Friday, the Secret Service came through for Sharon’s plan, which surprised her, but as the nameless young woman in the black dress suit explained to her, Sharon was asking about a single contained space as opposed to going out in public.
She took the weekend to get everything set up, then sent a memo to the rest of the Advisory Panel inviting everyone out for a post-work drink at the new venue on Tuesday evening. Environmental activist and part-time advisor Eli Weatherall was in town, as well, and agreed to join the crew. Sharon also invited Johnnie, who declined in favor of seeing her husband, Tyronne, who was a curator at the Natural History Museum.
Mark seemed a little down when Sharon reminded the group at the end of the meeting about drinks that evening.
“Hey, boss, did we say you’re not invited?” Coop said, grinning in delighted evil.
“And did you get the bar cleared with security?” Mark asked, aware something was up, but feeling nettled nonetheless.
“As a matter of fact, we did,” Coop replied. “We even had Kent clear your schedule, so you can leave at 6:30. You just check with your man. You’ll see.”
Mark nodded, wondering what was going on, but wasn’t entirely surprised when Riff Butler, a large man of African American descent and an utterly passive face, came to the office door at 6:30. Riff was the Secret Service agent in charge of Mark’s personal protection unit. Mark put him off to finish some reading, but finally got his coat from Gen Forrest, dismissed her and followed Riff to a medium-sized dark sedan with tinted windows.
“Not the usual car,” Mark noted.
“No, sir,” replied Riff.
Nor was Mark let off at the usual well-lit entrance. In fact, if Riff and the rest of his usual team hadn’t been there, Mark might have been more than a little scared as the car pulled into a dark alley behind some Georgian-style townhomes. Even as the car stopped, Riff waited a moment and he and another team member, dark-suited and non-descript as they all were, quickly got out of the car, hustled Mark out and behind a fence with an iron gate.
They walked down a short tunnel and then down several stairs. Riff opened the door, but didn’t follow.
The room had the same ambient light as a comfortable bar. Mark couldn’t quite make out the background music under the chatter. There was a pool table with a good light hanging over it, then two couches facing a huge flat-panel television set, and then at the opposite end of the room, was a bar. The Advisory Panel was gathered around it, with Sharon behind the bar, tending.
“Well, look what the cat drug in,” Augie announced cheerfully.
“Here, here!” Coop added as he and the others came over and grouped around Mark. “Now that we are all here, we can officially open our own little joint. Jugsy, with your permission, this will be a Protocol-Free Zone. No Hail to the Chief, no yes, sirs, no standing when you come in. And definitely no applause unless you really earn it. You okay with that?”
Mark gaped, then grinned. “More than okay.” He looked around. “Ed-man, you okay with it?”
Al Eddington sighed. “Well, even the generals like to let their hair down occasionally. Why not the Commander-in-Chief?”
“Hot diggety,” sighed Mark. Grinning, he suddenly felt more relaxed than he’d had in months. Certainly since before his presidential campaign had begun in earnest. “What do we got for drinks?”
“I’ve got a full bar,” said Sharon. “Just so Ed-man can have a girly drink when he wants one. But I thought to christen the occasion, we could start with a little champagne.”
“She got the real French stuff, too,” chuckled Johnny Whitesand.
Sharon rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t call it champagne if it wasn’t.”
Karen laughed. “Whitey, it’s a wine snob thing.”
Sharon also had several snacks out on the bar, as well, including a couple of beautifully arranged plates of what Ed-man referred to as fancy cold cuts and Sharon called charcuterie. There were also cut vegetables with hummus dip for Eli, who was a vegan and even some cheddar cheese popcorn.
After a couple minutes arguing over the name – they later decided to call it the Protocol-Free Zone, or PFZ – they toasted the new venue and went on to chatter and just have a good time.
“Holy crap, that’s good pate!” Mark exclaimed suddenly, his mouth still full.
Ed-man proceeded to tease Mark about girly-meat and Mark ended up challenging Ed-man to an arm-wrestling contest. Loser cleaned the bar ware. It was a reasonably even match, but Ed-man lost. Mark stood.
“Now, as a real man, I’ll go ahead and clean the bar ware,” Mark announced.
But both he and Ed-man did it together. Sharon ran up and downstairs several times, returning left over snacks to the kitchen above.
“Where the heck are we?” Mark asked suddenly.
“My place,” said Sharon, busy gathering the last plate with its remains of saucisson and little pickles and good Nicoise olives. “We’re in the basement. It works because of the secret floozie entrance some Senator put in years ago. The Secret Service can get you in and out of here without anyone knowing.”
“Cool.” Mark wasn’t sure how to take the news. On one hand, he was thrilled to have someplace where he could relax and not “be” the president. On the other, he wasn’t sure just how close he wanted to be to Sharon.
Or he knew how close he wanted to be to Sharon, but wasn’t sure if he should even be thinking along those lines. The last thing either of them needed was for the wrong person to start wondering about the two of them.
The others said good-bye to him as he made ready to head out the back with Riff. Sharon showed the others out upstairs, feeling decidedly mixed about their being gone. Or more, rather sad that Mark was gone, and not at all happy that she didn’t want him to leave.
Which added to how startled she was when she went downstairs one last time to pick up and found Mark.
“What are you still doing here?” she blurted out. “I’m sorry. I meant, I thought you’d gone.”
Mark shrugged. “Can’t leave yet. There’s a homeless person in the alley and the team is waiting for Metro P.D. to roust him out first. They don’t want anyone seeing the comings and goings if they don’t have to and they can’t do the rousting without folks knowing they’re there.”
“Oh. Any idea how long?”
“Oh.” Sharon nodded. “Oh, what the heck. When I was at the deli today, I picked up a rib-eye. I was going to cut it in half, anyway. So would you like to stay for dinner?”
Mark glanced behind him, where Riff was waiting in the shadows. “I suppose that’d be okay. Can I help you put it together?”
“Sure. Why not?” Sharon said as she headed upstairs.
Mark followed along, whistling softly in appreciation as he saw the kitchen. Sharon laughed.
“I’m renting the place from my friend Carla,” she explained. “And Carla is so not a cook. But when she did up the kitchen, she put in all top-of-the-line appliances and everything, except cookware. It was completely useless until I bought all the pots and tools.”
The room was done in soft maple-wood modern cabinets with brownish gray granite counter-tops. The appliances were all stainless steel or black. The sink was built into an island facing into the dining room, with a long butcher’s block work table between the island and the back wall, where a six-burner stove sat under a gleaming beaten copper hood.
Sharon opened one of the double-sided extra wide doors on the refrigerator.
“Let’s see,” she said rummaging through the produce bin at the bottom. “I’ve got some bag greens, those will be good for a salad, and some par-boiled new potatoes. Perfect.”
“Classic bistro fare,” said Sharon, turning from the fridge with the bag, the meat still in its paper wrapper, and a plastic container in her hands and bumping the door closed with her hip.
“I noticed you’ve mostly got ingredients in there,” said Mark, smiling.
“Except I don’t cook much during the week,” said Sharon, setting everything on the worktable. “I mostly do up stuff that I freeze on weekends, then pull together a pre-fab salad and some extra veggies week nights. Assuming I’m not eating out somewhere. When it’s just yourself, it doesn’t make much sense to go whole hog all the time.”
“What can I do?”
Sharon looked at him. “Well, how about putting together the salad?”
“Sure.” Mark went back to the fridge and starting rummaging around, himself. “Hey, you’ve got some ‘shrooms in here. Would you like a sauce to go with that steak? And gorgonzola crumbles, that’ll make a nice vinaigrette and it’ll go great with the meat.”
“That sounds good.” Sharon was impressed in spite of herself. “Tell you what. Why don’t you pick a bottle of wine? I’ve got a cellar over there.”
Mark noticed the two refrigerator-like cabinets, one on top of the other next to the wall by the stairs. Sharon, for her part, had started slicing the steak horizontally, but had one eye on what Mark would do next. He went straight for the top cellar, then bent and looked through the smoky glass at the bottom cellar.
“Not a lot of whites in here,” he chuckled, feeling very pleased.
Obviously, Sharon knew her way around wines, and it was nice being on the same plain as someone else for a change. Most of Mark’s colleagues didn’t share his passion when it came to food and wine. If they did the wine thing, it was all too often for the show. Mark opened the top cellar and was pleased to find a wide variety of good reds, including a couple he knew darned well came with bargain prices, further confirmation that Sharon was buying what she thought tasted good.
“I haven’t got much of a collection,” Sharon said. “I’ve only been here a month. In fact, I only had a couple bottles until this weekend. But I figured while I was stocking the bar, I might as well stock my cellars.”
“Hm. Jordan cab,” said Mark, looking at a bottle. “Way too young, though.”
“I’ve been feeling optimistic about being around here long enough to open that.” Sharon was digging through the fridge again.
“Ah. A Rubicon. Oh. Infanticide. Shavings.” Mark put the bottle back. “Ah. L. Preston red. Say, isn’t that that one little place in Sonoma with the brick oven and the home-pressed olive oil?”
“You’ve been there?” Sharon looked at him with a happy grin.
“Years ago, but I really liked it.”
“I’ve been a member of their wine club for years. My mom ships stuff to me so we can get past the interstate shipping laws.”
Mark nodded. “I’ve been pushing for that one for years. But you would not believe the hold the distribution lobby’s got on some folks. This should be just light enough for a good pan sauce.”
“I’ve got shallots and garlic on the counter here next to the sink.”
“Shallots. Great. And knives?”
“Next to the sink. I’ll go ahead and wash the greens.” Sharon pulled a black cast iron skillet from a cabinet next to the stove.
“That is beautifully seasoned,” said Mark.
“A thing of beauty. It was my grandmother’s in Belgium. I got one and my sister Susan got one. Sarah and my nieces will have to wait for my mother to give up hers.” Sharon grabbed a gleaming chrome skillet from the same cabinet. “Here’s one for the steaks.”
With both pans on the stove, Sharon set about heating some natural lard in the cast iron skillet and when it was just hot enough, she carefully dropped in several tiny new potatoes from her plastic container. Mark, in the meantime, had sliced the mushrooms that Sharon had already cleaned, and had a shallot and a couple cloves of garlic finely diced.
The two shifted around as Sharon went to clean the greens and Mark expertly measured extra virgin olive oil and a red wine vinegar into a bowl and whisked them together. Sharon turned the potatoes, which were just getting a lovely golden crust on them and put the two steaks on.
“How well do you like your meat?” she asked, sprinkling kosher salt over the sizzling steaks.
“Just threaten it with the flame,” said Mark, smiling as he breathed in the smell of grilling beef.
Sharon grinned. A minute later, the steaks were turned and Sharon turned the oven on to warm. Mark was gathering the final ingredients for his sauce, including some beef broth from a box in the fridge and corn starch, which he mixed with some water in a tiny bowl.
Once the steaks were in the oven keeping warm, Mark slapped a tiny pat of butter into the gleaming steak pan and swirled it around. Then, turning down the heat, he lifted the pan to cool for a moment, and tossed in the mushroom slices, the shallots, cooked those for a minute, added the garlic, waited just long enough for the rich scent of garlic to flavor the air, then poured in a generous slurp of wine.
“Yikes, you’re confident,” Sharon observed.
“I’ve singed my eyebrows before,” Mark conceded as he scraped the bottom of the pan to mix any leftover bits from the steaks into the heating liquid. “But that bottle was cool enough, I figured I was safe.”
Sharon went back to pulling out plates, silverware, napkins and glasses from her cupboards. She set a couple placemats on the counter between the dining room and the sink. Then she mixed the salad in the dressing Mark had made, added the gorgonzola crumbles and divided the portions onto the plates. A second later, she had warm potatoes on the side, and Mark had the sauce ready to be spooned over the steaks.
She poured the wine as Mark set the plates on the placemats, next to the silverware. Sharon mmm’d loudly over the sauce, while Mark groaned with pleasure over the crispy brown potatoes. Laughing, they focused on eating, talking about other places and meals they’d loved. Sharon wasn’t quite the omnivore Mark was – he’d eaten chocolate-covered ants in South America. But she was quite pleased to realize how many tastes they had in common.
“It just boils down to living well,” said Mark after a contemplative sip of his wine. “It’s the simple basics of life. Anybody can stuff food in their face to fuel up. And you do have to balance taking care of yourself with enjoying the good stuff. But there are two kinds of people I just don’t get, the folks who are afraid of their food and the folks who don’t even think about it. I mean how could you not think about something that tastes this good?”
“It’s called being shut off from yourself, I guess,” said Sharon. “I sort of get the fear thing. I mean, my dad has to watch out for his cholesterol and I have another friend who’s diabetic. But the assumption that anything that tastes good can’t be good for you.” She shook her head. “Or that it should be untouched by human hands or it’s not safe. I worked food service for two weeks in college. I couldn’t handle people freaking when I touched their food bare-handed and I had just washed my hands.”
Mark looked down at his empty plate. His wine glass was mostly empty, as well.
“I guess it’s time for me to head out,” he said softly.
“You’re not driving, are you?”
Mark snorted. “No.”
Sharon poured some of the bottle into her glass then got the cork and stuffed it into the bottle. “Why don’t you take this with you? I can’t drink the rest of it and I don’t want to waste it. I mean, I’ve got one of those vacu-vin goodies that’ll suck the air out so it won’t go bad, but I just as soon you took it.”
“Thanks.” Mark chuckled. “What are the odds I’ll get tagged for an open-container?”
Sharon shrugged and followed Mark downstairs to the basement. Riff was waiting in the shadows.
“Riff, did you want something to eat?” Sharon called out, suddenly anxious.
“No, Ma’am. We got something. Sir? We’re ready when you are.” He disappeared out the door.
Mark paused. “Well. Thanks for a lovely dinner and a really nice evening.”
“You’re welcome. I had a good time, too.”
There was an awkward pause. Sharon suddenly smiled and moved back.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.
“Yeah. See you tomorrow.”
Mark turned and left, feeling both elated and unsatisfied.
Sharon pounded up the stairs, rather annoyed with herself for letting Mark up there and thoroughly thrilled that they’d been so compatible. There weren’t many people she let cook with her. Mark had even remembered without being told to run the knife blade over the sharpening steel before he used it and had cleaned the knife before putting it back in the block.
She put the used dishes in the dishwasher and scrubbed out the potato pan and the other skillet before heading upstairs to her bedroom and turning on her laptop. She started an e-mail to her friend, Niecy, but then stopped. What was there to say? Yes, it looked like she and Mark could be good friends, but Sharon was determined that it go no further. Absolutely determined.