppy, Milton tilted his head and gave a sad smile. He’d known Sargeant a lot longer than I had. No doubt he was used to the man’s cutting remarks by now.
“Call me,” Milton shouted.
Sargeant raised a hand but didn’t turn. I doublestepped to catch up with him. “What was that all about?”
He waved me off.
“He wants a job at the White House, I take it,” I said, as
though we were conversing normally and Sargeant wasn’t
doing his level best to ignore me. I didn’t ask why Sargeant
refused to put in a good word with our chief usher, Paul
Vasquez, because I already knew the answer. Although one
should never judge a book by its cover, in the two minutes
I’d gotten to know Milton, I knew he wouldn’t be a good fit
in the president’s home.
“I just have one question,” I said.
Sargeant glanced sideways. “He’s had a tough life. Is that what you want to know? Most of it is entirely his own fault. He made his bed, let him lie in it.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask. I wanted to know why you told him you were going to be in the area today. It’s pretty clear you had no intention of stopping by.”
Sargeant ran a hand up his forehead, frustration tightening his features. This had to be one of the first times he’d exhibited an unguarded, human reactionat least in front of me. “Milton changes jobs like most people change channels. When he called, I thought he was still working on the other side of town. He wanted to meet for lunch, but I told him I’d be out here on official business. Little did I know he would be, too.”
“He seems tenacious.”
Sargeant glanced at me, his eyes flashing with anger. “It’s unfortunate he never used his tenacity to make a better life for himself. We both started out in the same place, yet look at where I am as compared to” When Sargeant cut himself off, I didn’t push it. His family issues were none of my concern.
We slowed as we approached Lexington Place. Built in the late 1800s, the Romanesque building was set back from the street behind a wide driveway. Even I could tell this was perfect for limos to drop off occupants behind a screen of Secret Service lookouts. We climbed the halfdozen marble steps up to the giant glass entry doors that had been retrofitted into the façade.
The green glass whispered open, allowing us entry. It was pretty quiet today. When not being used for blacktie dinners or other such illustrious affairs, Lexington Place served as a temporary gallery for fledgling artists. Free and open to the public during showings, Lexington Place had arranged for portable white walls to be set up cubicle style in its highceilinged, pillared lobby. Local artistssome classically trained, some selftaughtvied for spots inside.
From what I understood, it was quite a coup to be featured
Today’s bad weather and the early hour apparently
combined to prevent art lovers from venturing outdoors and into this space. Too bad. Even a cursory glance told me I’d enjoy spending time here. We looked around, but it appeared completely vacant. “Hello?” I said.
Other than the hollow, clicking noises our footsteps made as we ventured into the lobby, the place was quiet as a tomb.
A female security guard came around one of the back cubicles. Wearing a wary look and a blue blazer two sizes too small, she ambled over. “We’re here to meet Patty Woodruff,” I said. “Is she here yet?”
The guard sized us up. “You the two from the White House?”
“We most certainly are,” Sargeant said, fussiness back
in place. “Ms. Woodruff is expecting us.”
The guard glanced at her watch. “Yeah, that’s what she said.” Waving absently to the east, she continued. “She’s been here all morning up on the second floor. Elevator’s over there.” She pointed to the south. “Or you can take the stairs. Whatever suits you.”
“Is the kitchen on the second floor?” Patty wanted me to
scope out the food preparation facilities. I intended to do that
first. On my own, if possible. It was always much easier to
focus and concentrate without one of the First Lady’s assistants or Peter Everett Sargeant breathing down my neck.
“She said she’d be waiting for you in the kitchen,” the
guard replied. “West side of the second floor. Through the
wooden door that reads private, then take a right.”
There went the idea of exploring on my own. “Thanks,” I said and headed for the stairs.
Sargeant glowered. “Take the elevator if you want.” I set off toward the wide marble steps at the very back of the lobby, resisting the urge to add, “I’ll beat you,” because Sargeant was not a playful man. To my surprise, he fell into step beside me.
“Are we the only ones here today?” he asked as we made our way up. With a noise of disgust, he added, “They call themselves green. How much heat do they waste keeping the building open all day? Not to mention electricity. Thousands of dollars wasted on the chance that some sightseers might drop in. It’s a shame.”
Sargeant’s mood was always foul when I was around, but after our encounter with Milton, it’d gotten worse. I decided to ignore his complaint. I didn’t know enough about green technology to offer up an argument, but I imagined the building’s certification had more to do with the methods it employed than solely on how many hours it remained open to the public each day.
The hallway at the top of the stairs was completely dark. I hesitated, unsure of proceeding, but the moment we cleared the last step, overhead lights went on to illuminate our path. “There you go,” I said, “conservation.” More lights automatically popped on as we headed down the hall.
“Hmph,” he said.
I pushed through the door marked private, less reluctant now to venture into the dark. As they had before, sensors tracked our movement and provided illumination. “I guess Patty hasn’t been out in the hall in the past few minutes,” I said. “I wonder how long the lights stay on before they shut themselves off.”
“I don’t like it,” Sargeant said.
Truth was, I didn’t like it, either. Dark rooms were never
inviting and I got a sudden tingling along the back of my
neck. “The guard did say Patty was in the kitchen, right?”
He didn’t answer. As instructed, we took a right at the first corridor. Though long and dark, two circles of light windows in far doorskept us moving forward. I wiggled my shoulders, trying to shake off the eerie sense of two big bright eyes watching us approach. I felt like a character in one of those “Don’t go through the door!” movies. When hallway lights popped on above, exposing a bright white set of swinging doors with porthole windows, I heard Sargeant breathe a sigh of relief.
“Patty?” I called, pushing through the righthand door. “You here?”
The kitchen was empty. Deadsilent empty. “What’s going on?” I asked.
Sargeant looked around the room, confused as I was. “Ms. Woodruff must have just been here. The lights are still on.”
I’d been thinking the same thing as I moved toward the wall switch. “Nope,” I said, pointing. “This room is set to stay on until manually shut off. It’s an override just in case the person working here doesn’t move around enough to keep the sensors happy. I’ve seen things like this before.”
“Well then, where is she?”
Like I would know. I wandered around, hoping she’d peer around a corner but I couldn’t shake the sense that this floor was utterly devoid of life. “Until she shows up, we might as well get to work,” I said. “We’re here to assess, right?”
This kitchen was at least twice as big as ours. Stainless steel countertops, sinks, and work areas weren’t so spread out as to limit efficiency, but were nicely spaced. I made a circuit of the room, checking out their ovens, equipment, and preparation area, growing more impressed by the minute. At the room’s far end, I pushed open another set of doors. Lights in that short corridor snapped on and I poked around. When I came back, I said, “That leads to the banquet room.”
Sargeant clicked his tongue. “So where is she?”
“We are a little early.”
He checked his watch. “Not by much.”
Shrugging, I continued my perusal. “She’s got to be here somewhere, or else she would have called. I’m going to check out the rest of the kitchen. Might as well make good use of the time we have.” I wandered through, brimming with envy. This place had everything. Not only that, but everything was brandnew. The White House had to make do with what we already had. While we were never denied a necessary piece of equipment when we requestedone, we were expected to nurse all current utensils until they fell to shreds on the floor. Even then, if there was any chance of refurbishing rather than replacing, we did so.
I made my way down a tiny hall in the room’s eastern corner. One side was an office, the other a long wall of stainless steel. I recognized the walkin refrigeration and freezing units immediately. When I pulled at the heavy handle, unlocking the massive door to peek in, the lights went on. I looked around. “You could feed an army with what they’ve got stored here.”
As was my habit, I checked the door handle to ensure it could be opened from the inside. Equipment this new was probably safe, but it never hurt to check. I pushed it twice, watching the latch move with each attempt. Just fine. I was about to walk deeper into the unit to take a closer look at the inventory when Sargeant called.
I couldn’t remember him ever calling me anything but ldquo;Ms. Paras,” and the tone of his voice was strained.
“What is it?” I hurried back into the main part of the room.
“What do you think this is?” he asked. I was about to lapse into smartaleck mode and answer it was a sink, but then I noticed where he was pointing. A thin line of red ran along the outer seam.
“At first glance I missed it. Anyone would have. But
look.” He pointed to a single drop of red on the white industrial floor.
“Not yours, I take it?”
“Maybe Ms. Woodruff cut herself,” he said, “and went
I crouched to look more closely at the red line snaking
its way down the stainless steel side, then stood to view it
from above. I brought my head even with the edge of the
sink and tilted to get the light’s angle just right. “I think
someone wiped this clean,” I said. “See that dull spot? It
looks like a smear.”
“Should we call someone?”
I was about to answer when I noticed the two tiltskillets just a few feet to my left. Giant rectangular boxes that sit about three feet off the floor, tiltskillets are wonderful for creating crowdsized portions of soups, stews, or other concoctions that require a heck of a bigger container than a standard Dutch oven. I loved our tiltskillet at the White House and used it on a regular basis. Whenever it wasn’t being used, we almost always kept it open.
These two were closed. I started for the one closest to me.
“Don’t!” Sargeant shouted.
I jumped. “I’m sure there’s nothing in there.”
“I think we should call the police.”
“And report what?” Swallowing past a suddenly dry
throat, I started to reach for the handle. On second thought,
I pulled the edge of my long sleeve top out from beneath
my coat sleeve, covering my fingers with fabric.
“What are you doing?”
“Being silly. Letting my imagination run away with me.”
He backed up. “Just the same . . .”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
With that, I flung the tiltskillet lid open. I gasped, staggering backward. Patty’s cramped, twisted body had been jammed into the small space. Sargeant yanked his handkerchief from his pocket and held it up to his eyes. “I think we found her.”
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