Monty Fisk found it difficult to believe that it was 0600 already, but the clock and the alarm agreed that it was. He'd been finding it harder and harder to get up and go to work for the last year or two, and today, his last day on the job, it seemed doubly so. Not least because of the unwanted attention that would be foisted on him on the occasion of his retirement.

He forced himself out of bed. After a quick fifty Hindu Squats, he felt better, as he knew he would, and performed his morning ablutions. Fortified with green tea and broiled salmon, he took his gold shield and service weapon from the drawer and began his habitual brisk walk the thirteen blocks to the precinct, acknowledging the friendly greetings of the usual habitués of the morning streets.

* * *

"It's six o'clock. Time to wake up, Mr. President." whispered an aide. Eyelids snapped open, as they would have on their own in a few more minutes, and Grant Folsom, President of the United States, was instantly awake. "Thank you", he said, then took a deep breath and felt himself become the most powerful person on Earth. His normal alertness was temporarily confounded when he sprang out of bed and didn't recognize his surroundings, but then he remembered he was a guest at the estate of Edmund Fitzwarren: old money, industrial magnate, campaign donor extraordinaire, and thoroughly unknown to the masses.

Fitzwarren had offered the use of his home while Folsom attempted to negotiate an end to the armed uprising in the young country of Costa Pacifica. Fitzwarren had several factories in the country that had been adversely affected by the unrest, and he wanted it to stop. Folsom wanted a feather in his cap that would make a good addition to the legacy he was building. El Presidente Cárdenas and Arturo Peres, the counterrevolutionary leader, would be arriving today for informal talks, and Folsom was sure his proposal would be acceptable to both. With a great deal of luck, they'd have an agreement before they sat down to an intimate dinner this evening.

"Mr. President? The Secretary of State is on the phone; he needs just a few minutes of your time…" The thing about being POTUS, Folsom was reminded once again, is that there's never just one thing. It would be too much to hope for that he could concentrate on Costa Pacifica the entire day. "Very well."

* * *

Monty bounded up the steps of the precinct three at a time. The front door was locked. That was odd. He took out his never-needed key and opened it. Inside, he found nobody seated at the front desk to buzz him in. His thumb on the sensor opened the door, and his footsteps echoed eerily down the empty hallway. He realized fairly quickly that there was a joke in play, probably something to do with his reputation as one of the best detectives around. So, there would be clues.

He turned down the corridor where the three prisoner interrogation rooms were. He noticed the light switch in the middle one was in the on position, but the light was off. Hmmm. Toward the back of the building, there were four people in lockup, strangely silent. He looked at them. One was sleeping. The other three looked back, standing motionless but he could see one of them was barely succeeding in repressing a smile. Looking out the back door, he could see one of the squad cars was backed into its parking space. The last piece of the puzzle fell into place in his mind.

He returned to the main entrance, and picked up the microphone, thumbing the P.A. switch to address the briefing room. "Okay, I know you're all in there. Do we really have to do this?" He turned the system off and sauntered to the briefing room, where half of the officers were still extricating themselves from their hiding places, looking disappointed. "How'd you know, Monty?" "You think I got to be the star detective that I am by telling all my secrets?"

He saw his partner in the corner, summoned him over with a flip of his head. Gannon approached, unable to hide the look of guilt on his face for having arranged the gag. Monty gave him a friendly, wordless dressing down, then said "There's gonna be a cake later too, isn't there?" "Monty, you're just going to have to get through it like everybody else does on their last day."

* * *

"They're here, Mr. President."

"Okay." Folsom knew perfectly well that Sr. Peres had arrived at least an hour before, and President Cárdenas had no doubt been here for at least several minutes. The childishness of protocol dictated that he could not meet one of them before the other; and even more so, that he had to keep them cooling their heels for a few minutes before he came out to greet them. Somehow, the machinations of centuries of royal functionaries had decided that the one who could keep the others waiting was the most important.

His secretary opened the door ahead of him, and said, "Mr. President, may I present President Cárdenas of Costa Pacifica, and Mr. Peres." "Thank you, Ron. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I see you've met our host, Mr. Fitzwarren. Would you like to talk out on the balcony? It has a wonderful view of the lake, and last night the sunset was beautiful from there."

As the three of them went off together to speak of many things, the secretary took Mr. Fitzwarren aside. "Please come with me, sir. The chefs are waiting in the front library. I'd like to introduce them to you so you can get them set up and started on dinner."

Whether it was from paranoia or another manifestation of ego, each of the principals had brought his own chef, even though any one of them could easily prepare the dinner for three. It seemed a bit odd to the secretary that Mr. Fitzwarren wouldn't have his own kitchen staff show them around and get them what they needed, but he wanted to do it himself. The Secret Service men were fine with that, since it meant fewer people they had to get clearances for. Mr. Fitzwarren had even gone so far as to give his own chef and staff the day off, to keep it simple.

The secretary left them to assume his post discreetly out of earshot of the conferees, in case the President wanted anything, and the three chefs followed Mr. Fitzwarren to the kitchen. He let them snoop around to find where everything was, and if they would need anything. He then called his personal driver to the kitchen and put him at their disposal for the rest of the day. "I'll leave you to it, then. Omar knows how to find anything you might need. And there's a farmer's market downtown today if you want to go shopping." "Very good, sir, thank you."

Mr. Fitzwarren walked into the pantry. "Omar? I'll need you to pick up some things for me, also. Let's see… I'll need two, no make it three pints of heavy whipping cream. And caster sugar. Oh no, there's a whole bag there; I thought it was flour. And go see Henrí and get half a pound of Belgian chocolate, the seventy two percent. That'll do it; thanks, Omar." With that, Mr. Fitzwarren returned to the main house.

The White House chef asked Omar what that was all about. "Oh, Mr. Fitzwarren fancies himself something of a chef." Omar replied. "He's going to be making the dessert. He's practiced it several times in the last couple of weeks. Pretty good, actually."

* * *

"…whiiiiiiiich nobody can deny!" The whole room erupted into applause. Monty let it go on for a few seconds, then raised his hands and pantomimed a surrender. Mrs. Wilkinson from the SWAT team started cutting the cake. A timid voice spoke softly from the back: "Remember, I didn't receive a piece last time."

Monty accepted the first plate, but before he could even pick up the fork, in walked two men impeccably dressed in dark suits and white shirts. Each one held a pair of impenetrable sunglasses in his hand, and had a small clear plastic tube running from behind his ear down under his shirt collar. Monty's trained eye instantly recognized the small bulge of a shoulder holster. He might have entertained the notion that this was a joke being played by some prankster on the force, except that during the singing he had seen through the window a black Chevy Suburban pull into the parking lot and disgorge the two.

One of them stayed by the door and the other scanned the room for a second and then walked straight toward Monty. Arriving, he stated flatly "Mr. Fisk. I'm Special Agent William Wood, with the Secret Service. May I speak with you in the corridor?" He turned on his heel without waiting for an answer, obviously assuming that Monty would follow. Which he did. The other agent closed the door after him and stayed in the briefing room, blocking the door and presenting a deadpan face to the rest of the dumbfounded party.

Mr. Wood looked up and down the corridor before speaking. "Mr. Fisk, I imagine you're aware that the President is in town. A situation has come up, and we'd appreciate your help. We asked around and you come very highly recommended. Would you come with us?"

Even though this isn't the kind of thing that happened to him every day, Monty saw no need to put on a false show of modesty, so he just agreed. "Yeah, sure, of course. Just let me tell the others that I'm okay."

"I'm sure it's not neccessary to tell you this, but … no details, right?"

Monty stuck his head in the door to let his friends know he wasn't being shanghaied, then withdrew, followed by the agent in the non-speaking role.

Monty knew that President Folsom was staying at the estate of some rich tycoon. It was up in the hills outside of town somewhere, but he wouldn't know really how to get there, or probably even how to recognize it if he did. But the G-Men into whose custody he had placed himself, who certainly weren't from around here and probably didn't even have a real home, seemed to know the way. Without making a scene, they wound their way through parts of town he'd never seen before, not paying too much attention to the vehicle code; he thought it ironic that they easily could have requested a police escort at the same time that they had picked him up.

They turned into the driveway and stopped at the iron gate with the unostenatious cursive "F" at the left edge. One of the two men that Monty hadn't seen until now stepped from behind the hedge, machine gun at the ready, and spoke to the anonymous agent driving the car. At his request, which Monty knew was not a request at all, Monty got out of the car and the other agent emerged from hiding on the other side of the driveway. From a distance, he looked Monty over, head to toes quickly, then a slower review back upward. Finally, he approached, and wordlessly kicked Monty's right leg away forcing his right foot to plant itself two feet from his left. Monty didn't have to be told to raise his arms to shoulder level and extend them out to his sides. The agent checked him, presumably for weapons, but the Beretta Cougar on Monty's hip didn't seem to faze him. It looked more like it was an expected item on a checklist in the agent's mind. After comparing the wound between the index and middle fingers of his left hand (his best friend and mountain climbing buddy in college had accidentally driven a piton through it after drinking a bit too much) to a picture that he took from his pocket, he nodded to Agent Wood, who motioned Monty back into the car. The gate slid smoothly away to the right , and they drove through.

After about a hundred yards, they emerged from the woods and crossed through a large, immaculately tended lawn and finally arrived at the main house. Marine One could be partially seen at the corner of the house, its drooping rotor blades being easily anthropomorphized as a mournful countenance.

The head of the president's security detail met me at the front door. "Thank you for coming, Mr. Fisk. I can tell you what's going on now. President Folsom, and President Cárdenas of Costa Pacifica are dead. Mr. Arturo Peres, also from Costa Pacifica and here for peace talks with President Cárdenas, is an obvious suspect, but we can't just come right out and accuse him, for diplomatic reasons. We also have no actual evidence against him, or anyone else, at this point. The three were dining together when the two presidents just keeled over.

"If you'll follow me, please, we'll go to the dining room. Ah, here is Captain Rixey, the White House physician. Captain Rixey, this is Montgomery Fisk, a local detective we've brought in to help with the investigation." Captain Rixey looked to be in his fifties; clearly unmorrised in his perfectly fitting United States Navy dress uniform, neither did he give the impression that he'd spent much of his life at sea. Monty could only assume that he was an excellent doctor, tending to the President, but was also aware of the possibility that political connections may have played a part in his appointment.

Monty extended his hand, and the doctor shook it. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Fisk. Here's what I know so far." Jumping right into the facts, Rixey put out of Monty's mind his musings about the doctor's qualifications, which had been baseless anyway. "The deceased both succumbed within minutes of the start of the meal. I suspect poisoning, and have asked for an expedited blood test to determine that. Nicotine is my guess, possibly curare if the assassin figured a way to deliver it to the bloodstream."

Monty interrupted him. "Can a person be immune to those? I'm thinking of Mr. Peres." "No, but —"

"According to the waiter, when he brought out the salads, Mr. Peres declined and asked to have his soup first. The two presidents had salad, and never made it to the next course."

"I see. Has the salad been examined?"

"It's in the kitchen where the waiter left it. We've postponed evidence collection until you see the scene, and Captain Rixey said that if it is poisoned, we can wait to test for it. Or, if it was such that we couldn't have waited, then it was too late anyway."

"Uh huh. I presume the waiter is being held?"

"Yes. He's on Mr. Fitzwarren's staff and was cleared by the Secret Service, but he's certainly a potential suspect. Speaking of which —"

They'd almost reached the dining room. Walking down the hallway, Monty had seen several men standing at the doorway, and one occupying a luxurious settee outside. The sitter was speaking on a phone. Monty surmised he might be Mr. Fitzwarren. He'd always regretted the fact that expensive women's clothing was immediately apparent, but that the homogeneity of men's suits could make something from Saville Row indistinguishable from a Fred's on the corner, at least until you're right up close. Monty liked to scope out a person as much as he could before meeting him. But his years on the force had given him a little edge on that subject and he could tell that the man wasn't going to be an agent, or probably even a mogul's man.

By the time we reached the door, the man was off the phone and stood to meet us. "Mr. Fitzwarren, this is Mr. Montgomery Fisk, the detective. Mr. Fisk, this is Mr. Edmund Fitzwarren, the host for the conference." The two shook hands. Slippery character, thought Monty. Fitzwarren joined the party; as they entered the dining room, Monty held back so he was last, allowing him to surreptitiously sniff his hand under the guise of brushing the hair from his face; yes, he thought he'd detected a hint of some kind of perfume from Fitzwarren. Not his kind of guy, he thought. Not that he was in any danger of being invited over for brandy and cigars.

The dining room contained four guards, and the table still set for dinner. Monty came close to inspect the remains, without touching anything. The two salad plates, with their salad remnants, were in disarray, their former contents spread around the settings and chairs of the two unfortunate diners, and even spilled onto the floor. The one place with a soup bowl was not in such disarray. The dark brown soup appeared to have been about half consumed. Monty looked around and saw three men wearing aprons, and a man sitting in the corner, wearing a white jacket and black bow tie, looking totally out of his element. He asked the security chief, "Is that the waiter?". "Yes." "Please call him over."

"You're the waiter? What's your name?" Monty asked him.

The man managed to stammer out "Uhhh, Larry Brin."

"Okay, Larry, don't be nervous. My name's Monty, I'm a police detective. I just want you to help me understand some things here, okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, sure."

"Okay. Now, this is Mr. Peres' soup, I assume. What kind is it?"

"It's mushroom soup."

"And you brought it out to him?"

"Yes. I took his salad back and dished up his soup. When I placed it before Mr. Peres, all three began eating together."

"The other two were waiting for him?"


"Did Mr. Peres say anything about why he didn't want the salad?"

"He just said that he doesn't like salad very much and apologized for not telling me that before I brought them out."

"Okay, Larry. Thank you."

Monty walked slowly around the table. He noticed a salt shaker near President Folsom's salad. He salted his salad?

"Larry? Did you notice whether President Folsom used this salt?"

"No, sir."

"Detective?" Monty turned toward the voice. It was one of the three chefs. "Yes? Who are you?"

"My name's Sean McPhee, I'm the President's chef. Let me tell ya, he salted practically everything."

Doctor Rixey spoke up. "Yes, that's right, Detective. For years I've tried to get him to stop, but he just loved salt."

"Okay, thank you. Let's get the salt in that shaker tested, also. Mr. Peres, did you notice President Folsom put salt on his salad? What about President Cárdenas?"

"Yes, I saw him. Only him; el Presidente did not."

"Hmmm." Monty continued his inspection of the death scene. "Let's move on to the kitchen." He assumed a bewildered expression and waited for someone to lead on.

"This way" said Mr. Fitzwarren. He walked into a recess in the wall, which turned out to be one end of a [-shaped corridor with a swinging door at the other end, which opened into the kitchen.

Monty was relieved to see that all of the food here was where it was supposed to be, rather than on the floor. He noticed a low flame under the soup kettle; he looked around and saw various burners still ignited. "I don't think we need to waste any more gas." A guard moved to extinguish the flames.

Monty looked around. In the sink was a motley assortment of used kitchen implements, waiting to be washed. He sniffed the soap dispenser: not the lemon-fresh brand. Coming to the cooking area, he saw the various courses of the meal waiting for the time when they would be presented; waiting in vain now, he thought. There was a platter with several slices of roast beef, each exactly the same thickness and nearly the same size, even though most looked to be medium rare and some was definitely well done. There were asparagus spears all cut to exactly the same length, fifteen in all. The three most perfect dinner rolls had been selected from the dozen on the cookie sheet and set aside. On the sideboard was Mr. Peres' undeflowered salad, and cruets of virgin olive oil and vinegar. Around the rim of the plate stood an unbroken barrier of identical cherry tomato halves. One third of the way up the symmetrical mound of greens was a ring of dried cranberries. Scattered almost at random were diced onions; in contrast with the exactitude of the rest of the meal, they took Monty aback. He was almost sure that the only perfection he might find among them would be that no two of them were alike.

He had the three chefs brought in. "I just wanted to tell you, this is very impressive. I've never seen food prepared so well before. Tell me, who carved this roast?" The presidential chef from Costa Pacifica timidly stepped forward and admitted to having done so. "Well done! Congratulations!" Monty put forth his hand and shook that of the chef, and was satisfied. "And these vegetables? Wow!" The White House Chef grinned and said "Thank you, detective." They shook hands, and Monty turned to the personal chef that had come with Mr. Peres. "I guess that means you're the salad man, right?" The last chef had a frightened look on his face, but managed to raise his hand and shake Monty's. "Good job!" said Monty, and the chef relaxed a bit.

Monty opened the right side of the massive stainless steel refrigerator and stood leaning against the door, like a man on a mission during a break in the midnight movie on television. Looking at two opened cartons of whipping cream, he said "Mr. Fitzwarren, you made the dessert, is that right?" "Why, yes. Thank you."

Monty looked at the secret service uniformed officer. "Officer, please place Mr. Fitzwarren under arrest. Take a fingernail paring from him right now, and have it analyzed; you'll find traces of onion. If he consents, test one from Mr. Peres' chef, also. Don't worry, sir, it's just to establish your innocence. Doctor, whatever the poison was, you'll find it in one of these." He handed over the cartons of cream to Dr. Fixey. "That's the means. He obviously had opportunity. I'll leave the motive to you."

In the shocked silence emanating from all present, who knew such dramatic pronouncements were only made in the movies, Monty went on. "Now who'll drive me back into town? I've got to see if there's any cake left. And pick up my gold watch."

# # #

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