One Lump or Two - Chapter Fifteen

     They awoke the next morning to find a newspaper slid under the door with a daisy atop it—clearly the work of Jimmy Matlin.
     “Looks like you made the headlines again, P,” Zara said, squeezing onto the tiny cot with her and unfurling the paper.
Jailbird Diva Transforms Brig into a Drawing Room
If there’s no rest for the wicked, then suspected murderess Miss Penelope Price has been working overtime. Turning the lockup into a lounge, her cell is decorated with more comforts than most readers’ homes. When not knitting or cooking up new taste sensations such as Cinnamon Lavender Buds with Orange Icing, she can be found serving lavish meals to guests and holding court at the newly permitted Tea and Sympathy Investigative Agency. Expect more on this mercurial lady of business after her arraignment tomorrow.

“Don’t these people have anything more interesting to write about?” Penelope blustered.
“Not likely. It’s a small town. That usually means small minds, or at least small news. Your activities may very well be the most excitement this hamlet’s seen in years.”
“How is that possible when they’re the home of a secret society?!”
“Ahhh, but that’s just it; the society’s a secret. Not exactly the thing they splash across the front page of the public paper. As you recall, you didn’t find out much about the Bohemians at the library.”
“What’s a bearcat, by the way?” Penelope asked.
“A celebrated and successful woman—the type who gets what she wants.”
Penelope gasped. “Did they mean me?”
“Looks that way, hotshot. The way others see you in this town is a sight different than how you see yourself.”
“Apparently,” Penelope said, floored by the way she’d been depicted in the newspaper and the fact than she’d been mentioned in it repeatedly. “Where are you going?” she asked as Zara scrambled out of bed.
“To start the coffee, of course! You have a big day … and a matinal one at that.”
“I still can’t get used to you being coherent before noon. It upsets the natural order of things.”
“Well you know how I love to upset the natural order,” Zara said with a smile. “Now, tell me, what will you be wearing to court today?”
Penelope pointed to an ensemble she’d hung on the cell bars the night before. It included an ecru and taupe striped skirt, ecru high-neck collared blouse with eyelet accents, button-up ivory shoes, kid gloves, and a toque hat accented with ivory ribbon roses.
“Don’t tell me … too dowdy,” Penelope said.
“Just dowdy enough!” Zara said.
“I would say, ‘thank you,’ but I’m not sure it was a compliment.”
“It was. Your wardrobe is perfect—tasteful, proper … so very very proper.”
“Hmmm,” Penelope said, pulling her mouth to one side incredulously.
* * * *
After dressing, Penelope set to tidying up the cell on the outside chance the judge might happen to drop by unexpectedly. Zara dressed quickly then sat down to repose with coffee and the newspaper while nibbling leftover bits of the now famous cinnamon buds from the day before.
“Aren’t you going to eat anything?” Zara said. “You really should. Don’t want you fainting in court … although that could curry sympathy …”
“I’m far too nervous to eat anything,” Penelope said, starting to pace in a circle around the table.
“You really need to relax, P. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Penelope stopped and glared at her.
“Okay, aside from the electric chair …”
“So many things, Z. Life in prison … never getting the chance to get justice for Dan.”
“Point taken,” Zara said, licking the last of the orange icing off her finger.
A quiet knock on the wall of their cell attracted their attention.
“It’s time, Miss Price,” Chief Harrison said.
Penelope smoothed her skirt and drew back the curtain shrouding the cell.
“I’m ready, Chief Harrison,” she said, placing her hat on her head and unsuccessfully trying to pin it with shaking hands.
“Let me do that for you,” Zara said, getting up to assist.
“Miss Zara,” Chief Harrison said with a polite nod.
“Chief Harrison,” she returned with a demure smile and slight bend of her knee.
“Did you just curtsy?” Penelope whispered as Zara scooted her toward the door.
“You’re becoming delusional … Now chin up. I’ll be in the courtroom cheering you on. And if things get really ugly, I’ll create a diversion, Paolo will throw you over his shoulder, and we’ll all make a run for the border.”
Penelope smiled despite herself, and the friends embraced. The chief held the door open as Penelope straightened her shoulders and began walking down the hall as if attending a funeral. He then escorted her to an antechamber and instructed her to sit quietly until he came for her.
The dark windowless vestibule was no bigger than three feet square and stripped of all ornamentation. Penelope shuddered to picture herself living in such a confined space if convicted. A side door opened, and the bright light from the room beyond blinded her for a moment.
“Come with me, Miss Price,” she heard the chief say as he gently took her arm and led her into the courtroom.
She squinted wildly, trying to see where she was going, and ended up stumbling into the witness box. Chief Harrison stopped and turned her around. The sound of clanking metal and the feel of discomfort on her wrist told her she was being fettered.
“Is that really necessary, Chief Harrison?” she whispered.
“No, but it is the law here in Pacific Grove,” he said quietly.
As Penelope’s eyes adjusted, she saw that she stood in a small, sequestered box containing a wooden armchair, and that she was fenced in by wrought iron railing, to which she was shackled. Looking around the courtroom, she noted it was jam-packed, and that all eyes were fixed on her. She’d just begun to sit when she heard the words: All rise for the honorable Francis Houston.
She froze and gulped.
A short man with robes far too long for his stature took the bench. His face was inordinately sunburned save for two round white circles surrounding his eyes.
“All may be seated,” a disembodied voice said.
“Now what do we have here?” the judge asked, followed by a sneeze and loud blowing of his nose.
“Bless you, judge,” someone called out.
“Thank you, Mrs. Prescott,” the judge said.
Penelope shrank at the sound of her former boarding house landlady’s name and the thought that the woman would be seeing her on trial.
“You catch a cold, Judge Houston?” another asked.
“Well Frank, let’s see. I caught a cold, I caught a sunburn … only thing I didn’t catch was a fish.”
The courtroom erupted in an easy chuckle.
“So you’re the Miss Price I’ve been reading about,” the judge said, turning his gaze to Penelope.
She jumped up, hurting her wrist as it pulled hard on the short handcuff chain. “Ouch. Yes you’re honored … I mean, I’m honored. You’re your honor.” She was at that point of nervousness where her mouth went dry and severed its connection with her mind. This was not the time for her to jumble her words. She swallowed hard rather than risk speaking again.
“Do you know why you’re here, Miss Price?” he asked kindly.
She took a deep breath, hoping to synchronize mouth and mind. “I believe it is because I was the last person to have admitted seeing Mr. Cooper before his tragic demise.”
He looked at her for several seconds before addressing her. She rubbed her sore wrist and worked to breathe normally.
“You are charged with the murder of Daniel Cooper,” he said, reading the document before him. “How do you plead, Miss Price?”
“Well innocent, of course.”
“It would be best for you not to speak. This is where your lawyer does the talking for you.”
“But I don’t have a lawyer,” Penelope said, fretting.
“My client pleads not guilty, your honor,” Bernard Beekham said, standing up and buttoning his overly tailored suit.
Penelope regarded him in stupefaction. Bernard Beekham had treated her with nothing but contempt when she met with him to settle her grandaunt’s affairs; and his subsequent conduct wasn’t much better when she visited him to obtain his notarized signature for the tearoom’s business permit.
“Ask and ye shall receive. Looks like you do have a lawyer, Miss Price,” the judge said merrily.
“The state requests the prisoner be held without benefit of bail, your honor,” a smug young prosecutor said from his chair.
“Does this poor woman look like a public threat to you, counselor?” the judge asked, wiping his eyeglasses with one of his overly long sleeves.
“Based on what I’ve read about her, yes!”
A low murmur of laughter washed over the audience.
“Sensationalistic journalism notwithstanding, I will grant Miss Price bail. The amount is set at one thousand dollars. Who here will put up the bond? Please stand if you are willing to do so.”
Penelope looked out at the crowd to see an assortment of people standing: Zara and Paolo, Florence Morgan, Stella, Hubert Allen, Chief Harrison, and Hank. She was overwhelmed by the number of people who stood, and bewildered by the identities of some of those who had chosen to do so.
“This court will reconvene in one week at this same time. You are free to go, Miss Price,” he said, concluding the court session with a rap of his gavel.
“But I like it here,” Penelope lamented.
“Nonetheless, you must go home,” the judge said kindly, walking back to his chambers and trying not to trip on his robe.
Chief Harrison unfastened her restraints and gestured for her to walk ahead of him.
“Do I really have to go?” she asked him.
“You sure as hellfire do! The station house has been a three-ring circus since you set up camp. Go home, Miss Price. You have a busy week ahead.”
A small group lingered in the courtroom to speak with Penelope. As she walked toward them, they applauded. She noticed Hank hanging back by the exit door and wished desperately to talk to him, but she didn’t know where to begin. She raised a hand to wave to him, and he raised his fedora in response.
Florence Morgan began speaking, and Hank disappeared from view. “This is but a first step and very small victory, Miss Price. I expect you to make the most of your liberation and buckle down in earnest this week.”
“Oh, I shall, Mrs. Morgan. You can count on it.”
Among the many who stood in solidarity to greet her, there was one to whom Penelope wished to speak most. Without warning, she grabbed Stella and hugged her tightly. Stella wailed in agony briefly, but then gave in and returned the hug.
“This isn’t becoming a habit it with you, is it … this cuddling business?”
“I can’t believe you offered to post bail for me. I’m overcome. Where would you get that kind of money?”
“Well I do have a job now, ya know,” she said with a smile. “Besides, I figured I could always squeeze the dough out my godfather Hubert, or get it from you if things got desperate.”
“I really don’t know how to thank you.”
“Mees Price,” Hubert said, holding out a long, thin box to her.
“This isn’t a dagger, I hope, Mr. Allen. I’m in trouble enough as it is.”
The little group chuckled.
“Opeen eet,” Hubert beamed. “Eet eez just as you rehqueesteed.”
Penelope untied the ribbon around the box and lifted the lid to expose three sets of cards. She picked up one from the first group and read it silently:
Miss Penelope Price
AntiquiTeas Proprietress
Tea & Sympathy Investigative Agency
Truth Sleuth
“Oh, Mr. Allen, these are magnificent!” she gushed. “And to think you offered bail—”
“Give us a peek,” Zara said, elbowing her way next to Penelope.
Penelope handed her a card and Zara read it aloud: Zara, Tea and Sympathy … Chief Inquirer … My first business card,” she whispered reverently. “You even, left off the Miss … Thank you, P! …Say, Stella …”
The girl looked up excitedly then hastened to Penelope’s side. Zara rolled her wrist and presented her with a card.
“Miss Stella Parker, Tea and Sympathy Investigative Agency, Junior Inquiry Agent—Did you hear that? I’m a genuine junior inquiry agent!” she announced to all within earshot. “Hot socks!” she cheered, jumping toward Vincent and straddling him mid-air as he steadied himself and put his arms out to catch her.
“Vincent, I didn’t expect to see you here,” Penelope said.
“I’m off the clock, and now that you’re moving out of the police station, when I’m off the clock, I’m on your side,” he said with a smile.
“Well done, Mr. Allen,” Florence Morgan said. “All is coming apace nicely.”
“Miss Price, what will be your first order of business during what may be your last week of freedom on this earth?” a voice inquired from behind the remaining stragglers.
Penelope looked up to see Elsie Davies, pen and paper in hand, a malevolent grin on her painted lips.
“Good morning, Miss Davies. I should think my answer would be obvious—to uncover the truth about what happened to Daniel Cooper.” As she spoke she reached out a hand to Lily Cooper who was standing beside Elsie.
“God watch over you, Miss Price. I pray you catch Danny’s killer and bring her to justice,” Lily said impassionedly.
“Her?” Zara repeated.
“Pardon?” Lily replied.
“You said ‘bring her to justice.’”
“Did I? I’m afraid I’ve not been paying much attention to what I’ve been saying lately. If you’ll excuse me,” she concluded, wiping her eyes and hurrying toward the exit.
“Miss Price, is it true that you illegally—” Elsie began.
“All right, folks. Let’s move this out of doors. The courtroom is now closed,” Vincent said, attempting to squelch Elsie’s inquest.
Florence then grabbed Penelope’s arm and pretended to engage in serious conversation with her as an additional ploy to stave off Elsie’s leading questions.
Once outside the courthouse, Penelope bid adieu to Florence, Stella, Vincent, and Hubert. Then she, Zara, and Paolo walked back into the cellblock to begin packing up their ad hoc home.
“I’m going to miss this place,” Penelope said wistfully, glancing around the festooned cage.
“Me too,” Zara said under her breath, gazing in the direction of the station’s offices.
“Be at my place of business the day after next to discuss your defense, Miss Price,” Bernard Beekham said, standing in the doorway of the cell.
“Mr. Beekham, I don’t know what to say. I had no idea you believed in me, or my innocence. To think you would offer to defend me … I’m very humbled and thankful.”
“Miss Price, I was appointed by the court as the town’s only public defender. I have pledged to assist and advocate for all who need representation, no matter how reprehensible I may find them. Degenerates, profligates, murderers such as yourself, I am duty-bound to serve them all. Good day.”
“We need to solve this case and fast!” Zara said, sneering at Bernard Beekham and packing up quickly.
* * * *
As they entered the Queen Anne Victorian, Penelope viewed the place as though it were unfamiliar to her. It appeared cold and without sentiment to her, and at that moment, she preferred her cozy jail cell.
The three housemates unpacked in relative silence, casually putting things back in place.
“Why does it seem to be taking so much longer to put this stuff away than it did to put it all up at the jail?” Penelope said.
“Because that was an adventure—this is a chore.”
“I’ll say!”
A short while later, the boxes from the jail were emptied and everything returned to its rightful spot.
“You hungry?” Penelope asked.
“Peckish,” Zara replied.
Paolo nodded fervently.
“No language barrier where food is concerned,” Zara japed.
Penelope trudged into the kitchen and opened the door to the Kelvinator. Its pristine white walls and empty shelves gleamed. “Looks like we’ll be going out to eat.”
“I can’t bear the thought of getting back in the car,” Zara moaned. “Can’t we entice someone to get food for us,” she said, pointing covertly to Paolo.
“Don’t you think poor Paolo’s been our Man Friday long enough? I say we give him a respite.”
A knock at the door caused them to look at one another in surprise.
“Cibo ... prontissimo?” Paolo joked, looking quite pleased with himself.
Zara chortled.
“What did I miss?” Penelope asked, walking to the door.
“Paolo actually made a joke … suggesting the door knock meant food was here already.”
Penelope offered no response.
“It was funnier when he said it.”
Penelope opened the door. “Stella, what are you doing here?”
“It’s good to see you too, bosslady,” Stella said, not waiting for an invitation before walking in. “Fancy flophouse … kinda aseptic though. You need to inject some life into this mausoleum. Maybe a shindig would warm the place up.”
“Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Yep … so should all the other kids. Unfortunately, someone pulled a fire alarm and school’s been closed down for the rest of the day.”
“What a lucky break for the Tea and Sympathy Investigative Agency,” Penelope said earnestly, smiling.
“Yeah, lucky,” Zara said, walking past Stella and lightly smacking the back of her head.
“So where do we start?” Stella asked, dropping onto the parlor sofa and putting her feet up on the coffee table in front of it.
“We start by behaving like professionals,” Zara said, swiping Stella’s feet off the table.
“Who sucked all the fun out of your sail?” Stella said.
“We also start with lunch,” Zara said, producing several bills from her purse. “Your choice, whatever you want … as long as there’s enough for all of us.”
Stella nodded, counting the money greedily.
“Paolo, do you mind?” Zara asked, miming the motion of driving.
“To the Butterfly Café, Paolo,” Stella directed.
“Si!” he said, racing Stella to the car.
While Stella and Paolo were out, Penelope and Zara began a list of people to interview. Since they’d already talked to Florence Morga, they settled on Stella, Vincent, Hubert, Hank, and each other.
“Think we should include Chief Harrison on the list?” Zara asked nonchalantly.
Penelope guffawed. “Whatever for!”
“Well … maybe he’ll divulge something we didn’t know or perhaps would never have thought of. He’s bound to say something we can use.”
“Fair point. Please tell me we don’t have to talk to that insufferable gossip hound.”
“Elsie Davies? I should say not! I envision more harm than good coming out of that conversation.”
“What about Dan’s wife, Lily?”
“If we can do so without upsetting her. I can’t imagine losing a husband,” Zara said.
“I can’t imagine having a husband,” Penelope said absentmindedly.
Zara broke out laughing. Once Penelope realized what she’d said, she giggled too.
“While we’re waiting, what say we question each other?” Zara suggested. “I suppose we should first decide what our goal is with each interviewee.”
“Our goal is to get to the truth, Zara.”
“I still can’t believe Dan Cooper was murdered. He was such a charming man … and a looker, too.”
“And a fantastic worker. He was a real gem. Funny how you can come to care so much about someone you’ve hardly known.’
“I know whatcha mean,” Zara said, gazing off into the distance.
The pair grilled each other on what they knew about Dan and the specifics of the day before his death. Neither was able to think of anything they hadn’t mentioned a dozen times already and were relieved when Stella and Paolo arrived with lunch to break the stalemate.
“I told Ruby to give me whatever tasted good and they had plenty of,” Stella announced, opening the door for Paolo who carried a crate of Butterfly Café cuisine.
“Meatloaf!” he announced enthusiastically.
“Told ya he could speak English if it involved food,” Zara said to Penelope.
The foursome unloaded the baking dishes and linen-swathed baskets to unearth a whole meatloaf fresh from the oven, along with icebox rolls, a bowl of mashed potatoes, green beans, and rhubarb-peach pie.
“Mangia!” Paolo announced once the table was set and everyone seated.
“Mangia, indeed!” Zara said, lifting a forkful of meatloaf and mashed potatoes to her mouth.
“Unh unh,” Penelope said, folding her hands.
“Good God!” Zara grunted, rolling her eyes and putting her fork down.
“Precisely. Now, everyone will you bow your heads with me. Our Father, for this day, for our friends, for this food, we thank thee. Amen.”
“Amen,” the others repeated—Zara did so with a full mouth.
The dinner conversation was boisterous and scattered, and Stella could not stop talking about how Zara’s decorating of the jail cell was the cat’s pajamas, how Penelope’s launching of a detective agency was the gnat’s whistle, how being a junior inquiry agent was the elephant’s eyebrows, and how the arraignment had been the eel’s hips. In short, she thought everything about Penelope’s arrest was marvelous as described in a variety of animal appellatives.
“That’s all well and good, but we still need to get P out of this jam,” Zara said.
“And find the killer,” Penelope added.
“Easy as eating pie, for the Tea and Sympathy Investigative Agency,” Stella said, taking a large swig of milk and smiling with a white moustache.
“That’s the spirit!” Zara cheered, raising an arm in triumph.
“Pie!” Paolo cheered, also raising an arm.
The ladies giggled and Penelope cut and served the rhubarb-peach pie.
“Whadda we do next?” Stella asked eagerly.
“Next, our junior inquiry agent sets up appointments with those on our witness and information list,” Penelope said.
“Oh,” Stella said sans her previous zeal.
“Is something wrong, Stella?” Penelope asked.
“It’s just … so you’re going to be interviewing these people, you say,” Stella said.
“Yes?” Penelope said.
“In hopes of getting something out of them?”
“Of course,” Penelope said.
“Actually, I will be interviewing them,” Zara said.
“Oh, that’s different. Pie!” Stella cheered, raising an arm.
Zara chuckled. Paolo smiled and nodded and took another bite of pie.
“I don’t get it,” Penelope said.
“Yes, P, I know—believe me, I know,” Zara said, flashing her a sympathetic smile and patting her on the head.
“Uh, moving on ahead,” Penelope said, “Stella, is there anything more you can tell us about the Bohemian Club? I’m hoping there’s a connection to the club and Dan’s murder.”
“Sorry, I told you everything I know.”
“Our first dead end,” Penelope said.
“Why don’t you just go look it up at the library?” Stella asked through a mouthful of pie.
“You have one of those in this little town?” Zara asked.
Penelope choked. “You mean to tell me a secret society is actually documented … and in the library?”
“I think so,” Stella said. “The Bohemians own land in town, so there must be something on them.”
“Count me out. Those places give me the willies,” Zara said.
“But then what will you do, Zara? You don’t want to just stay here and stare at the walls, do ya?” Stella said.
“More like stare at the ceiling,” Penelope said under her breath with a wicked smile.
“Penelope Pearl Price!” Zara exclaimed.
“Oh I get it,” Stella said with a knowing smile and mouthful of pie.
“You see, she and Paolo have been apart for an extended time,” Penelope explained.
“She said she got it, P! … Besides, I thought I could go over to the police station and interview Chief Harrison while you’re at the library. Double our efforts, so to speak.”
“But who will take notes?” Penelope said.
“I’ll be fine, P. Anyway, having you there may make things worse.”
“You’re probably right. Stella, would you care to join me on an adventure to the library?”
“I’d rather go with Zara—”
“I won’t be long,” Zara said. “And I’m sure P could use additional eyes with all those books.”
“You don’t have any overdue library books, do you, Stella?” Penelope said, chuckling at what she considered to be a witty joke.
“No,” Stella replied blandly.
“Good for you!” Penelope said.
“I’ve never set foot in the library before,” Stella said.
Zara broke out laughing.
Paolo laughed along, raised an arm and asked, “Pie?”
“Then you actually are overdue, Stella—if you’ll forgive the library pun,” Penelope said, once again amusing herself.
Zara and Stella groaned.
Paolo dejectedly asked, “No pie?”
“Shall we sally forth, junior inquiry agent?” Penelope said, rising and crooking an arm for Stella to take.
“Indubitably,” Stella said, feigning an upper-crust British accent.
“Paolo, per favore,” Zara began, making a motion of washing dishes.
“Siesta!” he replied, depositing himself on the parlor’s chaise and closing his eyes.
“Just as good,” Zara said, collecting her clutch and applying fresh lipstick.