One Lump or Two - Chapter Five

The crow of the cock informed Penelope that she’d slept the night away. “Oh no! How will I face Mrs. Prescott?!” she exclaimed as she bolted upright in bed, still wrapped in bath sheets.  Without a change of clothes at the new house, she was forced to wear the same outfit for the third day in a row. At least she’d had a chance to bathe.
Not wanting to take the time to wake Zara or even explain, she picked up her shoes and bag, and crept out to drive to the boarding house. As she hurriedly checked her side view mirror for the fifth time, she noticed Zara’s car parked on the other side of the street. Paolo must be here. I’ll cross that bridge later.
Driving quickly but conservatively to the Virgin House, she weighed several options as to what to say to Mrs. Prescott. She considered an account of kidnapping, one involving gypsies, even amnesia.
Upon arrival, Penelope burst through the front door and espied Mrs. Prescott bustling about the dining room, laying out the breakfast dishes.
Before Mrs. Prescott could emit a word from her crimson, ire-flushed face, Penelope blurted out the truth. “I’m terribly sorry for being out all night without telephoning you to let you know, Mrs. Prescott. You must have been worried sick.”
Mrs. Prescott snarled and opened her mouth to speak.
“The thing is, I’ve just purchased the old Lacy home on Oceanview and fell asleep there from exhaustion after a busy day of furniture moving.”
Mrs. Prescott’s jaw dropped, as did the basket of muffins she was about to put on the dining table.
“Miss Clark, who actually goes by the name Zara by the way, will be moving in with me.”
Mrs. Prescott fell into a chair, her eyes glazed and lower lip twitching.
Penelope opened her carpetbag and began to rummage through it, her words hardly audible as she spoke into the abyss. “I know there is nothing I can say to make up for being such a disappointment as a Virgin girl, but I hope this token of gratitude will help assuage a little of your disappointment over my many shortcomings.” She then scribbled on a blank check and handed the slip of paper to Mrs. Prescott.
All the color drained from the boarding house matron’s face, and for the first time since Penelope had known her, the woman was rendered speechless.
 The truth really is the best policy, Penelope thought as she grabbed a muffin from the basket on the floor and walked up the stairs to her room. At least when it’s accompanied by an obscene amount of money.
She made short work of packing up her belongings, full of adrenaline and exhilaration was she. A fresh change of clothing and a thorough brushing of teeth were all she really desired at that point. Once those tasks were completed, she put her things in the car, then strode back inside for a last breakfast at the boarding house. When she entered the dining room, she found Mrs. Prescott still sitting in the same chair, the same dumbfounded look on her face as she reviewed the information on the check over and over.
“Delicious spinach pie, Mrs. Prescott,” Penelope said, exhibiting a carefree confidence she’d never experienced until arriving in town. “I do hope you’ll stop by the tea shop for a cup with me when we open.”
Mrs. Prescott gave her a look both perplexed and somewhat terrified.
“Oh yes, I’m adding a tearoom to the antiques store. In fact, I’m calling it AntiquiTeas—rather clever, if I do say so myself,” Penelope added as she dabbed the corners of her mouth with a napkin.
Mrs. Prescott steadied herself by holding on to the edge of the dining table.
“Thank you again for your understanding and hospitality. We businesswomen must stick together, mustn’t we?” Penelope said, surprised at the words coming out of her mouth. “Good day, Mrs. Prescott.”
* * * *
Penelope hummed cheerfully as she motored back to the Victorian. Suddenly, the world seemed so much less daunting and oppressive to her, and she was sure she was dreaming or perhaps living someone else’s life. She arrived home to hear tousling and giggling coming from Zara’s room upstairs, and she surmised Paolo was with her. Visiting the servant’s room downstairs that had been designated for Paolo, she saw his clothes strewn across the still-made bed. Clearly, he had not slept there. This level of co-habitation was not the sort of activity Penelope felt she could condone. She was a single woman in a new town. What’s more, she was now a homeowner and a proprietress. Certainly, she could not afford to be saddled with scandal.
She made her way to the kitchen with plans to make a pot of restorative coffee, but several disheartening and frustrating minutes later, she gave up as the coffee maker refused to percolate. It was then she remembered the electricity was turned off and would require a visit to City Hall to see it turned back on. The civic building would not open for another forty-five minutes, but she decided waiting outside in the car would be preferable to enduring the illicit sound effects provided by Zara and Paolo upstairs, so she threw herself together and dashed out the door.
Once in the car, Penelope realized she had no idea where City Hall was located, so she decided to take advantage of the opportunity to get to know the area by letting herself roam the streets. After taking in the sights of the main thoroughfares of Lighthouse Avenue and Sunset Drive, she turned down Forest Avenue and happened upon the civic center. Her breath caught for a moment when she noticed that, like her new home, the City Hall building boasted a view of the Pacific. This town truly is heaven on earth, she thought as she gazed out at the ocean’s horizon.
A few moments later, the building’s clock tower chimed eight urging Penelope to gather her things and head to the entrance. When she arrived, she found a smiling man just unlocking the doors.
“Looks like you’ll be the one catching the worm today,” the man said in a jolly tone.
“Worm?” Penelope replied, befuddled. “Ohhhhhh, I get it … you mean because I’m the early bird,” she said, smiling in response.
The man chuckled and the corners of his warm eyes crinkled. “What can I do ya for, Miss …” he asked, opening the door wide to accommodate her imposing satchel.
“Price, thank you.”
The man’s smile faded instantly. “Miss Penelope Price, niece of Miss Dorothea Tate?” he asked, his jowls drooping and face stern.
“Yuh, yes,” she said, suddenly as nervous as she was just two days earlier when in Bernard Beekham’s law office picking up the keys to the antiques shop. “How do you do, officer?” she said, extending a trembling hand.
“It’s Chief, Chief Harrison. I run this town, Miss Price,” he said, giving her hand a begrudging single shake.
“Nice to meet you, Chief Harrison,” she said weakly, unsure of what she’d done to make the police chief’s tone change so dramatically.
He addressed her sharply as he strode down the hall, not bothering to wait for her. “Is there something I can do for you, Miss Price?”
“Yes, sir, thank you. I was told to come here to arrange for the electricity to be turned on at my home,” she said, jogging to keep up with him.
He stopped and turned toward her. “The electricity’s off at the Virgin House? That’s odd. Mrs. Prescott hasn’t reported any problems.”
“No, umm, I meant at my house … say, how did you know I was staying at the Virgin House?”
“This is a small town, Miss Price, and I’m its guardian.” He resumed walking as he spoke. “Now, why don’t you tell me what exactly is going on?” he said, opening the door to his small, cramped office and taking a seat behind his overloaded desk.
“Oh, well, no, you see, actually … I just bought a place … the old Lacy house, I’m told it’s called.” She lowered herself into the room’s only other chair.
“Miss Price, do you expect me to believe that a spinster bookkeeper such as yourself has the means to buy a seaside home?”
Penelope felt attacked and defensive, though she didn’t know precisely why. Her throat tightened and her eyes began to fill with tears. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to bolt from the room, from the building, and possibly even from Pacific Grove. She thought of the women she admired—her mother, Aunt Dee, Zara—and sought to handle the situation the way any one of them might; thus, she summoned her courage and opened her trembling mouth to speak.
“Chief Harrison, I do not see how my financial affairs are your business, or anyone else’s for that matter,” she said, her confident tone waning with each word.
He glowered at her and commenced giving her a thorough tongue-lashing. “Madam, I am the chief of police in this town. Everything that happens here is my business, because everything affects the residents I’ve sworn to look after and protect. A single woman suspiciously buys a home the minute she sets foot in town—that gets me asking questions. Only people who have that kind of money these days are rumrunners. Are you a rumrunner, Miss Price?” the chief demanded, placing both hands on his desk and standing up as he leaned toward her.
Penelope wrung her hands, determined to answer and not to cry. “I used the money from my parents’ inheritance to buy the house. Not only my Aunt Dee, but both of my parents recently passed. My sister got the family home and I got some money, if you insist on knowing,” she said, breaking down and blubbering.
The chief stood inert for a moment, staring at his desk. “Now there, there,” he finally said, offering her his handkerchief. “I didn’t mean to make you go on and get all weepy. Why I—”
“I’m sorry. It’s just a big change moving up here. It was all so sudden. I had a comfortable and uncomplicated life back in San Pedro. I worked five days a week as a bookkeeper, was always on time, earned enough to strike out on my own and take a room at Mrs. Holcomb’s boarding house. Sure I ate from a hot plate, and my room was the size of a broom closet, but I did it all on my own. If I had a choice, I’d rather have my parents alive than have their money. But I don’t have a choice,” Penelope said, blowing into the handkerchief and becoming increasingly upset.
“Now my aunt has passed away too, and I have no blood relations save a sister who has no interest in me except for running my life the way she deems appropriate. So if you don’t want to turn the electricity on at my place it’s okay by me. I can eat from a can and read by candlelight and even go to the YWCA at Asilomar for a hot bath if I need to.”
While Penelope bemoaned her plight, the chief rustled through one of his desk drawers and went about doing paperwork, seemingly oblivious to her tale of woe.
“Are you even listening to me, Chief Harrison?” she barked in frustration.
“Here you go, Miss Price,” he said in a low voice, offering her a slip of paper.
“What is this?” she asked, sniffing back the last of her tears.
“It’s your copy of the work order I’ll be filing once we’re done here. I’ll personally make sure your electricity gets turned on—today!”
“Thank you,” she said softly, worrying the handkerchief in her hands.
“Now, would you like to set up your tearoom inspection while you’re here, or wait for another time?”
“Inspection?” she said. “How did you know I wanted to turn the place into a tearoom? Only my best friend knows that. Do you know Zara?” she asked, her eyes widening.
“Who? No, Bernard Beekham, the lawyer you met with told me of your plans.”
“Word travels fast in this town,” she said aloud to herself.
“You have no idea,” the chief returned under his breath, shaking his head.
Penelope took a deep breath. “To be honest, I don’t know if opening a tearoom will even be possible. It’s all so overwhelming,” she said, her voice cracking as she spoke. Immediately, she regretted what she’d said. The gruff police chief was the last person in whom she would choose to confide.
“Steady on. You’ll work yourself into a state again. If you do decide to convert Dee’s antiques shop into a tearoom, you know where to find me,” he said, his face again warm and inviting.
“Did you know my grandaunt?” she asked innocently.
Once more his tone and expression calloused. “I’m afraid I must ask you to leave now, Miss Price,” he said, standing up and scooting his rickety chair back. “I have lots of other people to assist. You’re not the only citizen in this town, you know.”
Again confused, Penelope walked out of the office. “No, of course not. I didn’t mean to—”
“Good day, Miss Price.”
“Good day.”  
Though unsure as to what had just transpired, there was one thing of which she was certain—she would have electricity, and for the time being, that was good enough for her.
* * * *
Standing outside City Hall, Penelope realized she hadn’t thought further ahead in planning her day than the errand she’d just concluded—an errand that left her emotionally exhausted. She took another deep breath, positioned herself behind the wheel of her Model T, performed her ritual of checking left and right and rear again and again, then pulled out to visit to the antiques store.
As she unlocked the shop’s front door, her hands still shaking from her encounter with Chief Harrison, Hubert Allen approached her.
“Ees eeverithinn to your sateesfaction, Mees Price?” he asked, startling her.
“Oh! Mr. Allen! You scared me,” she said, trying to catch her breath as her corset strangled her ribs. “Yes, thank you. Everything arrived promptly and in perfect condition. I was very pleased with both your goods and service.” As Penelope entered the boutique, Hubert followed her. “Is there something else I can do for you, Mr. Allen?”
“On thee contrareh, eet eez what I can do for you,” he said, rolling his hands together and grinning.
“Oh? What would that be?” She was in no mood for games or surprises.
“I can take some of your late grandaunt’s leess seellable articles off your hands. I am aware you want to opeen a tehroom and to beh frank, your store as eet now stands eez far too clutteered to beh attracteeve to customeers. You want to serve teh. I want to purvey colleectibles. It would beeneefeet us both.”
She took her hat off and placed it on the entryway’s hat rack. “Really, I don’t know. I haven’t had much of a chance to think, and I don’t want to do anything that would put me in breach of contract. Mr. Beekham was very clear I had to keep selling antiques.”
 “Yees, I am quite aware,” he said, nearly stepping on her heels as he shadowed her. “But you nedn’t worreh. Your grandaunt had alreedeh ben seelinn much of heer stock to meh een order to make more space. Some of the veery pieces you purchased yeesteerday weere once sold een thees store.”
“I see … I didn’t realize …”
She was about to ask him to sit down, but thought better of it.
“No, of course not. Theere eez much for you to leern about the busineess … and thee town.”
“So I’m finding out.”
“Take your time. Theer eez no rush. I weel beh right neext door should you want to unload anehthing to make room to seet gueests and seerve food.”
“You certainly have a point,” she said, feeling her frame relax, though she’d been unaware how tense she was to that point. “Thank you, Mr. Allen. I truly appreciate your suggestions.”
She offered him her hand. As he shook hers, she marveled at how fishlike his palm felt; the skin on top was chilled and moist while heat emanated from within. Surely, he was the most unusual man she’d ever met.
“Not at all, Mees Price. Weh small town businees owneers must aid one another. I thinnk you’ll find the pehple of thee Grove to beh very heelpful and supporteeve.”
“I hope you’re right. I seem to have gotten off to a poor start with the police chief. I have no idea how.”
“Weh all have bad days, Mees Price.”
“True … wait, do you mean me or Chief Harrison?”
Just then the City Hall tower clock chimed.
“Time to seerve thee communeeteh,” Hubert said.
“Oh, yes, goodbye,” Penelope said, closing the door behind him.
Unsure what to do next, she gingerly hauled her carpetbag back to Aunt Dorothea’s private office for safekeeping. She then went in search of paper and pen, ultimately finding them in the teller’s cage where the cash register was kept. She stood mumbling for a few moments, gnawing on the end of the pen and unwittingly getting ink in her hair when she placed the implement behind her ear to lay out a large sheet of paper. After a moment of contemplation, she scribbled a sign:
She’d written the last part with Hubert Allen in mind. He appeared to be a successful businessman and respected member of the community. Certainly, Penelope had been impressed with his services in outfitting her home. While she was posting the announcement on the front door, a number of sconces and chandeliers suddenly illumined in the shop, startling her. She guessed Chief Harrison was somehow responsible, and she was grateful she had one less thing to worry about.
She then remembered she’d arranged for Dan Cooper to install her knew Kelvinator, and decided to telephone home to see how he was getting on. The only thing was, she had no idea what her new phone number might be. Tentatively, she lifted the phone receiver.
“Hello?” she spoke into the mouthpiece, wondering if anyone would be on the other end.
“Good morning, Dorothea. How’s every little thing?” a friendly voice cheeped.
“Oh, hello. This is Penelope Price, actually—Dorothea’s niece.”
The voice giggled. “Well aren’t I a goose? Of course it is. Old habits and all. I’m Ethel Wilson, lead telephone operator here in Pacific Grove. It’s a real pleasure to meet you … so to speak.”
“Thank you, Miss ehr Misses? …”
“Mrs. Wilson. Nice to umm meet you too.”
“Who can I ring for you today, dear?”
“Oh … umm … I don’t suppose you know the phone number of my house … the old Lacy place?”
“Franklin 9-1108. I’ll connect you. Don’t be a stranger now!”
Before Penelope could respond, she heard the clicks and rings suggesting the call was connecting.
“Hello? Miss … Miss … oh what’s her name?” Dan Cooper said.
“Price?” Penelope said meekly.
“Price! Yes! Miss Price’s residence. Dan Cooper here. Who may I say is calling?”
“Hello, Mr. Cooper. This is Miss Price.”
“Yes, this is Miss Price’s residence.”
“No, I mean I am Miss Price.”
“Miss Price? Is that you?”
Penelope chuckled. “Yes, Mr. Cooper. It’s me, Penelope Price.”
“Well whaddaya know. What are you doing telephoning your own house?”
“Looking for you actually. I just wanted to ring to see how the Kelvinator installation is coming along.”
“Couldn’t be better. The electricity was on by the time I got here. That sure made things easier. Your new machine is humming along and cooling down, and I was just about to put the old icebox on my truck. It’s in good shape, and I should be able to get a fair price on it for you at the consignment shop.”
“Why don’t you stop here at the antiques store when you’re done.”
“Sure thing. See you shortly, Miss Price.”
“That’s fine. See you then, Mr. Cooper … Oh! Mr. Cooper, are you still there?”
“Uh, yes? Hello? You there, Miss Price? I was just hanging up.”
“Sorry to bother you, but do you know if Miss Zara is there by any chance?”
“Well … yes … I think so.”
“Let’s just say, there’s some loud snoring coming from her room at the moment. And earlier I could’ve sworn I heard two voices speaking … I could be wrong, of course,” Dan added, lest he tarnish Zara’s reputation.
“I’m guessing you are not wrong, Mr. Cooper,” she said sympathetically. “I’ll see you soon.”
Once off the phone, Penelope surveyed the never-ending collections of treasures and artifacts that jammed every nook and cranny of the shop. Pieces of obelisks from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, Mayan relic replicas, modern jewelry, Ming-style vases, and worthless bric-a-brac were squeezed side by side and atop each other in grimy glass cases. Penelope doubted her grandaunt had ever dusted the place, and she wondered if Dorothea had had a firm grasp on the extent of her cache. 
“Inventory,” Penelope said aloud. “That should be my next step—take inventory and catalogue this place.” She began making a list of categories under which she would enter each object, and looking down at the dozens of lines on the page, she remarked wistfully, “I’m going to need a lot more paper.”
A few minutes later, she saw Dan pull up and park in front of the shop. Noticing her icebox was still in the back of his truck, she put down her paperwork and walked outside and question him. “Dan, I thought you said you were going to take the icebox to the consignment store.”
“That I did … and I am.”
Dan pointed up to the sign hanging over the adjoining store.
Pacific Grove Consignment,” Penelope read. “Well I’ll be …”
Dan gave her a friendly wink and set to unloading the icebox. Suddenly, Penelope was overwhelmed with a pang of sadness. Dan was charismatic and kind and, until Prohibition was instituted, he’d been one of the most esteemed men in town. Now he was—well she didn’t know exactly what he was, but her heart went out to him. She feared her facial expression would betray her emotions, so she stole into the antiques store while he was occupied.
Within minutes, Penelope was once again deep into her list when she heard the jingle of the bells on the shop’s front door. She looked up as Dan breezed in, beaming and holding up a handful of cash.
“Just as I expected—a handsome sum indeed,” he said, offering the bills to Penelope.
She put her hands out to take the money, thought for a moment, then pulled them back. “Actually … how about you keep it … as a bonus for your hard work.”
She nodded, smiling.
“Gee, that’s swell of you, Miss Price. Thank you. You have no idea how much that will help my family.”
Penelope choked up again. And then a brainstorm struck.
“Dan … say, you wouldn’t by any chance be available to work here at the antiques store, would you? I want to turn the large back storage area into a tearoom—”
“What a swell idea!” he interjected enthusiastically.
“I’m so glad you think so!” She found his zeal refreshing and contagious. This was the sort of supportive person she wished to work with, the kind of person who put her instantly at ease, unlike Bernard Beekham, Chief Harrison or even Hubert Allen—though Hubert was beginning to grow on her. “The thing is, there’s much more to be done than I could ever manage on my own.”
“What about Miss Zara and Paolo?”
“Well …” Penelope stalled, her eyes darting around the ceiling as she searched for a polite answer. “Let’s just say there’s enough to do for all of us. Now, it would be a lot of physical labor, much like the last two days.”
“Heck, I’m used to moving beer barrels for a living. Keeps me fit,” he said, smiling and patting his emaciated abdomen.
“That settles it then. You’ll be helping me organize things here and take the surplus to my home’s carriage house. When can you start?”
Dan flashed another smile, clicked his heels and saluted. “Dan Cooper reporting for duty,” he said.
He and Penelope both chuckled until interrupted by another jingle of the front door.
“Hellooooo … Anybody here?”
“Just us rats,” Dan said, making rodent-like sounds and gestures.
“I knew I smelled something,” Hank Edwards said, smiling broadly as he entered and put out his hand to shake Dan’s.
Penelope gasped to see Hank. Not only had she forgotten all about Hank since she’d first met him, but she’d forgotten how impossibly attractive he was. “You two know each other?” she asked weakly, a look of disquiet gripping her face as she tugged to pull her tight collar away from her neck.
“Far too well,” Hank said, tucking Dan under his arm in a headlock.
“I’ve tried to shake him, Miss Price, but he always comes back begging for more,” Dan said, elbowing his friend in the ribs. “What brings you here, Hank? Nostalgia?”
“Nothing so sentimental, you old softy. Miss Price’s friend, Miss Zara, asked me to stop by … I’m not exactly sure why.”
“I doubt she does either!” Dan teased.
“Anyway, wise guy, I came to see if Miss Price could use a hand with anything. This shop can be somewhat foudroyant.”
“Foo-droi-whaa?” Dan asked, then leaned in to whisper to Penelope, “He’s just showing off in front of you, Miss Price.”
To Penelope’s relief, she understood Hank’s meaning, although she found his vocabulary to be somewhat lofty for a simple small town handyman. “Oh yes, Mr. Edwards, I admit to being overwhelmed wherever I look in this shop. I’ve never seen anything like it really. I can certainly use all the help I can get. You see, I wish to turn the back storage room into—”
“A tearoom, yes. Word gets around at the speed of light in the Grove,” Hank said.
“I’ll say,” Penelope remarked to herself, marveling at the efficiency with which information spread through the borough.
“If you were smart, Miss Price, and I can tell you are,” Dan said, “you’d lay out your vision for the place with Hank then let him loose. He has a knack for making things look good.”
She nodded in assent as she gazed appreciatively at Hank in his tweed pants and tailored shirt. “I’ll say,” she muttered softly.
“What was that, Miss Price?” Dan asked.
Penelope realized she’d spoken her thoughts out loud and immediately she broke into a sweat of mortification.
“I … uh … what sort of things,” she scrambled to say. “Are you some sort of decorator, Mr. Edwards?” she asked, looking away from him as she spoke.
“More like architect,” Dan answered.
“Wishful architect. I didn’t get too far with it,” Hank said, uncomfortable talking about himself and shifting from one foot to the other as he ran a hand through his hair.
Penelope felt her breath catch and face flush. She had no idea why. It would become a condition that occurred with frequency in days to come.