One Lump or Two - Chapter Eleven

“Good afternoon, folks,” the police chief said, removing his hat. “I’d like to ask you all a few questions about Dan Cooper’s final hours. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
“Of course, Chief. Please come in,” Penelope said, gulping hard and beginning to shake as she locked the shop’s door and hung the closed sign. She’d never been questioned by the police before, except for that one time when she was eight and a peach cobbler mysteriously disappeared from old lady Shaw’s window ledge.
“Whaddaya wanna know, Chief?” Stella said.
“Not you, Stella. Your mother wants you home to help with the ironing,” Chief Harrison said.
“I’m sure she’ll understand. After all, what’s more important—” Stella started.
“No chance, Stella. Home with you. If I need to ask you something I’ll come to the house.”
“Killjoy,” Stella groused as she trudged out the door.
“Is it true Dan’s death may have been deliberate?” Zara asked.
“Yes,” the chief said, flipping open a small notebook and following Penelope and Zara into the tearoom.
“What exactly happened?” Penelope asked, trying to appear relaxed.
“I’ll be asking the questions, Miss Price,” the chief barked.
“It looked to me like he simply slipped and fell and hit his head, but of course, I’m not a keen detective like you, Chief Harrison,” Zara said, testing her powers of cajolery.
The chief looked at his notes and tried to hide a smile. He found her flattery charming, though on him it would be wholly ineffective. “You’re correct that he fell and hit his head, Miss. But we now know conclusively that’s not what killed him.”
“No?” Penelope asked.
“What did I say about asking questions, Miss Price?!”
“But it looked so cut and dry … that lump on his forehead,” Zara said.
“That was the second one, as you recall,” the chief said. “He’d already been hit on the back of the head with a heavy blunt object. The first strike is the one that killed him.”
“So he was struck here in the shop?” Zara asked.
“Yes, in the hallway or doorway to the bathroom,” the chief said.
“But who would do such a thing?” Penelope asked rhetorically.
“For the last time, Miss Price!”
“Have you identified the object used, Chief Harrison?” Zara asked.
“No, not yet. We’re still looking for it … Now, Miss Price, when was the last time you saw Daniel Cooper?”
“When the coroner wheeled him out on the gurney,” Penelope said, sitting at one of the empty tables.
“Is this a joke to you, Miss Price?” the chief snapped.
“No … not at all …” she replied, her mouth becoming dry. “I thought—”
“The night before the grand opening was the last time any of us saw Dan. Isn’t that right, Penelope?” Zara said.
“Thank you, Miss Zara, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” she said simply. She sensed additional flirtation would most likely backfire with Chief Harrison who seemed too shrewd to fall for such a ploy.
“When did you see Dan Cooper last?”
“We all left the shop at just before ten o’clock the night before the grand opening,” Zara said.
“You sure about that?” the chief said, his eyes on his notes.
“Are you accusing me of lying? Or of being empty-headed … or perhaps just wishy-washy?” Zara asked matter-of-factly, seeking to assess the chief’s character.
He looked up, the slightest trace of a grin on his closed mouth. “Please continue, Miss Zara,” he said, putting his pencil down to observe her as she spoke.
“We all shared a celebratory drink—sparkling cider, mind you—then went our separate ways. P—Miss Price, that is—mentioned that it was around ten and that she’d see us in ten hours. The tens stuck with me.”
Penelope nodded wildly in concurrence.
“And who is we all?” the chief asked.
“Umm, it was me, Z—” Penelope started.
“I was speaking to Miss Zara,” the chief admonished. “Believe me, you’ll get your turn, Miss Price.”
“Yes, your honor,” Penelope said,” sinking into her chair.
“Penelope and I, Paolo—he’s my driver, Mr. Cooper, Mr. Edwards, Stella Parker, Vincent Caruso … and Mr. Allen dropped by to join us.”
“And what about him?” the chief asked, pointing to Paolo who had remained happily insensible, smiling and nodding throughout the conversation.
“That’s Paolo,” Zara said flatly.
“You’re Paolo?” the chief asked.
“Si, Paolo Rossi,” Paolo said, pointing to his chest.
“Mr. Rossi, what can you tell me about the night before Daniel Cooper’s death?”
“Si, Paolo Rossi,” Paolo repeated, still smiling.
“Is he, uh, touched?” the chief said as an aside to Zara.
“Something like that,” she replied with a smile. “He’s Italian. He only knows a few words in English.”
“I see … Miss Price, I’d like to use your phone, please,” Chief Harrison said.
“Certainly,” Penelope said, escorting him to the office.
“Privately,” he added.
She closed the door and slogged back to her seat in the tearoom.
“What was that all about?” Zara asked.
“You tell me,” Penelope said.
The three sat in silence for a minute or two, unsure as to what to do.
“Now,” Chief Harrison said, re-entering the room. “You say you all left at the same time. Is that your recollection, Miss Price?”
“Yes, exactly. Everyone left together,” Penelope said.
“Very good,” the chief said, scribbling in his notebook.
Just then a loud rap on the window caused Penelope to jump up and scream. Vincent stood outside pointing toward the front door, his cheeks flushed, and apparently out of breath.
“Caruso, good!” the chief said as Vincent entered the room, still breathing hard from running to the shop. “I want you to ask this Paolo fellow a few questions. He only speaks Italian.”
“I’ll try, Chief, but my Italian is pretty much limited to opera lyrics and terms of endearment.”
“Just do your best, son. Ask him when he last saw Dan Cooper.”
“Umm … Quando è stata l'ultima volta che ha visto Dan Cooper?” Vincent stammered.
Paolo acted out his answer. “La notte,” he said waving his hands to indicate the past. He then held up the fingers of both hands, and finally, made a slashing gesture across his throat to indicate death.
“La notte prima di morire alle dieci?” Vincent struggled to say in fractured Italian.
“Si,” Paolo said holding a thumb up in affirmation.
“He says he last saw Dan at ten the night before his death,” Vincent said.
“And how would he describe his relationship with the deceased?” Walter asked.
“Jeepers, that one may be beyond my vocabulary, Chief.”
“Chief Harrison, I believe everyone you ask will tell you roughly the same—that Paolo and Mr. Cooper had little contact. They were on friendly terms,” Penelope said.
“Uh huh,” the chief said, taking notes.
“She’s right, Chief. Because of the language barrier, Paolo doesn’t engage in what you’d call deep discussion,” Vincent said. “When he was working alongside Hank and Dan, he seemed to enjoy their company well enough, though he couldn’t really keep up.”
“Couldn’t keep up with the work or with what they were saying?” the chief asked.
“Well …” Vincent began.
“Both!” Zara interjected. “Let’s call a spade a spade. Paolo doesn’t have much of a work ethic except when it comes to the gymnasium and the bedr—” Suddenly embarrassed, she changed the subject. “Let’s just say, he was no match for Mr. Cooper or Mr. Edwards. They ran circles around us all. As for making out what they were saying, well you know how good friends are, it’s hard for anyone to understand their conversation.”
“It’s true, Chief Harrison. When I talk to Zara even I don’t know what I’m saying most of the time,” Penelope offered haplessly.
“When Dan and Hank get on a roll, I have a heck of a time following those two characters … had, not have,” Vincent added, looking forlornly to the ground.
“And where did Paolo go after he left that evening?” the chief asked.
“He was with me,” Zara said, placing a hand on Paolo’s knee.
“Oh?” the chief asked, raising an eyebrow. “All night?”
“Every night,” Zara returned unabashedly, determined to compensate for her momentary modesty.
“May I ask where you live, Miss Zara?” the chief asked.
“They live with me,” Penelope answered. “Well, not with me. They have their own room … rooms,” she said with a nervous titter.
“I see … and did you arrive home at the same time as Mr. Rossi and Miss Zara?”
“Just about … a few minutes later, actually.”
“Were you closing up the shop?”
“Yes … and giving last minute instructions to Mr. Cooper,” Penelope said.
“And did you see him talk to anyone else after that?” the chief said.
“No, I suppose not,” Penelope said, fanning herself with one of her hands as she realized she was the last of her band to see Dan alive.
“Is something wrong, Miss Price?”
“It’s just a little warm in here,” she said, her mouth going dry and eyes blurring. She felt the first throes of hyperventilation coming on, and began pacing and mumbling to herself to stave off a fainting episode.
“Will there be anything else, Chief Harrison?” Zara asked, sensing her friend’s distress.
“Not for the moment. But be sure you all stay in town, is that clear?”
Penelope and Zara nodded. Paolo copied them.
Chief Harrison put his hat on and exited. “Caruso!” he called, and Vincent trailed after him, miming the word bye as he departed. Penelope locked the door behind them.
“Am I ever glad that’s over,” Penelope gushed. “That was grueling,”
“P, you don’t know from grueling. That was a cakewalk. If you were a suspect, that would be a whole different kind of interrogation.”
Penelope exhaled loudly, having temporarily forgotten to breathe. “Thank goodness I’m not a suspect then. Do you really think there’s a possibility Dan Cooper’s death wasn’t an accident?”
“I have no idea, but I’m betting that chief of police will get to the heart of the matter,” Zara said.
Paolo yawned in boredom.
“Why don’t you two get going,” Penelope said. “I have some cleanup to do here, but should be home soon.”
“No, we’re here to help. We won’t desert you,” Zara said.
Penelope washed all the dishes, scrubbed the kitchen, and reset the tearoom tables. The help offered by her friends amounted to Zara pulling things out of the Kelvinator to nibble and making more of a mess for Penelope to clean up. Paolo helped by staying out of the way and sleeping on one of the tearoom’s settees under the warming rays of the sun as it streamed through the majestic windows. Zara awakened Paolo just in time to leave, and the two walked Penelope to her car.
“See you at the house,” Penelope said.
“Are you coming straight home?” Zara asked.
“You bet. I’m beat. It’s been an exhausting few days.”
Penelope drove mindlessly toward the house, finally familiar enough with the town to be get around without becoming irretrievably lost. As she drifted past a large Spanish Colonial home, Penelope noted a couple chatting on a front porch, and felt a lump form in her throat when she realized the man was Hank. She waved to him, but he didn’t notice. The remainder of her drive home was occupied with thoughts of Hank, Hank’s hair, Hank’s stature, Hank’s demeanor, Hank’s humor, Hank’s smile. In those moments, Penelope forgot she ever had a tearoom or that a friend had perished in it.
* * * *
Back at home, Paolo mixed cocktails.
“Paolo, you really mustn’t keep doing that. It’s illegal … Prohibition,” Penelope said, whispering the last word lest anyone in the neighborhood catch wind of the house’s forbidden activities.
Zara took the two lowball glasses from Paolo’s hands and sauntered into the kitchen, returning with a pair of teacups. “Problem solved.”
“Tea, that’s more like it,” Penelope said, imbibing the draft in her cup. Immediately, she began to choke. “What on earth?”
“Keeping up appearances, P. It’s not what you do or say, but what others think you do or say that matters,” Zara said.
Paolo drank his cocktail from its glass, then prepared a second one in a teacup.
“What an awful philosophy, Z,” Penelope replied.
“No sense in rocking the boat,” Zara said, sitting on the sofa and pulling her knees up under her. “Appearances and the … shall we say, cultivating of them have done more for me than cold hard facts ever did.”
Penelope shook her head. “Tell me again, how is it that we’re friends?”
“Because we’re all we have,” Zara answered with a bittersweet smile.
Penelope grabbed her hand in affection. Zara’s point was a valid one.
“Mangia?” Paolo said.
“Yes, food, good idea, Paolo,” Zara replied. “You hungry, P?”
“Famished … but far too tired to cook.”
“Paolo, be a darling and go get us some Chinese food?”
Come?” Paolo replied.
“Funny how he can’t understand a word of English when it’s something he objects to,” Zara said.
“Chinese food? I don’t know, Z. I think I’m with Paolo on this,” Penelope said. “Can’t we just get something from the Butterfly Café?
“Whaddaya say, Paolo? How about the Butterfly Café?” Zara shouted.
“Bene, bene,” he replied. “Cosa?”
“What would you like, P? My treat.”
“I could go for biscuits and gravy … or maybe some barbecued ribs,” Penelope said, sinking into the parlor sofa.
“Or maybe both?” Zara asked.
Penelope raised a thumb in affirmation.
“Venga,” Paolo said, beckoning Zara to accompany him.
“Oh all right, I suppose I could tolerate a sunset drive along the coast,” Zara said, miming a kiss to Paolo. “Be back in a jiffy, P.”
“Mmmm hmmmmm,” Penelope returned, closing her eyes and settling deeper into the sofa.
* * * *
Zara and Paolo returned with a full barbecue dinner to find Penelope being escorted out of the house by Chief Harrison. Upon closer inspection, Zara noticed Penelope was manacled.
“Just what the devil is going on?!” Zara demanded.
“I’m afraid your friend here is the number one suspect in the murder of Daniel Cooper,” the chief said, leading Penelope to the squad car.
“Suspect?! You must be joking,” Zara said.
“I don’t joke when it comes to murder.”
“But how can this be?”
“She was the last person to see Dan alive.”
“Zuh Z, I d-didn’t, I didn’t do it. I swear! You have to be-be-believe me!” Penelope wailed, abject fright causing her to shake and stutter uncontrollably.
“Obviously!” Zara said. “Chief Harrison, you can’t possibly think—”
“I go where the evidence leads me, ma’am. And so far, it all points to Miss Price.”
“This is absurd!” Zara huffed.
“Che cosa?” Paolo asked.
“What’s happening?! I’ll tell you what’s happening, Paolo!” Zara yelled. “Penelope is being accused of murder!”
Paolo looked at her blankly.
Zara held up her wrists as if they were in handcuffs then pointed to Penelope and said, “Dan Cooper.”
Paolo gasped. “Noooooooo.”
“Well said, Paolo!” Zara responded.
“I’ll ne-never forget you, Z,” Penelope cried as Chief Harrison palmed her head to put her in the back of the police car. “You’ve been like a sister to me.” Her lower lip trembled and her eyes filled as she gazed out of the squad car window at her beautiful home.
“Be strong, P. I’ll get you out of this … somehow!”
Penelope looked at her with pitiable eyes as the police car pulled away.
“Paolo, stay,” Zara said, extending her arm, palm facing him. She then ran into the house to fetch Penelope’s carpetbag. “Huh, not as heavy as I would’ve thought,” she said to herself as she dragged it down the stairs.
Zara’s appraisal of the satchel was astute. Penelope had recently thrown out half of the holdall’s contents and stored another quarter of it. Even so, the bag remained ponderous. Zara and Paolo drove straight to the police station. Though Zara had no idea what to do, she felt certain there had to be something in Penelope’s omnivorous carpetbag that could help. They arrived to find Penelope alone in a dark cell, its overhead light in need of a new bulb. Penelope sat rubbing her wrists to soothe the soreness from the cuffs.
“We’re here!” Zara announced as a young constable unlocked the cell allowing her to enter.
“We?” Penelope asked, supposing Zara referred to her police escort.
“Me and Paolo. He’s at the front desk where they’re checking your bag for liquor and guns. How are you holding up?”
“Much improved since last you saw me. When they put me in the cell and locked the door, a strange sort of calm enveloped me, the kind they talk about in far eastern philosophies. I feel as if I’m looking at this whole situation as though I’m outside of it somehow. I don’t quite have the words to explain, but if I didn’t know better, I’d say this entire Pacific Grove experience has been a dream—just one big surreal dream,” Penelope said, closing her eyes and smiling serenely.
“From dream come true to nightmare!” Zara said. “Does Chief Harrison really think you killed Dan Cooper?”
“Looks that way. I’m the last person to see him, supposedly,” Penelope said calmly.
“His wife didn’t see him after he left the shop?”
Penelope shook her head. “From what I’ve gathered, Lily awoke the day of the grand opening thinking nothing was wrong. Dan had forewarned her there was a good deal to do in preparation and that he’d likely get home late and leave early. So when she went to bed at her normal time and rose the next morning without seeing him, she wasn’t worried in the least.”
“Who told you that? How do we know it’s the truth?”
“I overheard the chief and an officer talking.”
“Well, did Dan actually go home that night? Maybe there was someone else who saw him. Somebody somewhere must’ve seen something!” Zara said, becoming atypically worked up.
“Your guess is as good as mine. I have no idea what transpired between the time I said goodnight to Dan and the moment he … his corpse … was discovered in the powder room.”
“And yet, you’re the one holding the bag …”
“A humongous bag …”
The two discussed the situation at length, going around in circles and getting absolutely nowhere. About thirty minutes later, they ceased conversing at the sound of lumbered steps and something dragging. They clutched each other in apprehension, their imaginations getting the best of them. A large shadow loomed, drawing closer. They held each other tighter. Soon Paolo came into view, cursing and hauling the carpetbag toward the cell. The two women exhaled and released their grip of one another.
“Paolo, I figured you left and drove home,” Zara said, miming the action of driving a car. “What took so long?” she asked, tapping her wrist indicating the time.
He pointed down to the carpetbag, frowning and grumbling under his breath. Zara and Penelope broke into much needed laughter.
“Oh, constable,” Zara called out.
In a flash, an eager young officer arrived, grinning.
“Oh brother, don’t tell me you’ve got him under your spell already,” Penelope whispered to Zara.
“There was no time to waste,” she replied. “Constable Matlin, be a bunny and open the door so Miss Price here can have her things.”
He chuckled the laugh of the smitten and did her bidding.
“Are you sure you don’t have the kitchen sink in there?” Zara said as Paolo slid the carpetbag across the floor to Penelope.
“You should’ve seen it before I expunged most of the contents,” Penelope said.
“There’s something about a man in uniform, isn’t there, P?” Zara said turning her attention to the enamored police constable and eliciting another goofy grin and nervous giggle from him.
Paolo noted the officer’s reaction and folded his arms in protest, frowning and murmuring.
“Tell me, constable, how long does my undeniably innocent friend have to stay in this cold forbidding place?”
“I’m not at liberty to say, Miss. She first has to be arraigned, and Judge Houston won’t be back from his fishing trip for a few more days.”
“A few days! Why, that’s nothing short of barbaric,” Zara protested.
Penelope gulped and grabbed Zara’s forearm for support.
“Is that even legal?” Zara asked.
“I, well, I don’t really know,” the officer said, his confidence starting to wane under Zara’s questioning.
“Yes, Miss Zara, unfortunately it is,” Vincent said, approaching the cell. “In California, a prisoner can be held up to 168 hours before being arraigned or charged.”
“A full week!” Penelope cried.
“’Fraid so,” Vincent said. “How’re you getting on, Miss Price?” he added, his face full of sympathy and concern.
“I’m all right, Vincent. It’s awfully nice to see you,” Penelope said.
“Stella told me about how you won over Mrs. Morgan,” he said encouragingly.
“Gracious, that seems like a lifetime ago. To be sure, Stella was a big part of the day’s success. I can’t wait to get back and get the business going,” she said.
“That’s not gonna happen just yet,” he said. “I better go. I have strict orders not to—”
“Fraternize with me, I know. Wouldn’t want you to be corrupted by the despicable influence of a tearoom-owning spinster, now,” she said, frustrated.
“You won’t be a spinster forever,” Vincent said, smiling and raising a hand in farewell.
“I won’t?” Penelope said, suddenly much more interested in Vincent’s reply than the fact that she was in a jail cell on suspicion of murder. “Did you hear what he said, Z?”
“Easy does it, girl. You’ve got other things to think about right now,” Zara said. “Now Paolo and I are going to go home and get a few of your things. We’ll be back as quick as we can … Oh, constable Matlin,” she called out.
He stepped forward.
“I do hope you’ll be here when I return.”
“Yes, ma’am. Here all night.”
“Good … good … And it’s Miss.”
“Miss, not ma’am,” she said with a wink.
“Ohhhhhhh hahahahhah I gotcha, ma’am … I mean miss … uh—”
“Zara,” she whispered as she lightly brushed against him when exiting the cell.
Penelope looked on in wonder. Zara grinned at her, kicked up the back of her skirt, and strutted down the corridor.
“What a tomato,” Constable Matlin said under his breath, ogling her every move.

to be continued ...