“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.”
“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.