One Lump or Two - Chapter Ten

“There’s a dead man in the bathroom!” the young woman named Alice shrieked. “And blood … There’s so very much blood!”
Hank sprinted to the scene.
“What?! Dead?! Who’s dead?!” Elsie cried, more excited than upset. “Roger, follow me … and bring your flashbulbs!”
Zara went to calm Alice. Penelope ran to the bathroom. Hank tried to prevent her from entering.
“You don’t want to go in there. It’s not pretty,” he said.
“Mr. Edwards, please let me by!” she demanded. “No … Nooooooo! How can this be? How did—” she broke off, hyperventilating.
Hank automatically put an arm out and caught her before she could collapse to the floor.
Vincent rushed over to keep the crowd at bay. Stella and Paolo stood motionless in the hallway, holding trays and staring at one another, their faces white as the damask tablecloths.
“It can’t be. It’s not possible. Is he really dead?” Penelope asked, her weeping voice muffled against Hank’s tear-soaked dress shirt.
“It looks that way. He’s cold as a stone and lost a great deal of blood.” Hank said, setting his jaw in an effort to fight back his own tears.
“What do we do now?” Penelope asked.
Hank let go of her and walked into the tearoom. “Party’s over, folks. There’s been a terrible accident.”
“Is it true a man is dead?” someone called out.
“I’m afraid so,” Hank replied.
“Who is it?” someone else shouted.
Hank took a breath. “Dan Cooper.”
A buzz shot through the room as people vented their shock and disbelief. Paolo went to Vincent’s aid and stood guard in the hallway to prevent lookie-loos from gawking at Dan. Hank telephoned the police station, and Zara handled Elsie Davies to keep her from sinking her gossip-grubbing claws into Penelope. Stella panicked and ran to a corner of the kitchen to cry.
Twenty minutes later, the crowd had dispersed.
* * * *
As the staff sat huddled together waiting for the coroner, Hubert Allen arrived, dressed to the nines.
“I don’t undeerstand. Eet eez now teen o’clock. Why has thee party not yeet beggun? And why do you all look so glum? Deed no one show up?”
“Dan Cooper is dead, Uncle Hubert,” Stella said, sitting cross-legged on the floor in her expensive gown.
“What do you mehn deed? Is that one of your new slang teerms? Eet eez in veery poor taste, Steela!”
“No! Dead as in coffin nail dead!” Stella shouted.
“He had some sort of accident, and hit his head apparently,” Penelope said, wiping her nose.
“How deed thees happeen?” Hubert asked, removing his hat.
“Nobody seems to know,” Hank said, loosening his tie.
“Where eez heh now?” Hubert asked.
“In the bathroom, but really, you shouldn’t go in there,” Penelope said.
Hubert strode in the direction of the bathroom. The crew watched in silence as Police Chief Walter Harrison drove up, followed by the coroner in the morgue’s hearse.
Hank walked to the door to greet him.
“Hank,” Chief Harrison said, removing his hat. “My condolences.”
Hank nodded, and they exchanged a heartfelt handshake. “Right this way,” Hank said, sniffling.
The rest of the group followed them to the bathroom and found Hubert washing his hands.
“I’ve neeveer senn so much blood,” Hubert said, clearly unsettled by the scene.
“Hubert,” Chief Harrison said with a nod.
“Chief,” Hubert returned.
“Did you touch the body, Hubert?” the chief asked.
“Dan! His name was Dan! Not ‘the body,’” Stella wailed.
“Yees. I was looking for signs of life, but—” Hubert broke off, wiping his trembling hands with a towel.
Instinctively, Vincent embraced Stella, Paolo embraced Zara, and Hank embraced Penelope. All were seeking comfort—and answers.
“I see … did anyone else touch or move the body?” Chief Harrison asked, using a pen to move the hair from Dan’s bloody brow.”
“No, Vincent insisted no one touch anything,” Penelope said.
Chief Harrison looked up, pleasantly surprised. “Good work, Caruso,” he said, praising Vincent.
“Thank you, sir,” Vincent whispered, the compliment lost on him under the circumstances.
“Walter, I checked his pulse, but that was about it,” Hank said, his voice waffling.
“Thank you, Hank,” the chief said, placing a comforting hand on Hank’s shoulder.
The sound of rattling wheels informed the group the coroner was coming to collect Dan’s body.
“Folks, I’ll have to ask you all to leave this area now,” the chief said.
They all moved into the deserted tearoom, some pacing, others mumbling to themselves, stifling sobs, chewing their nails. A few moments, later a sheet-covered gurney rolled out, presumably carting Dan to the morgue.
“No! Take that off him. He’s not dead!” Stella shouted, lunging for the gurney.
Vincent caught her arm and pulled her back.
“Ehneh idehya what eexactleh happeened?” Hubert asked.
“Remains to be seen,” the chief said.
“What a horrible accident,” Penelope said.
“Remains to be seen,” the chief repeated.
“What do you mean, Walter?” Hank said, growing uneasy.
“Hank, I’ve been in this game nearly all my life, and from what I’ve seen, things are rarely as simple as they first appear. The coroner will do a preliminary examination and then we’ll determine what’s what. For now, I would ask that no one who worked here last night or this morning leave these premises. I’ll want to talk to you all before calling Lily. She deserves the full story. I’ll escort the coroner back to the examination room then come back. That should give you all some time to collect yourselves. Miss Price, I suggest you make some tea … strong tea.”
“Yes, sir,” she said quietly, turning to go to the kitchen. Zara followed her.
With shaking hands Penelope scooped some Darjeeling into a large teapot and put the kettle on. When Penelope’s back was turned, Zara took the opportunity to infuse the tea leaves with the entire contents of her flask.
“Hey, whaddaya think you’re doing? Get away from there!” Chief Harrison shouted from the street.
The crew ran outside to find Elsie Davies pulling back the sheet covering Dan’s face, and giving instructions to her photographer. “Make sure to get some blood in the shot,” she commanded, nearly salivating.
The photographer complied.
“You won’t be needing this anymore today,” Chief Harrison said, relieving the photographer of his heavy camera.
“Hey! What’s the big idea?” the photographer complained.
“Evidence,” the chief said, tossing the camera on the front seat of the squad car. “Nothing to see here, folks,” he advised the small crowd that had formed. “As you were.”
Penelope and company walked silently back into the shop, where she began to clean up the dirty dishes and disarray left by the abbreviated celebration. The others wordlessly followed her example, making quick work of the task as the party had been too brief to create much of a mess. Penelope reheated the water in the kettle and finished making the forgotten tea.
The group then pulled chairs from the tables in the tearoom and sat in a circle. No one said a word for some time. They simply sipped their tea and reflected. Hank took a large gulp of tea, sniffed the distinct aroma rising from his teacup, then looked at Zara to confirm his suspicions. She shrugged and smiled. Chief Harrison walked into the tearoom, and all eyes turned to regard him.
“I thought you’d like to know about our first findings. Now, understand they’re far from conclusive.”
Penelope refilled everyone’s teacups as a brace against whatever news the chief might impart. She then sat down in the empty seat next to Vincent and clutched her teacup.
“It appears the cause of death was a blow to the head,” the chief said.
“One lump or two?” Vincent quietly asked Penelope, holding a sugar bowl and pair of tongs over her cup.
“That’s a very good question, Caruso. Fine police work,” the chief said, assuming Vincent referred to Dan’s assault.
Vincent and Penelope shared a bemused glance.
“One,” she whispered to him.
“Two, actually,” the chief continued.
“Two?” Hank said.
“Do I hear three?” Stella said, resorting to humor as a defense against shock.
Under the circumstances, no one reproached her.
“What exactly happened, Chief?” Zara asked, placing a gentle hand on Stella’s shoulder.
“It will be some time before we have the whole thing worked out, Miss ehr …”
“Zara,” she said.
“From what we can tell, there were two blows to the head—one to the back, and one in the front.”
“Boy, that must have been some fall,” Hank said.
“Yes, but the bump from the fall may not have been the cause of death.”
“What do you mean, Walter?” Hank asked.
“Well Hank, I’ll tell ya—Doc Greenway says Dan was dealt a severe blow to the back of his skull. When he fell in the bathroom, it looks like he banged his forehead on the sink. Doc needs to do a post mortem examination to determine the specific damage done by each injury.”
“So then something fell on his head or something?” Stella asked.
“Or something,” the chief replied.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Stella asked, sitting up straighter, her voice getting louder.
“I think it means that maybe something fell on his head … or maybe somebody hit him,” Vincent said.
“Good deduction there, Caruso,” the chief said.
“You mean like murder?!” Penelope shouted, her face flushed and words slurred.
“There’s a chance, yes,” the chief said.
Penelope downed the rest of her tea and lit into Chief Harrison. “Say, what do you mean coming in here spoiling my whole party and accusing my friends of murder? How dare you, sir! I’m afraid I shall have to ask you to leave! Good day,” she said zig-zagging to the beaded curtain at the tearoom’s entrance and parting the beads for the chief’s exit. “Now will you leave quietly or will I have to throw you out? When did it get so hot in here?” she said, using her skirt to fan herself. “Zara, please call the police and have this man arrested!”
“Are you intoxicated, Miss Price?” the chief asked.
“I’m not intoxicated, I’m republican!” she bellowed, raising her arm and pointing to the sky, throwing herself off balance. She then turned at once both pale and green, and the liquid in her otherwise empty stomach pushed its way up past the constraints of her corset and erupted all over her new rug.
* * * *
“Please tell me it was only a nightmare,” Penelope said, her sealed eyes battling the light. It took a few minutes for her to come to, but when she did, she found herself lying on a bench with her head in Zara’s lap, facing the bars of a jail cell. “Where on earth?” she said, sitting up, the sudden change in position causing her head to throb.
“Some grand opening, eh kid? One for the history books,” Zara said.
“What’s going on here? Are we in jail?” Penelope asked, rubbing her temples.
“We sure are.”
“But why … how?”
“Well, you’re in for being intoxicated, obstruction of justice, and resisting arrest.”
“Sounds like I’ve been busy … And what about you?”
“For possession and serving of hooch … and some very creative profanity.”
“What a pair we are,” Penelope said, massaging her forehead.
“Trio, actually,” Hank said, leaning forward from the far end of the bench.
“Mr. Edwards, what are you doing here? Or I guess I should say, ‘What are you in for?’”
“For defending your honor!” Zara said.
“Let’s not forget punching the chief of police in the nose,” he said, slouching back against the cell wall.
“One and the same, really,” Zara said.
“I don’t understand. What happened? What day is it? Ugh, I had the most awful dream that Dan was killed and the grand opening was a disaster,” Penelope said, slowly getting to her feet, her head still dizzy.
Zara and Hank exchanged uneasy glances. “Darling, that part was real, I’m afraid,” Zara confided.
“I need air,” Penelope said, unfastening the top button of her high-collared blouse and fanning herself. “That still doesn’t explain what any of us are doing here.”
“Chief Harrison suggested you make tea, do you remember?” Zara asked.
“Yes, I recall,” Penelope said. “But that doesn’t explain—”
“Someone spiked the tea … that someone being me,” Zara said, holding a hand up next to her face and wiggling her fingers in an endearing wave.
“What?!” Penelope shouted, immediately clasping her head to ease the wooziness and pain.
“I thought it would help relax everyone … and it did … until Chief Harrison started talking about how Dan may have been murdered …”
Penelope groaned. “It’s coming back to me now,” she said, sitting down on the bench again and clutching her head.
“Well, one thing led to another and you lit into the chief, and he realized you were blotto, and he tried to arrest you, and then Hank stepped in.”
“So did Zara,” Hank said. “When Walter threatened to pull your restaurant permit for serving liquor, Zara confessed to lacing the tea without your knowledge.”
“Imagine that … me using the truth to get us out of hot water,” Zara said.
“Did everyone drink the tea?” Penelope asked. “What about Stella? She’s underage.”
“She had three cups actually,” Zara said.
“Oh no … we’re ruined,” Penelope said.
“Not at all. The chief questioned her, and she passed with flying colors. Turns out the girl can really hold her booze,” Zara said with a smile.
“Is that supposed to comfort me, Z?” Penelope whined.
“Henry Edwards? You’re free to go,” the police lieutenant announced, unlocking the cell.
“I don’t understand,” Hank said, standing.
“You made bail,” the lieutenant replied, holding the door open.
“But how? I didn’t call anyone. I don’t have anyone to—”
“Beats me,” the lieutenant said, using his nightstick to tap the cell’s bars as a means of getting Hank to move along.
“You two sit tight. This isn’t over yet,” Hank said as he exited the cell.
“It’s not like we’ll be going anywhere!” Zara called after him.
“Did he really slug the chief?” Penelope said.
“Mmmm hmmmm, you should’ve seen him—so chivalrous!”
“Why did I black out, I wonder?”
“You didn’t black out … you passed out. I sometimes forget that your system is a stranger to the joys of alcohol.”
“But not its woes,” Penelope said, lying back down on the bench. “I still can’t get over the fact that Dan is dead. Having a grand opening go bust is one thing … having a worker, a friend, die in the process is another. I don’t know how I’ll ever come back from this, Z. … any of it.”
“And to think he may have been murdered.”
“Do you really think so, Z? How could that be possible?”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my adventures and travels, anything is possible.”
“Does Chief Harrison have any leads?”
“I have no idea. But he’s sure got an uphill battle on his hands. From what Vincent said, the whole of the police department consists of the chief, a lieutenant, a constable, the coroner, and Vincent, the resident lackey. I wouldn’t be surprised if they ruled the incident an accident, just to be done with it.”
“We can’t let that happen, Z. Dan deserves justice!” Penelope cried, grimacing at the fetid taste and stench emanating from her mouth.
“Hold on there, P. Chief Harrison hasn’t made his final determination yet. It may very well have been an accident.”
“With two bumps on his head? Doesn’t seem likely.”
“Oh there goes that logical mind of yours.”
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this, Z. Something’s wrong. I can feel it in my gut.”
“Oh, suddenly we’re clairvoyant, are we?”
“Nothing of the sort. I have plenty of questions need answering is all. And frankly, if it does turn out it was murder, I want the culprit caught. Who wants to live around the corner from a killer?”
“Again with the logic.”
“Well, it’s called logic for a reason … because it makes sense.”
“So, miss smartypants. Who are we gonna call to get us out of here. We can’t call each other!”
“We’re doomed.”
“That would be the logical assessment.”
Penelope shot her an unappreciative glance and groaned as a malodorous belch surfaced from her purged stomach.
* * * *
As the minutes ticked by, Penelope’s hangover dissipated, and she and Zara made the best of their time in jail doing what best friends do, jabbering about any old thing and giggling—a lot.
“Shhhh Zara, we have to keep it down. What if someone hears us laughing? We don’t want to be disrespectful of the departed.”
“Oh come on, P. Do you really think Dan would want us boohooing, putting on ashes and sackcloth?”
“You’re right … Ogh! I just want out of here so we can find out what happened to Dan!” Penelope said, adjusting the vexatious corset she’d slept in.
“I know you do … and we will.”
Zara reached into her beaded clutch and removed a small sterling hairbrush. She then turned around in her seat next to Penelope on the cell’s shabby cot and began to unpin and brush Penelope’s long wavy hair.
“It’s funny,” Penelope said. “I’ve waited my whole adult life to own a tearoom. The hours I spent dreaming of it. But now all I can think of is Dan and doing right by him.”
“That’s probably just as well under the circumstances. As your director of public relations I can tell you, you’re in a real pickle when it comes to community opinion,” Zara said, braiding Penelope’s locks.
“Well then we’ve got nowhere to go but up. I’m much more interested in the Dan Cooper situation anyway.”
“Price, and no name,” the police lieutenant shouted, opening the cell door. “You made bail.”
“But how? Who?” Penelope asked.
“You’ll have to ask him,” the lieutenant said.
“Hank to the rescue again?” Zara said.
Penelope stood up, pinched her cheeks, and smoothed her skirt in anticipation of seeing Hank. She even adopted one of Zara’s signature poses meant to show the female form to best advantage without being obvious. Unfortunately, when performed by Penelope, the pose made her look like a hunchback in need of assistance.
“You’re free to go,” Walter Harrison said, ambling up to the cell.
“Chief Harrison?” Penelope said, visibly disappointed as her face turned ashen and she backed up against the cell wall in trepidation.
“Is there someone else you were expecting, Miss Price?”
“No, not really. We, uh …” Penelope stammered, her cheeks turning pink again, this time from embarrassment.
“So we’re free to go … just like that? … Without bail?” Zara asked.
“Hank Edwards paid your bail,” the chief said.
“Oh, is he in the waiting room?” Penelope asked, craning her neck in the direction of the lobby.
“No, he’s not. He went to Dan Cooper’s place to console Dan’s wife, Lily. Why don’t you two ladies go home now? You’ve had a long day.”
Penelope nodded in agreement and relief. “Thank you, Chief Harrison.”
“And take an aspirin or two, Miss Price. You don’t want a hangover now, do you?”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” she said, recalling the persistent ache in her head that she’d recently forgotten. “Thank you for letting us go, Chief. Really, we’re so grateful. And you know—you’ll get a kick out of this—I’m actually a teetotaler. Zara can tell you …”
Zara placed her brush in her purse, clapped it shut, stood up, wiggled her dress into place, and sauntered out of the cell, all while maintaining eye contact with Chief Harrison who held the door open, oblivious to Penelope’s groveling and apologizing.
* * * *
The ladies got home to find Paolo sitting on the parlor sofa in the dark waiting for them. Upon seeing Zara, he ran up to her and enveloped her tightly, ravishing her neck and face with kisses. A moment later, he was down on one knee, delivering a marriage proposal that was part broken English, part pantomime. The ladies gleaned from his presentation that life was fragile, love fleeting, and he couldn’t bear the thought of ever losing her.
Zara pantomimed the concept that she would sleep on it as a means of cutting the subject short—a subject that would have been her most cherished desire a few weeks prior, but at the moment it was one with which she wished not to be bothered.
“Bene,” Paolo said, smiling and kissing her forehead and cheek and lips and neck and arm as they mauled each other on the way to the butler’s bedroom.
Left alone in the parlor, Penelope realized she was hungry and hadn’t eaten a thing all day. All that beautiful tea food gone to waste, she thought, but all she could stomach was a couple of Graham crackers and a glass of milk. She went over the day’s events as she sat in the small kitchen, working to piece together when Dan may have been done in, and endeavoring to account for the whereabouts of those who’d visited the shop.
She focused her thoughts to picture who was at the tearoom when, and who could have seen anything that would be a clue as to what occurred. Four more Graham crackers helped her concentrate. What Zara said about Penelope being particularly logical was true, and Penelope hoped to use that skill to solve the riddle of what precisely happened to Dan Cooper. Too exhausted to bother doing the dishes, she put her glass and plate in the sink, then dragged herself up the stairs to prepare for bed. She’d just finished tying her hair in curling rags and was slipping off her dressing gown to crawl under the covers when she heard a knock rattle the front door.
She threw on a coat and hat and plodded down the stairs to the door, mortified to find Hank on the other side.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Hank said, noting Penelope’s nightwear camouflaged under her hat and coat. “I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“It’s not … I was just bushed. I’d ask you to come in, but …” Normally, if caught in her curlers by a handsome gentleman, Penelope would have spent a good minute stuttering her way through the two simple sentences she’d just uttered. But the day had not been a normal one, and she was too tired to feel nervous or self-conscious.
“No need to explain,” Hank said, running a hand through his hair and looking to the ground, a weighty sigh escaping his lungs.
“Have you been to the Cooper home?” Penelope asked, clutching both the door and her coat.
He nodded in assent.
“I can’t imagine how difficult that must’ve been.”
He cleared his throat. “Yes, well we can discuss that another time. The reason I came here actually … You see, as you know, your grandaunt Dorothea and I were very close—”
“Oh yes, I know.”
“And as such, the success of your business was very important to me.”
“Was?” Her eyes began to sting with tears of dismay at the thought that not only Dan Cooper, but her tearoom had died that terrible morning.
Awash in melancholy of his own, Hank failed to notice Penelope’s reaction. “My point is, I postponed a good many of my handyman jobs in favor of completing your tearoom in time for the grand opening. And now I need to make good on those appointments.”
“I understand,” she said, though she didn’t fully comprehend his meaning.
“The next few weeks look to be somewhat hectic, but I’ll do my best to check in on you all if I can and see how you’re getting on. In any event, try to get some rest. Goodnight. Miss Price.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Edwards,” she said, watching him as he tipped his hat and walked away and wishing she could will him to stay.
She closed the door in something of a daze, unsure exactly what she was feeling, but sensing it was something akin to loss. It was then that the dam restraining her emotions broke, and she fell to the floor in the entryway and cried—big full-body sobs of sorrow and regret and loneliness. Her heart went out to Dan Cooper’s wife and especially his children. She had no doubt he was a marvelous father.
It occurred to her she’d sunk her entire inheritance into the business and as a consequence was all but penniless. Looks like it’s back to bookkeeping. What was I thinking? Who am I to run a business? She began running numbers in her head—she was always good with numbers—and she started calculating the possibility of keeping the house versus the dreaded alternative—selling it and groveling to Mrs. Prescott, begging for her old spot at the Virgin Boarding house. She thought of Stella and how the shop’s closure meant the rebellious teen would be out of a job; and she thought of Zara and how she would have nowhere to go. Counting costs rather than sheep, she fell asleep on the floor by the front door and stayed there until awakened by the sound of the Butterfly Bugle skidding onto her porch.
I may as well start my day. It’s not as if more sleep will make any of it go away, she thought as she breathed in the salt air and retrieved the morning paper. She then trudged to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. The stark brightness of the kitchen light caused her to pinch her eyes closed, and she felt around blindly for the coffeepot while waiting for her eyes to adjust.
She prepared a piece of toast with marmalade for solace. Her grandmother used to serve that to her in the mornings when Nana made her yearly visit from England to California. Penelope didn’t take to marmalade right away. It was an acquired taste for her, and she suspected she enjoyed the jam more for its association with Nana than for its own merits. Taking a bite of toast, she smiled and unfolded the newspaper. The toast fell out of her mouth upon seeing the front page headline.
Miss Price’s Tearoom – Dead on Arrival
Beloved former barkeep Daniel Cooper found deceased at the scene ~ Enterprise sets record for fastest failing business in the county
The photo below was worse, showing Penelope pulling a contorted face with her hands reaching menacingly forward making her look like the undead. She immediately slapped the paper closed and trekked upstairs to take a long hot bath.
It took some time for the old house’s pipes to warm, and she filled the interval by running her hand in a swirling motion in the tub’s water as its level and temperature rose. When she dipped a toe in and had to withdraw it due to the intense heat, she knew the bath water was just right. Her cares and woes seemed to float away with the soap bubbles as she languidly bathed, feeling calmer with each handful of water she scooped and let trickle down her back. She remained in the tub until the water started cooling, then automatically dressed to go to work at the shop, as had become her custom.
She searched for her keys, but found she was in no mood for the usual hide-and-seek nonsense, and so she up-ended the carpetbag and dumped the whole of its contents onto her bed. The size of the bag belied what it was capable of storing, and the mound rising from the queen bed threatened to spill over onto the floor. Going through the items was like going through a scrapbook full of receipts, old wrappers, even a photograph of her with her parents in front of their home in San Pedro. It all seemed a lifetime ago, yet she’d been in Pacific Grove for less than two months. She felt so different from the person she saw in the photo. She felt wiser, and somewhat war-torn.
There was so much paraphernalia in the pile that she satisfied herself by simply separating the items into smaller piles of similar articles. The putting-away would have to wait. At the moment, it seemed far too tedious. From out of the rubble, one petite item caught her attention—a delicate silver locket containing a faded tintype showing a strapping man with laughing eyes carrying a woman over his shoulder. Both were in gay nineties bathing costumes and appeared to be laughing heartily. Penelope let out a slight gasp. “Aunt Dee, is that you?” she said aloud, peering more closely at the image.
The chime of the city’s clock tower alerted her it was time for her to face the tearoom. She dreaded going back, but at the same time felt compelled to return.
She arrived at seven thirty and quietly walked through antiques shop. It hinted at none of the trauma from the day before, and for a moment she thought—or at least hoped—it had all been in her head.
When she got to the kitchen, she absentmindedly opened the Kelvinator to find remnants of Dan’s beautiful handiwork. The sandwiches resembled miniature works of art, and a lump in her throat arrested her breath at the sight. It was all so surreal.  She began to perspire, working vigorously to discard the stacks of gorgeously prepared, uneaten foodstuffs, when she heard the jingle of the front door bells.
“Hello?” she called, wiping her hands on an apron as she walked toward the antiques shop. “Stella, what are you doing here?” she said compassionately.
“Showing up for work on time,” Stella said, resorting to her former recalcitrant posture and tone.
Penelope had always been too self-conscious and shy to initiate physical affection, but before she realized what she was doing, she walked over to Stella and enveloped her in a heartfelt embrace. Stella resisted at first, but Penelope refused to let go, and it wasn’t long before Stella put her head on Penelope’s shoulder and began to weep softly.
“I know,” Penelope said, rubbing her back. “I know … Come on, let’s get you a cup of tea.”
“Like the last pot of tea you made?” Stella said, a hint of a smile turning up the corner of her mouth.
“Ugh, don’t remind me. The mere mention of it makes my head woozy … though I hear you certainly seemed to manage well enough.”
“Sign of a true flapper,” she said with pride. “Say, Zara gonna be in today?”
“I have no idea, actually. She—”
Just then the shop telephone rang. Penelope and Stella stared at each other, unmoving.
“I forgot we even had a telephone,” Penelope said. “I don’t think anyone’s ever called it!”
“Well aren’tcha gonna get it? It might be Zara!”
Penelope lifted the receiver. “AntiquiTeas tearoom and home of Dorothea’s Finds,” she said clumsily. “… Yes, Mrs. Morgan, this is Miss Price … Yes, I’ll make sure to announce myself next time I answer the phone. You see, this is the first time anyone has … I beg your pardon? … You would? … You are? … Yes, Mrs. Morgan. That would be fine … All right then … Goodbye.”
Penelope hung up the receiver slowly, a look of astonishment freezing her face.
“What is it? What happened? Is it bad?” Stella said, her voice rising.
“It’s … I don’t know what it is … but no, I don’t think it’s bad … quite the contrary, possibly.”
“Well what did she say? That was Florence Morgan, right?”
Penelope nodded, her jaw still hanging.
“Miss Price? … Penelope!” Stella said, clapping loudly.
Penelope snapped out of her daze and put her hands atop Stella’s shoulders. “Mrs. Morgan is bringing in three friends for a tea luncheon at eleven. She called to make the reservation.”
“You’re not pulling my leg, are you, Penelope?”
“I wouldn’t even know how to pull a leg,” she said, still reeling from the call.
“You mean we have customers? Paying customers?”
“It looks that way, Stella. We need someone to serve the food. Can you get ahold of Vincent?” Penelope said, walking toward the kitchen.
“Not a chance. Suspicious deaths are not something that happens in the Grove. The chief’s got him working more hours than ever … and he told Vincent not to fraternize with you or assist at the shop until Dan’s case has been officially closed.”
“Is that so?! Vincent is not allowed to fraternize with me, you say? Why I ought to give that police chief a piece of my mind!”
“Don’t you think that ship has already sailed?”
“Oh … that’s right … I hear I came on, shall we say, rather strong with the chief the other day.”
“You let him have it with both barrels.”
Penelope put her hands on her cheeks and shook her head. “My only consolation is that I don’t remember most of that unfortunate incident. Now, it’s half past nine. That gives us an hour and a half to prepare for Mrs. Morgan’s arrival.”
The front door jingled again and Penelope gasped. “Don’t tell me she’s here already!” She scurried to the front of the shop to find Hubert Allen waiting, his hat in hand.
“Mr. Allen, what an unexpected pleasure,” Penelope said, exhaling in relief to see Hubert. She’d come to depend on his acuity and assistance, and felt a great deal of her brief success was owed to his collaboration.
“I came to offeer my condoleencees for the trajeek ehveents that took place her.”
“That’s very kind of you. I value your benevolence greatly, Mr. Allen. Thank you.”
“Thee felling is rehceeprocateed, Mees Price,” he said, his attempt to smile making him look like a braying donkey. “Eez eeverythin her in ordeer? You must teel meh eef you are in aneh sort of dangeer. I was told Mr. Coopeer’s deeth has ben ruled suspeecious.”
“So I keep hearing. In truth, I don’t know much about what’s going on. I’ve been incommunicado, I’m afraid.
“She was in the slammer,” Stella added, a look of satisfaction on her face.
“Steela!” Hubert admonished.
Penelope wheezed and changed the subject. “Uh, Mr. Allen, while you’re here, I do need your help.”
“Eef eet weel heelp Danieel Coopeer reest in pess, I would beh humbled to heelp.”
“Alas, it’s nothing so noble. It’s about Stella.”
“Hey!” Stella objected.
“I fehr I can not heelp theer. I’ve ben tryinn for yehrs.”
Penelope made a tight fist in an effort not to smile. “No, I mean with her wardrobe.”
“Double hey! What’s wrong with my wardrobe?!”
“Nothing … for going to the pictures, but today I need you to play the part of a waitress. We have just over an hour before Mrs. Morgan and her friends arrive.”
“For cryin’ out loud,” Stella said, crossing her arms and huffing.
“I’ll beh right back,” Hubert said, exiting in the direction of the consignment store.
Penelope purposely ignored Stella’s grunts and groans, confident in Hubert’s ability to work magic. He returned in under a minute, carrying a garment bag.
“Whatever it is, I won’t wear it,” Stella said, turning her face from Hubert.
“What have you there, Mr. Allen?” Penelope asked as Hubert lifted off the bag to reveal an ensemble comprised of a mid-calf-length grey pleated skirt and delicate eggshell-colored long-sleeved sweater that extended down to the hips, accented with a V-neck outlined by a grey chevron.
Stella gasped a little.
“Mr. Allen, it’s simply beautiful,” Penelope said, clapping her hands.
“Well I don’t know,” Stella protested, though her twinkling eyes betrayed the fact she admired the outfit.
“Where did you get it?” Penelope asked, looking at the sweater’s label. “Why, it’s a Coco Chanel design!”
“It is?” Stella said, grabbing for the hanger.
“Eef you do not like eet, Steela, I can take eet back,” Hubert said, clucking and pulling the ensemble away from her.
“No, no, I suppose I could force myself to wear it … for Miss Price’s sake.”
“To answeer your queestion, Mees Price. Your friend Mees Zara dropped eet off at thee consignmeent shop eaerleheer thees wekk. I had not yeet had time to log eet and put eet on deesplay.”
Stella ripped the hanger out of Hubert’s hands and ran toward the bathroom to change. When she got there, she saw a sign that read: OFF LIMITS BY ORDER OF CHIEF WATER HARRISON. Apologies for any inconvenience. P.S. If you need to use the facilities, please try Allen’s next door.
Her breath caught and she stood static for several seconds before moving to the office to change. A moment later, she came skipping back into the antique shop, twirling in her finery.
“You look simply splendid, Stella!” Penelope cheered. “Mr. Allen, do you think Mrs. Morgan will object to Stella not being in proper maid attire?”
“Peerhaps. Sheh eez veery formal, but thees ees thee beest I can do for now.”
“And I appreciate it. Dear me, will you look at the time. Excuse me, Mr. Allen, Stella and I have a tea luncheon to prepare and less than an hour in which to do it. Thank you for saving me … again. Don’t forget to tell me what I owe you.”
“Weh weel work that out later,” he said, tipping his hat and smiling in his customary snake oil salesman fashion—a look he’d perfected, much to his detriment.
The sparse oily hair strands and unusual manner of speech don’t do much for him either, Penelope thought as she hurried to the office to call Zara and Paolo for additional help. There was no answer, and Penelope reasoned if she took the time to drive to the house in search of the couple, it would take too long and defeat the purpose. She then strode to the kitchen and rolled up her blouse sleeves.
Soon thereafter, the tinkling of the front door bells indicated guests, and Penelope pricked her ears to divine who’d arrived. An instant later, Stella entered the kitchen. “They’re here.”
“Zara and Paolo? Oh thank the lord,” Penelope said with a sigh of grateful relief.
“Huh? No. Mrs. Morgan and her friends.”
“So soon? How can that be?”
“Well it is eleven,” Stella said.
“But we’re not ready. I’ve only prepared a few sandwiches. It will take me hours to— … Stella, where are you going?” she whispered loudly as Stella exited the kitchen in the middle of Penelope’s sentence.
Penelope turned the oven on, her hands shaking in panic. Neither she nor the kitchen was in a fit state to serve customers, especially, discriminating customers like Mrs. Morgan and her friends. Penelope heard Stella preparing tea and chose to view Stella’s absence from the kitchen as a no news is good news omen. Every moment that clicked by without Stella coming in to place an order for something that was not yet prepared assuaged a little of Penelope’s panic.
Penelope placed a small saucepan of consommé on a low-heat burner and checked the vast stock of desserts Dan had made. She was grateful that they all still smelled as fresh and delectable as the afternoon before last when he’d made them. “Thank you, Dan,” she whispered.
Stella walked in smiling, and Penelope grasped the edge of the kitchen’s stainless steel table to brace herself against whatever impossible food order Stella might sling at her.
“Four Daniel Cooper Memorial Specials,” Stella said, a sad smile on her face.
“Four whats? I don’t understand.”
“I told the ladies that you’re offering a special menu today in honor of Dan.”
Penelope processed the information for a moment then said, “Stella, you’re a genius!”
“So I’ve been trying to tell all of you,” she replied with a sheepish grin. “Now get a wiggle on. I have tea to serve … Oh, Mrs. Morgan’s friends love my outfit, by the way. Two of them asked where they can get one,” she said, performing chaîné turns out of the kitchen.
“Four Daniel Cooper Memorial Specials … all right, Daniel Cooper. It looks like you’re in charge of the kitchen after all,” Penelope said aloud, pulling out the few menu items that were ready to serve and arranging them in as becoming a fashion as she could muster. “Your turn, Dan,” she whispered. “…Oooh, great idea!”
Stella walked in just then.
“I’m not quite ready,” Penelope said, sweat beading on her brow.
“Well you better get ready, because we have two more customers.”
“What? How? … Who?”
“That four-flusher Elsie Davies … and Lily Cooper.”
Penelope stopped what she was doing and looked up.
“Yep,” Stella said, rocking back and forth on her T-strap Mary Jane heels and staring at her shoes.
Penelope gulped. “All right … no reason we can’t get through this.  Hold on just a minute. I’ll give you something to take to Mrs. Morgan’s party. No sense wasting a trip.”
In days gone by, Penelope had a habit of becoming uncommonly scatterbrained when in deep thought over work. More than once she’d put her hat in the icebox, wore her gloves to bed, and answered her hairbrush instead of the telephone. Today’s bungle saw her pour the consommé into eggcups that she then put on demitasse saucers garnished with cheddar crisps, all atop a silver tray. Stella looked at the tray, opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, and took the soupçons out to Florence Morgan’s table. By the time Stella returned to the kitchen, Penelope had prepared two more consommé and crisp set-ups, this time using the demitasse cups as originally planned.
Stella served the soups to Elsie Davies and Lily Cooper, a moment later returning to the kitchen still carrying the tray and broth. “Well, ten minutes in and we’ve already got our first problem.”
“Oh, no! Don’t tell me someone else has died in the tearoom!” Penelope spouted in alarm.
“Umm, no. Elsie Davies wants to know why Florence Morgan got her soup in eggcups, but she and Lily got little coffee cups.”
“Eggcups? I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Penelope said, taking vegetable tarts and squash blossoms out of the oven and replacing them with pâte feuilletée shells.
Stella turned and left the room. Penelope simply shook her head at Stella’s comment writing it off to youthful daftness. Shortly thereafter, Stella returned with a tray bearing the empty eggcups. Penelope gasped.
“Told ya,” Stella said. “And now Elsie Davies wants the same thing.”
Obediently, Penelope took two more eggcups off a shelf and poured broth into them. “Looks like we’re going to need more eggcups!”
While Stella took the tray back to Elsie and Lily, Penelope tossed together a platter of pistachio-Roquefort-stuffed apricots, vegetable tarts, squash blossom canapés, and herb sprigs, intending to put the former on individual plates for Mrs. Morgan’s party and using the latter to season a subsequent entree. While Penelope’s back was turned, Stella retrieved the unfinished platter and dropped it off on Florence’s table. Penelope hadn’t noticed Stella come in, and assumed she herself had somehow lost or misplaced the hors d’oeuvres. Hence, she began a frantic search of the oven, cupboards, and shelves.
“I’ve lost the first course,” she said in a near panic when Stella walked in.
“What are you talking about? I just served it.”
“Good heavens! All on one platter?”
“Yeah, why?”
“But they weren’t ready yet! Serving them all on one platter, Mrs. Morgan will think we’re treating her party like a bunch of ranch hands.”
“Keep your garters on, Penelope. I told them we were serving family fashion just like Dan used to do with his family. The old biddies ate it up … all of it,” Stella said with a grin.
“Oh this is a disaster,” Penelope said, preparing two plates of appetizers for Elsie and Lily.
Stella walked out with the tray, just to return with it as quickly.
“Noooooo,” Penelope said.
“Yep, they want it—”
“—the same way as Mrs. Morgan’s.”
Penelope reassembled the appetizers onto a platter and sent Stella back into the tearoom to deliver them and check on their guests. She then opened the oven to test the small pastry shells and found them to be only slightly done. Needing to stall for time—her confidence growing with each course successfully served—she decided to indulge one of her unorthodox brainstorms.
When Stella returned to collect whatever was to be served next, Penelope indicated she needed another minute and suggested Stella refill everyone’s tea in the interim. A few moments later, Stella came back to the kitchen to find a tray on which were placed small dishes of lime Jell-O with Bartlett pears and a small ball of cream cheese dotting the cavity of each pear. The tray also bore four sherry glasses filled with sparkling apple cider.
“Okay, ya stumped me with this one,” Stella said.
“This course will perk up the palate, more or less.”
“I have no idea what that means, but it sounds much too filthy to say to Matriarch Morgan.”
“It’s something I’ve heard Zara say about fruit ices served in France. Well, we’re not in France, and we have no fruit ices. So fruit, gelatin, and a sip of refreshing cider will have to do.” Penelope waved her hands gesturing to Stella to shoo.
Though Penelope could not make out the conversation in the tearoom, she did hear a collective oooh when Stella presented the palate-perker-course. Penelope smiled as she re-checked the pastry cups in the oven, only to frown when she discovered they were now only half-done. She then took a multi-tiered crudité dish from off a shelf and looked at it for a long moment. Recalling Hank’s quick and creative work with vegetable garnishing at the grand opening, she had a brainstorm.
When Stella entered to pick up the palate-refreshing course for Elsie and Lily, Penelope said, “After you deliver that, can you do me a favor and bring me one or two vases of flowers from the low tables in the tearoom?”
Stella nodded, picked up her tray, and returned a minute later with two vases. “They look a little wilty.”
“They should be just fine,” Penelope said, removing the flowers from the vases and pulling fading petals off of the roses to discard into the waste bin.
“Is this really the best time to be pruning the floral displays?” Stella asked.
“Hush, I’m creating.”
Penelope had already assembled a selection of sandwiches on the three-tiered crudité dish and proceeded to strew some of the still-fresh rose petals atop the sandwiches, attaching two rosebuds along with some greenery to the metal stalk of the china dish, just below it’s ringed handle. She stood in silent anticipation as Stella presented the display. Another and more enthusiastic round of ooooohs from the tearoom saw Penelope clapping her hands and bobbing on her heels. She looked to the heavens. “Thank you, Dan Cooper … and Hank … Thank you both.”  
“Scones then dessert,” she decided, and placed six scones in the oven to warm. The pastry cups were beginning to behave at last.
She assembled sandwiches for Elsie and Lily just as she had for Mrs. Morgan, then dished out clotted cream, raspberry jam, and lemon curd into three-compartment relish dishes. She’d begun to enjoy using unconventional serving pieces and looked for ways to turn the culinary status-quo on its stylishly coiffed head—something she’d never dare even consider two months prior.
Before coming to Pacific Grove, she wanted nothing more than to follow the rules and avoid unpleasantness or controversy at all costs. Now that she was knee-deep in both, she found she rather enjoyed the recklessness of it all.
Her thoughts returned to Hank carving the vegetables that adorned the opening day food displays. She pictured his deft use of his knife, the swift strokes and sure hands, and she felt warm all over. It was that warmth that reminded her she had scones about to overcook in the oven.
After the scones left the kitchen, Penelope arranged petite portions of Dan’s desserts in geometric patterns on a platter. Zara and Paolo waltzed in to find Penelope muttering to herself and combing the icebox.
“What’s all this?” Zara asked, nodding toward the tearoom.
“It’s Daniel Cooper looking down on us kindly from heaven,” Penelope said.
“Here. I brought you something to lift your spirits, but now I’m not so sure you need it,” Zara said placing an insulated container the size of a hatbox on the steel table.
“What is it?” Penelope asked, gasping in gratulation to find a bowl of ice cream on a bed of dry ice. “It’s absolutely perfect!”
“I thought so too. And there’s enough for the four of us, Stella included,” Zara said, searching the kitchen hutch drawers for spoons.
Penelope had other ideas. She removed the puffed pastry cups from the oven, scooped a bit of ice cream into each of them, topped them with fresh berries, then placed them on saucers garnished with a cocoa truffle.
“Oi, that’s my ice cream,” Zara said as Penelope added the ice cream cups to the platter of petite desserts for Florence Morgan’s table. “Oi, that’s my dress!” Zara cried as Stella picked up the platter to deliver it.
“Not anymore!” Stella whispered over her shoulder.
Zara’s jaw dropped in shock.
“Now that’s an expression I’ve never seen on you,” Penelope said to Zara.
“Bella, bella,” Paolo remarked, admiring Stella.
Penelope asked Zara and Paolo to visit with the guests while she cleaned up the chaotic mess she’d made in the kitchen. When she was done, she paused to decide what to tackle next. The idea that came was not a prospect she relished. She untied her apron and walked out to the tearoom to speak to Lily Cooper.
What first struck Penelope was how different the two friends, Elsie and Lily, appeared. Elsie was light blonde, buxom, and brash—qualities Penelope thought would have made Elsie a hit as a saloon girl in the Wild West. Lily was thin and demure with long brunette hair and an attractive sort of bashfulness. Penelope would never have pictured them as chums and wondered if others thought the same of her and Zara.
Penelope steeled herself against whatever Elsie might say or do to disconcert her, and decided to come out talking so as to preempt Elsie’s attack.
“Mrs. Cooper, I’m Penelope Price,” she said warmly. “I just wanted to express my condolences for your tragic loss. Throughout our fugacious friendship, I found your husband to be a man of quality and character, with an infectious enthusiasm, and generosity of spirit I, for one, valued greatly.”
“Thank you, Miss Price. Thank you,” Lily said, grasping Penelope’s hand so tightly the blood started to drain from Penelope’s fingers, and they began to lose all feeling. “This job meant the world to Danny. You have no idea what you’ve done for our family. We’d sunk very low, and—”
“We really should be going, Lily,” Elsie interrupted. “Miss Price, thank you for a most … avant-garde dining experience,” she said with a reptilian smile. “Please tell your girl we’d like our check now.”
“Oh that won’t be necessary. There is no charge,” Penelope said sweetly.
Elsie jutted her chin out and squinted, looking Penelope over with cold disdain and wariness.
“Thank you again. To think you named the meal after Danny—” Lily broke off, taking a handkerchief from a worn handbag.
“Most gracious of you, Miss Price,” Elsie said disingenuously, standing up hastily.
“It’s my pleasure.”
“Come, Lillian,” Elsie said, rushing the widow from the site.
“Miss Price, a word,” Florence Morgan commanded.
Penelope smoothed her skirt and straightened her posture. Thank the maker that Elsie woman’s gone, Penelope thought as she approached Florence’s table.
“Mrs. Morgan, we’re so very grateful for your support at this trying time.”
“It is the Pacific Grove way, Miss Price,” she replied.
Florence’s dining companions nodded in agreement, as they always did when the town’s grand dame spoke.
“Well you’re very kind to overlook our eccentric service style today,” Penelope said.
“Rubbish! It was refreshing. To be served by a young lady accoutered in the latest fashion was most appealing … And the cuisine, a soporific sensation. Now, if you’ll excuse us, I must get to my weekly auction bridge appointment with the mayor. I’ve not missed a game in eighteen years.”
“Of course … Uh, Paolo?” Penelope said, nodding to encourage him to escort Mrs. Morgan to the door.
Penelope, Zara, and Stella followed Florence’s party out in stately procession. Just as Mrs. Morgan exited the shop, a woman approached.
“Are they open for business?” the woman asked expectantly, peering in through the door past Florence.
“They most definitely are not!” Florence said, punctuating her words with the tip of her parasol on the ground. “Mrs. Gustafson, please show some respect for the passing of their fallen associate, Daniel Cooper. They will re-open after he has been laid to rest,” she added, opening her parasol and looking back to give Penelope a nod and a smile.”
Penelope smiled back, clasping her hands in gratitude.
The second the door closed behind Mrs. Morgan, Stella shouted, “Hot socks! Did you see how much cabbage they dropped?!”
Penelope regarded her blankly.
“She means they left a good deal of money,” Zara translated.
Stella ran to the waitress station and returned with a large wad of cash.
“Good heavens!” Penelope exclaimed, taking the bills and counting them. “Why, this is substantially more than anything we might have charged. “Here, Stella, this is for you,” she said, handing the girl a five dollar bill.
“Holy cow! A fin? Who needs painting in Paris? I want to be a waitress in Pacific Grove!” she cheered, scrutinizing the piece of currency.
Zara and Penelope laughed. Eventually, Paolo joined in, looking lost. The gaiety ceased with the arrival of Police Chief Walter Harrison.