Episode Two – Instant Message

IM

swheatly531: Hi, Carla. So, have you gotten over your jet lag yet? How is Lagos?

ladycarla: Smelly, crowded, impossibly rich and heinously poor all at the same time. We have our work cut out for us. The government corruption alone is a massive obstacle – it’s probably the worst I’ve ever seen and you and I have seen some seriously corrupt governments.

swheatly531: That is scary.

ladycarla: The good news is there are several folks open to micro-loans. But it’s sure going to take the whole five years to get things up and going. Did you find the place ok?

swheatly531: No problem. Right on top of the Metro stop. It’s gorgeous, too. I don’t even think I’ll mess with the bedroom.

ladycarla: You may as well. I’ll be re-doing it as soon as I get back, and five years is an awful long time to put up with someone else’s taste.

swheatly531: Your taste is great. I will have to add some cooking equipment to the kitchen, though.

ladycarla: So I don’t cook.

swheatly531: How come there’s a door in the basement? It looks like it goes through a tunnel.

ladycarla: lol. Forgot to tell you about that. It’s a secret entrance from the back alley. The guy who built the house was this senator who liked his women. He had the secret entrance built so he could get his hookers in and out. The real estate agent said other members of Congress have taken advantage of it over the years.

swheatly531: lol. I’ll keep that in mind if I meet any members of Congress. Off to make phone calls. Already have a lunch scheduled for tomorrow.

ladycarla: You go get ‘em.

Five days later, in an office at the State Department, a junior-level human resources officer cringed in front of the deputy secretary of state.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Wallace,” the young officer said. “But when I saw her resume, I thought it was for the White House position.”

Wallace growled. “But I sent it down in an inter-departmental envelope.”

“Like all the others.”

“But it was from me.”

“I know, sir. But everyone has been offering candidates. All the note said was that the resume was to be verified and the security background done.”

“I wanted the resume verified so that I could write up an offer of employment.”

“Well, it did get verified and the security background was done. And Ms. Fritsch did the initial interview.”

“So? Can I write up my offer?”

“Well, see, that’s the problem, sir. Wheatly made the cut. The president is supposed to interview her tomorrow.”

Episode One (Reprise)

As a special December treat, I’m posting the story from the beginning on a daily-ish basis.  This is your chance to catch up on any posts you may have missed and let your friends know that they can jump in without feeling lost.  Happy Holidays!
By Anne Louise Bannon

At the sound of the mechanized gong, Sharon Wheatly looked up from her book and saw that the “fasten seat belt” sign was on.

“Ladies and gentleman,” announced the flight attendant’s voice. “The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign for our final descent into Ronald Reagan National Airport

. At this time, will you please make sure your tray tables are locked and that your seat backs are in the upright position. Thank you for joining us on our flight and we hope you have a pleasant stay in our nation’s capitol.”

A pleasant stay, indeed. Sharon thumped the cover of the paperback in her hand and looked out the window at the frozen ground below. Washington, DC, was having a rather mild February and there were patches of dirty earth between the white patches of snow on the mall and around the Jefferson Memorial. The barren cherry trees along the Potomac looked black against the steel gray water.

The man next to her glanced at the Flemish title of her paperback again and smiled at her in that dumb way people did when they couldn’t speak a language. When he and Sharon had boarded, he was on his mobile phone, talking to Steve (whoever that was) in such a way as to make sure both Steve and Sharon knew that he was a terribly important person. For someone in his early 40s, it was more than a little pathetic. Sharon got out her book promptly. By the time the man had hung up, she was engrossed in the silly romance and he had decided she didn’t speak English. The book had done its job well.

Normally, when reading for relaxation, Sharon preferred reading English, French or Spanish – her first languages, as she often joked, since she couldn’t remember a time when she couldn’t speak all three. But Tante Berthilde had sent the Flemish title because of Sharon’s younger sister Susan, who had been going on for over a month now about the stars aligning in Sharon’s favor. And the romance was based on a bunch of stars aligning, which was why her aunt had sent the book, even though most French-speaking Belgians pretty much had no use for Flemish, Berthilde included.

And if Sharon actually believed in such things, she would have had to agree that if not the stars, then something was aligning itself right in her life. The recent election, her old company deciding to re-structure, her friend Carla’s new job, even Susan’s accident, as devastating as that had been, all had worked together to make it an auspicious time to make the move to D.C. and the public sector.

Sharon braced herself as the plane bounced down onto the runway and shuddered as the jet engines reversed themselves to slow down. The man next to her already had his mobile phone out, then suddenly bent over toward her.

“Look, we could meet,” he said suddenly, and slowly. “I could show you-“ he pointed at her – “Around Washington?” He twirled his finger.

Sharon smiled, trying to make up her mind whether to respond in English, which would make him feel appropriately stupid for making assumptions but would open up the possibility that he’d continue hitting on her, or to continue to play dumb. Apparently, playing dumb was the right move, because he smiled back weakly and started dialing his phone. A minute later, the plane had barely docked at the gate and he was out of his seat and grabbing his carry on from the overhead compartment.

Sharon sighed. Hers was the kind of problem it was impossible to complain about. Men saw her slender figure, naturally blonde full hair and her soft face and inevitably assumed she had no greater desire than to be hit on. Which is why the stupid ones inevitably did. The geeks usually stared openly, which was embarrassing enough. But the covert appraisals were the most annoying. And the jealous glares from the women.

She mostly ignored the looks while waiting for her luggage. She was used to ignoring them, but it still felt uncomfortable to be looked at.

Sharon heaved her two suitcases off the conveyor and then paused just long enough to get her coat on. She was wearing a fairly heavy sweater over her jeans and boots, but she already knew how chilly D.C. was in comparison to Los Angeles. Coat on and her carry-on slung over shoulder, Sharon Wheatly stepped out of the air terminal and into her new life.

Mark Jerguesson, on the other hand, was taking a moment to wish fervently for his old life. He gazed out over the frozen White House grounds – a view limited to the chosen few. And now he was one of them. In fact, at not quite 40, he was among the youngest and one of the few that were single when they got elected.

“Mr. President?”

Mark winced inwardly, wondering if he’d ever get used to being addressed that way.

“Yeah, Johnnie.” He turned to his chief of staff.

Johnetta Washington, slender with dark, dark skin, generally had the attitude of an established church mother about to give the young new pastor what for. Mark had chosen her as his chief of staff precisely because he could count on her to give him what for at any given time. But ever since he’d taken the oath of office, Johnnie had been treating him with the correct deference most of the time. He was trying not to mind.

“Did you hear what I said just now?” Johnnie asked.

Mark turned into the Oval Office from the window. “We were talking about replacing Andy Shepherd, and yeah, two weeks is enough time to show respect for his passing, especially since we really, really need a world affairs advisor. Go ahead and call the State Department and get the interviews started. Same process as we did last December.”

“Call State about interviews.” Johnnie paused and became a little more relaxed. “You doing okay?”

“Me? I’m fine.” Mark stopped and shrugged. “Mostly. You know, I expected the pressure. But I didn’t get the isolation, all the protocols.” He shook his head. “It’s just getting used to it, is all.”

Johnnie’s eyebrows raised mischievously. “Be careful what you wish for?”

Mark chuckled. “You’re the one who always told me to dream big. And now we’re both paying for it.”

Johnnie laughed. “And how. I’ve got a meeting with Jean and the rest of the media team in about…” She checked her watch. “Five minutes ago. Any extra thoughts on the education proposal?”

“Yeah. I was making some notes before the photo session earlier.” Mark looked at his desk and sighed. “They cleared it off for the session.”

In spite of Mark’s best efforts to be transparent, his staff had a whole list of deep, dark “secrets” that it would be better to keep from the American people, not the least his tendency to keep a host of electronic gadgets and other toys on his desk. Mark punched the intercom.

“Ms. Forrest, I need my desk stuff back, please,” he announced.

“Yes, Mr. President,” replied his personal assistant. Fresh out of college and almost annoyingly eager, Gen Forrest’s job was to hold his coat, open doors, pay for things, run errands and do all the things the leader of the free world used to do for himself, but could no longer do because he was the leader of the free world.

Another line buzzed on the intercom. “Mr. President, Senator Mendoza is here.”

“And I’m leaving,” said Johnnie, heading for the door that led to her office.

“Thank you, Kent,” Mark said to the intercom. “Would you have Mr. Arlen join us, please? And hold the Senator until Mr. Arlen arrives.”

“He’s here now, Mr. President,” replied Kent. “Please remember you have a meeting with the Farmer’s Union in half an hour.”

“Thank you, Kent.”

Mark sat down at the imposing desk that had served numerous other presidents since the mid-19th Century as Ms. Forrest brought in the laptop, e-mailer, e-reader, tablet computer and other such items that had been earlier removed for the photo session.

Episode 41 – Solly and Mark Make it Up

There were those who said Major Clive Willis 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.

Episode 40 – The Chef is Not Happy

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 super market?”

“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 Willis.”

“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 the Major Clive Willis, who as Head Usher, oversaw all the domestic and event staff at the White House. But Willis 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.”

“Who?”

“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.

Episode 39 – Korean Embassy Aftermath

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.

Episode 38, Capitol Cues

CAPITAL CUES

By Max Epstein

Mai Lin Hu, wife of South Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Jong Hu, was significantly impressed when President Jerguessen wished her well on her birthday last Wednesday at the reception the South Korean embassy held in the president’s honor.

Activist Gloria Park was amazed that not only did President Jerguessen know who she was, he was able to ask her knowledgeable questions regarding her issue – adoption fraud in African countries.

I saw him refer to his iPhone a couple times,” Park said. “But he was checking his facts. That he even knew to do that – wow.”

What Park did not realize is that just prior to her conversation with the president, he had received an instant message from World Affairs Advisor Sharon Wheatly, who had presumably pointed out Park and made sure her boss knew he wanted to talk to her.

It was an interesting dance that night. The president checking his iPhone, then glancing at Wheatly. She would glance in the direction of someone else. Or she would check her Blackberry and he’d glance in the direction of another. Seconds later, he was checking his iPhone.

Wheatly later conceded that she was, indeed, providing links and other information to the president as various people at the party talked to the president.

It’s my job,” she explained. “It’s what I do. I provide critical background information to the president so that he can make appropriate and intelligent decisions.”

But according to Secretary Daniel Freedman, Wheatly’s job is a key part of President Jerguessen’s efforts to rebuild this country’s relations with other nations.

She’s our secret weapon,” Freedman said. “Okay, maybe not so secret. But Sharon is a master at keeping track of people and issues. Mrs. Hu was blown away that the president knew that it was her birthday. That was Sharon who found that out. And that may sound trivial, but something as simple as a ‘happy birthday’ at the right time can go a long way toward building the right kinds of relations we need in the world right now.”

To: Swheatly531

You witch. You may think you have him all wrapped up with a nice pretty bow. It doesn’t matter who you’ve got snowed, I know you for who you are. Witch.

Episode 37 – The Antidote

It was getting close to six-thirty when Sharon IM’d Jean about the North Koreans and heard back about the Moral Americans. Nor was she particularly surprised when, at right about the same time, a group IM from Mark came through asking if the PFZ was going to be open that night. Pretty much everyone else from the Board had other plans. So Sharon relented and invited Mark to come make dinner with her. Mark accepted, almost too quickly and the two went back and forth, debating menu items based on what they had and or Sharon could get.

Mark seemed almost cheerful as Sharon met him in the basement.

“I’ve got the broth and a portobello,” he told her, showing her the canvas bag he was holding. “And some semolina. Plus a kick-ass Tavel that if the domestic wine lobby knew I had, I’d be dead.”

“Great, I love French roses” said Sharon. She smiled then led the way up the stairs. “I’m pounding the pork cutlets now. I’ve got plenty of arugula for a salad, maybe with some tomatoes. And I found some butternut squash chunks in the fridge. If we nuke them, we could use that for the ravioli filling along with some of the portobello.”

“And I love the idea of just dropping them in the hot broth. I am starving.”

As they entered the kitchen, Mark put the bag on the counter.

“Well, you’d better get the pasta started then, said Sharon. “That’s going to take the longest. I’ve got some herbed goat cheese and crackers. We can have that while the pasta is resting.”

“Sounds good.”

Their conversation remained focused on putting the meal together, a hot chicken broth with squash and mushroom ravioli, arugula and tomato salad with artichoke hearts, and breaded pork cutlets piccatta-style with broccoli.

“You seem to be in a better mood,” Sharon said, as they finished their meal.

“I think I am,” said Mark. “I’m sorry I got so grouchy this afternoon.” He sighed deeply. “I told you I could have ditched that meeting.”

“The Moral Americans?” Sharon chuckled. “Yeah, I heard about that.”

“Even Augie agreed, they’ve got a point about my marriage encouraging weddings.”

“That’s what, a six-billion dollar industry?” Sharon smiled. “Could turn the economy around.”

Mark chuckled ruefully. “I don’t think that’s what they were after.”

“No. Really? But how is you getting married going to stop gay marriages?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.” Mark toyed with his wine glass. “They talked about leading by example, and obviously assumed I’m straight.”

Sharon thought briefly about that one kiss. “I have reason to believe so.”

Mark smiled. “Yeah, I’m afraid I am.” He frowned. “The senator hinted that my not falling in line with their request might lead to rumors I’m gay. As if I’d be worried about people thinking that.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Nah. If I’m not going to judge a person based on their sexual orientation, why should I care if folks judge me that way? Problem is, you were right. The Moral Americans are just vocal enough to cause trouble in other ways, too. I don’t want to appease them, but I don’t want to blow them off, either.” Mark gazed off into space.

They were in the dining room, sitting at one end of the rather large table. It was a fairly large room with windows that looked out onto the street, covered with pull-down shades and gold velvet curtains. It was a more sedate version of Baroque opulence and Sharon knew that the cherry-wood table and breakfront were genuine Louise XV. She’d been with Carla on a trip to France when Carla had bought the pieces.

However, Mark’s attention was actually drawn to the chess set at the other end of the table.

“You play chess?” he asked, getting up and looking at the board.

“Yeah. I got that out this afternoon.” Sharon followed him to the end of the table. “Kim challenged me to a game earlier. I gave him the white.”

The queen’s white pawn was already moved ahead two spaces.

“That’s a bold move,” Mark said.

“Kim really likes playing his queen. He’s also really good at getting rank with his pawns.” Sharon looked at Mark. “Do you play?”

“A little. I’m not that good.”

“Neither am I,” Sharon sighed. “Kim usually whips me backwards and forwards. I think he just asks me to play to humor me. I’m going online tonight to see if I can figure out a strategy.”

Mark chuckled. “I’ve got one. Ape his moves. It’ll make him crazy.”

Sharon hesitated, but Mark made an impressive argument and the two found themselves hovering over Sharon’s laptop, searching chess sites and debating until Sharon suddenly yawned and Mark remembered that it was time to go. And both were surprised and relieved when there was no awkwardness at the basement door.

So the next day, in spite of questions about marriage and the Moral Americans, Mark was in a pretty good mood. He made his statement about supporting marriage for all Americans and re-iterated that it was, in fact, his support for marriage that was behind him still being single. He hadn’t met the right woman yet, nor was he in any position to do anything about it at that time, assuming he did meet the right woman. The press corps, most of whom saw little use in a story about a group who had lost several times over on every effort they had made to legislate their agenda, let the President off on the issue. And there were other issues of more moment.

Episode 36 – The Moral Americans Caucus

The meeting with the Moral Americans did little to improve Mark’s mood. He finally cut it short with a promise to think over their proposal and give them an answer the next day. Then, after several deep breaths and one Zen meditation exercise to calm himself down, he summoned Jean Bouyer and Gus Guerrero to the Oval Office. He was still trying to achieve some calm when they both arrived.

“We’ve got a problem,” he announced, after giving the two permission to take a seat in front of the desk.

Jean and Gus looked at each other.

“You mean a new one?” Jean asked. “’Cause I haven’t heard about any. You, Augie?”

Gus shook his head. “Just the usual nonsense.”

“My meeting just a few minutes ago,” Mark told them. “The one with the Moral Americans Caucus. It went well enough, however, let’s just say that their proposal has left me more than a little… nonplussed.”

“What did they want?” Gus asked.

“They want me to get married.” Mark got up and started pacing. “To a woman, of course. Even offered me four different candidates.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding!” snapped Jean.

“I think I know where this is going,” Gus said, grimly. “Did they specify to a woman?”

“Oh, yes. They think that it will show my support for marriage and encourage others to get married.”

Gus sighed. “It will do that.”

“And if I don’t start making some moves along those lines, they are fully ready to start a campaign questioning my support for marriage and average Americans.”

“How long have they been gone?” Jean asked, immediately opening her laptop and scanning the screen.

“I put them off until Friday.” Mark rolled his eyes. “Big step, lots to think about, you know.”

“Could they have forgotten about the Friday news conference?” Gus asked.

“I’d be surprised if they had,” said Jean. “They may be narrow-minded asses, but they’re not stupid. At least, I don’t think they are.”

“They’re not,” said Gus. “Which means they fully expect you to turn them down. And also means they’re pushing you to the wall on the gay marriage thing.”

“I know.” Mark sighed. “And it’s not like there aren’t other issues to focus on instead of something that should be a gimme.”

“Be nice if it were,” sighed Gus.

Mark looked over at him. “I know. It’s just you won on the legislative side. You won judicially. There ain’t much I can do besides tell the Moral Americans to get over it, already.”

“Maybe that’s what you need to do,” Jean said, smiling. “I mean, don’t blow them off. You can’t afford to look too dismissive of their concerns. Better yet, promote marriage – for all Americans, not just the straight ones.”

Mark half-smiled. “You know, that might work.” He flopped into his desk chair. “It’s just the gall of it all – get married or we’re going to make your life miserable.”

“I’ll get right on the statement,” Jean said, almost getting up expectantly.

“Go ahead,” said Mark, remembering just in time that he should dismiss her.

Jean scooted out. Gus hung back, though not entirely for reasons of protocol.

“You okay, sir?” Gus asked. “It’s not like you to let this sort of thing get under your skin.”

Mark sighed. “Yeah. It’s just other things. Have you got anything else for me?”

“Nope. If I may?”

“Yeah.” Mark sighed as he watched Gus leave.

Mark knew it wasn’t like him to let things like the Moral Americans get under his skin. In fact, under normal circumstances, Mark would normally be laughing himself silly. Except that for the first time in a very long time, he was thinking he might actually like to get married. And he wasn’t sure which was more upsetting, the fact that he was thinking that way or that the woman he wanted was pretty much off-limits.

Or was she?

Episode 35 – Mark Isn’t Happy About Max

Back at the White House, Sharon found that the president wanted to go over the previous night’s party as well as updates on a potential world tour that summer. She checked in with Kent, found the president had a few free minutes right then, so she gathered up her laptop and Blackberry and hurried over to the Oval Office.

“Good news,” she announced after being admitted.

Mark looked up from the desk and smiled. “About what?”

“North Korea. My buddy at the university in Seoul got back to me while I was at lunch.”

“Is it even daylight there yet?”

Sharon quickly calculated. “It’s, what, one-thirty now? It’s about two-thirty in the morning there. Kim’s a hard-core night owl. He used to joke that we’d make a great couple except being in the same time zone would probably kill us. Anyway, he’s the poli sci/world affairs professor I told you about.”

“Right. So what’s the good news?” Mark glanced at his laptop.

“The North Koreans are just making noise about the favoritism. Faiza called it dead-on. They have to complain to look good, but there is definitely interest in re-establishing relations with us.”

Mark smiled. “That is good news. Have you e-mailed Dan yet?”

“Not yet.” Sharon opened the lid to her laptop. “I’d just got in when I got your note and figured you’d want to hear it first, anyway.”

“Got in? Oh, that’s right. Didn’t you have some interview or something?”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Apparently Max Epstein thinks our world affairs policy would make a good feature.”

“It would.” Mark sighed. “Isn’t he that reporter with the bad rep regarding women?”

“Let me guess, you’ve been talking to Augie.” Sharon kept her eyes on her screen, her fingers flying over her keyboard as she wrote her e-mail.

“He called me when he heard about it from Jean.”

“It’s no big deal. Max behaved himself. Asked some good questions, too. We’ll see how the story turns out.”

Mark tried not to glare as Sharon continued working on her e-mail. After all, it was only one interview and it wasn’t as though Sharon was dating the guy. And even if she was, it wasn’t like she was going to be dating Mark, except at working functions, a thought that thoroughly depressed him. Except that all of a sudden, Sharon was asking him something about an upcoming trip to Mexico. Mark shoved his depressing thoughts aside and forced himself to focus on something besides Sharon and dating and not dating.

“Are you all right?” Sharon asked suddenly.

“Yeah. Fine.” Mark shifted uncomfortably.

“You sure?” Sharon looked him over critically. “You don’t look fine.”

“No. I’m okay.” Mark met Sharon’s skeptical glare. “Look, I’m bugged about the whole Max Epstein thing. Not that you can’t handle it.”

“Excuse me, I most certainly can.”

Mark shrugged. “I guess Augie got under my skin. He really is freaking out. He doesn’t want to see you get your heart broken.”

Sharon laughed. “There is no way Max Epstein could possibly break my heart, because I’m not going to fall in love with him.”

“And what makes you so damned sure you’re not?” Mark snapped, appalled at how angry he sounded. He met Sharon’s gaze. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.” Sharon glared at her laptop. “Apparently everyone’s talking about how good we looked together.”

“Jean mentioned that.” Mark swallowed. It was all over the Washington blogs and in the Post’s gossip column. “You do take a great picture.”

“Thanks. But there’s something insanely unsettling about being on the Metro and seeing yourself on the front page of the Life Style section.”

“No one bothered you, did they?”

“No. In fact, no one seemed to notice me, for which I am profoundly grateful.”

Sharon sat back on the office couch, looking deeply saddened. Mark sighed, feeling guilty and annoyed that he couldn’t sit down next to her and hold her close.

“Mr. President,” said Kent’s voice from the intercom. “Senator Halstead and the reps from the Moral American Caucus are here for their meeting.”

“Let me finish here with Ms. Wheatly,” Mark replied, shuddering. He looked at Sharon. “If you want, we can take our time. It’s not like this is a meeting I’m excited about.”

“But they can cause you an awful lot of trouble,” said Sharon, closing her laptop. “I’ve still got to finalize my thoughts on the tour schedule as it is. I’ll finish the report and e-mail it to you and Dan this afternoon.”

“Fine. And cc it to the rest of the Advisory Board, too. I’d like get their input at tomorrow’s meeting.”

Sharon nodded and got up. The two looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, then Sharon left.

Episode 34 – Max Interviews Sharon

The day after the Korean Embassy party found Sharon back at work, as usual, intently trying to run down some information on an old European trade agreement. She had just found something that looked close when Jean Bouyer cleared her throat.

That the press secretary was a little on the round side, most people got. What startled most folks was her short stature. Bouyer tried to enhance her four feet, ten inches by always wearing at least 3-inch high heels and piling her shiny red hair on top of her head, which would have looked ridiculous on most similarly sized women. But the look probably worked for Bouyer simply because she was one of those short women who filled a room with her presence.

Sharon hadn’t had much contact with Jean beyond the odd lunchtime chat in the cafeteria, so she was a little surprised to see Jean standing in her doorway.

“Hey, Jean, what’s up?” Sharon asked, trying not to keep one eye on her laptop’s screen.

“An interview request,” Jean said.

“Huh?”

“Max Epstein wants to do a story on you.”

“Why would he want to do that?”

Jean shrugged. “I don’t really care. But Yesmenia and I talked it over and we think it’d be a really good idea.”

Yesmenia was Yesmenia Alvarez, the president’s public message head.

Sharon grimaced. “Why?”

“We’re coming up on the first one hundred days and the boss isn’t happy with what he’s been able to do so far.” Jean balanced one of her feet on the tiny little spike of her red shoe. “The one thing area where he’s really been gaining ground is the foreign relations. If we can get a story out there about that, well, that might give his first one hundred some oomph.”

Sharon sighed. “So why doesn’t Epstein talk with Dan?”

“He has, but he wants to talk to you. You want me to have Allen set it up with Julie?”

“I suppose.”

“Great. This afternoon okay?”

“Already?” Sharon gulped.

Jean started out. “Max’s deadline is tomorrow. Trust me, you want to accommodate that.”

Sharon sighed again and went back to her document, only to be interrupted again a few minutes later when Julie e-mailed her that she had a lunchtime interview with Max Epstein at a small bistro two blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sharon made a point of being on time and was somewhat pleasantly surprised to see Max at the restaurant waiting for her. It was a small place, crowded with tables, and red vinyl-covered booths along the walls. Max had secured one against the lunch rush. He got up as she approached the table, no mean feat, given the booth, and remained standing until she was seated.

“They do an incredible salmon here,” Max told Sharon as he handed her a menu.

“Hmm.” Sharon browsed, one eye on Max to see what he was up to.

The waiter approached and Sharon asked for separate checks.

“I can put this on the expense account,” Max offered.

“No can do,” said Sharon. “Too close to a conflict of interest for me.”

The waiter sighed as Sharon ordered steak, salad and fries, and an iced tea. Max ordered salmon. As the waiter left, Max pulled out his voice recorder. Sharon sighed.

“I guess my order was on the record,” she said.

Max shrugged. “Not if you don’t want it to be. I can cut some slack on that one.”

“I don’t know if it matters. I probably would have ordered the same thing, anyway.”

“Shall we start at the beginning?” Max smiled. “What got you interested in world affairs?”

He led her through most of her work history, pausing only when the waiter came with their food. Sharon had to concede that Max had done his homework.

“As I understand it, you and one of your last bosses had something going,” Max finally asked.

“Oh, so that’s it?” Sharon rolled her eyes. “You lull me into a false sense of security and pull this?”

Max grinned. “Are you saying you don’t want to answer?”

“Nah.” Sharon speared a french fry. “We kept things discreet, for obvious reasons, but it wasn’t that big a deal. We still worked together for a while after we broke up.”

“So he wasn’t the reason you left the corporate world for the public sector?” Max grinned.

Sharon shrugged. “He may have been, but not for the reason you might think. He wanted a stay-at-home wife and kids, and I didn’t want to be that kind of wife. I was tempted to try it, but I realized pretty quickly that it was more that I was getting a little burnt out on the corporate thing. I had always wanted to go into public service and the diplomatic corps, anyway. So maybe the break up started the nudge that got me here. There were other things, too.”

“Like what?”

“Um,” Sharon hesitated. “We almost lost my sister last summer, and it just reminded me that it was probably time to go after what I really wanted.”

“And what do you really want?”

“Eventually? Maybe Secretary of State. Maybe just an ambassadorship. I don’t know. I’m really loving what I’m doing now.”

“Why?”

“It’s pure research, for one thing. I don’t have to worry about developing policy. And I do get to work my diplomatic chops every so often, but it’s not my primary function, and that’s refreshing.”

“What about the reports this morning out of North Korea that the U.S is favoring South Korea, based on last night’s reception?”

Sharon smiled. “Can’t comment.” She suddenly shifted at the soft buzzing in her purse. “Hold on.” She looked at her Blackberry and grinned. “And would you believe, it looks like I know how we’re going to handle those reports.”

“How?”

“Still can’t comment. Have to get the boss to clear it, first. And Dan. I mean Secretary Friedman.”

“Speaking of your boss, all the talk today is how good you two looked together last night.”

Sharon rolled her eyes, then glared at Max. “Let’s not get started with that. I have no interest in a relationship with the man. I mean, we’re friends. He’s a really nice person. But I’d have to be nuts.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why? Complete loss of privacy, for starters. I’ll stay in the background, thank you.”

Max looked at her, pondering. “So you’re a free agent.”

“Don’t get too excited. I’ve heard about you.”

“Yeah.” Max suddenly sighed. “But let’s get back to your preference for the background, as you say, is that related to your brother’s fame?”

Sharon grimaced. “I was afraid you were going to ask about him.”

“I’m more asking about why you prefer the background.” Max smiled encouragingly.

“I suppose that’s legit. And, yeah, I have seen the dark side of fame. But it’s not just Michael. It’s what happens with the president, himself. I mean, the poor guy can’t even go out to get a beer with his co-workers after work. A lot of the ways you and I move around and take for granted that we can do, he can’t. That is not my idea of a way to live.”

Max nodded. He asked a couple more questions about Sharon’s personal life, but it was more in the sense of her history and what got her interested in world affairs. As Sharon got up to go, he gave her his card.