Hands off, ye bilge rats!

I be claimin' these for me own! 

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One Lump or Two - Chapter Nineteen

Penelope was only slightly more experienced than Zara when it came to cooking, but at least she had the advantage of being able to identify the various implements occupying the kitchen drawers. Plus, she owned a cookbook. It took the pair two hours to put together a simple dinner and another two hours to clean up the mess they’d created.
“I thought you knew how to do this sort of thing,” Zara said. “You were such a triumph when Florence Morgan came to the tearoom.”
“That wasn’t actually cooking though. That was just sort of mixing … and matching. That was much easier … at least for me.”
“Well you’re a mix-match master, to be sure. And if that scrumptious aroma is any indication, we’re no slouches in the cooking department either.”
“We shall see. The proof is in the pot roast.”
The friends giggled and sat down to relax in the parlor. Penelope tossed her unread book on the coffee table and let out a satisfied sigh.
“I’m craving tea but am too lazy to get back up and make it,” she said. “You must be exhausted, being unaccustomed to both walking and puttering around the kitchen.”
“I feel fantastic, revitalized! Besides, I’ve always kept myself in fighting shape, just in the bedroom versus the kitchen.”
Penelope shook her head. “Oh, Z, what a storied life you’ve led. I would think your new lifestyle here must be horribly dull in comparison.”
“Not in the least. I don’t find it dull at all—just different … You’re different too, you know.”
“Me? You must be joking.”
“My humor’s not that dry,” Zara gibed. “It’s true though. You’ve changed since coming to Pacific Grove. You’re like the monarch butterflies that flock here every year.”
“Kaleidoscope.”
“Gesundheit?” Zara replied.
“A group of butterflies isn’t called a flock. It’s a kaleidoscope.”
“Don’t try to change the subject. You’re blossoming, and you know it.”
“Well, I will say that I’m enjoying Pacific Grove—death row notwithstanding.”
“Ah yes, the ubiquitous case. I suppose we should get back to it.”
“I’m still trying to muster the energy to get up and make tea!”
The doorbell rang and Zara momentarily panicked. “Don’t tell me he’s here already,” she said, jumping up to adjust her dress and hair.
“Paolo only went to mass in Monterey. He must have forgotten his key,” Penelope said, making a start for the door. “Stella, what are you doing here?”
“Good to see you too, P,” Stella said, letting herself in.
“Oh … it’s you,” Zara said, relaxing from her staged pose on the settee where she pretended she was reading.
“What gives with you two?” Stella asked, turning Zara’s book right side up as she meandered by. “And what’s that smell?” she said, sniffing.
“It’s pot roast. At least that’s the hope,” Zara said.
“Not bad,” Stella said, opening the oven and inspecting its contents.
“Things improved dramatically once we thought to turn the oven on,” Penelope said, returning to her seat and collapsing. “Drat! I forgot to put the kettle on. Stellar, be a dear …”
“Yes, boss,” Stella said, dutifully filling the tea kettle with water and placing it on the stove.
“Say, how did your reconnaissance mission at The Blind Pig go last night?” Zara asked.
“Umm …”
“Don’t tell me you got caught!” Penelope said.
“Not exactly.” Stella said, returning to the parlor.
“Then what exactly?” Zara said.
“Well … I was waiting for my parents to go to bed so I could sneak out.”
“And …?” Zara prompted.
“And … I fell asleep,” Stella said nearly inaudibly, looking everywhere in the room other than at Penelope or Zara.
“Bully for you!” Zara said. “Oh thank the lord!” Penelope said at the same time.
“You don’t mind?” Stella said.
Zara shook her head no.
“Mind?! I couldn’t be more relieved!” Penelope said.
“Whew! Glad to hear it,” Stella said, going back to the kitchen to check on the tea kettle. “What about you two? You make much headway since I saw you last?”
“Not me. I’ve made a few well-intended attempts though,” Penelope said.
“And you, Z? You get anything out of Chief Harrison this morning? I saw you licking his boots outside of church. Clever way to get on the good side of a God-fearing man like the chief.”
“Is that right,” Penelope said, looking warily at her friend.
“Nothing to report. But let’s get back to our young rebel,” Zara said, changing the subject. “How is it your mother allowed you over here on a Sunday?”
“Or did you steal away without telling her?” Penelope asked, certain the investigative agency’s activities would eventually land Stella in Juvenile Hall.
“I’m here with her blessing, actually,” Stella said, pouring three cups of tea and carrying them in on a tray.
Zara narrowed her eyes in response.
“It’s true. Mother said that helping Miss Price with her case would be the Christian thing to do. She all but insisted I come over.”
Zara burst out laughing. “Didn’t I tell you our young friend was extraordinary?” she said to Penelope, standing up and kissing Stella on the top of her head. “Now, if you two will excuse me for a moment, I should get changed. I must reek of flour.”
“Flour doesn’t really smell,” Stella said.
“No?” Zara said, exiting the room.
“But your excuse to leave the room sure stinks!” Penelope called after her.
“I invited Vincent for dinner too. I hope that’s copacetic,” Stella said to Penelope, passing her the sugar.
“Will his mother spare him on a Sunday as well?”
“You kidding? She was over the moon to think she’d have one less mouth to feed at dinner. In fact, I was thinking … if there are any leftovers … maybe …”
“Yes, Vincent can take them, of course. Are things really so bad at his house?”
Stella looked to the floor and nodded.
“What about Dan Cooper’s family? Have you heard anything about how they’re making do? Do they have enough to eat?”
Stella downed her tea in one long gulp. “Florence Morgan’s looking after his girls—just like she always has.”
“What do you mean?”
Stella made herself comfortable on the chaise, lounging with her hands behind her head. “She took them under her wing years ago. Dan used to do a lot for the town before Prohibition. And Mrs. Morgan was involved in most of the civic groups he benefited. She wanted to thank him somehow, but he wouldn’t let her. So she decided to become the unofficial patron of his daughters, paying for them to have piano lessons, English horse-riding lessons, ballet lessons, you name it.”
“How altruistic of her.”
“If you say so. I personally wouldn’t take kindly to having some old biddy stick her nose into my family life if I were Dan. But he wanted to keep Lily happy, and Lily wanted all of that hogwash for their girls. She insisted on it really. She didn’t used to be like that. She used to be so down-to-earth, not into money and appearances like she is now.”
“What do you think changed her?”
“You mean who.”
“Don’t tell me … Elsie Davies?” Penelope said, sipping her tea in satisfaction.
“Who else?” Stella answered.
“I wonder if that’s who Hank was referring to …” Penelope said, her interest piqued.
 “When Dan’s saloon started to become a success, Elsie started pressganging Lily to improve her social standing—you know, by dressing fancy, buying expensive stuff they really couldn’t afford. If you ask me, Elsie did it so she could feel important and wealthy by proxy. She’s a barracuda, that one, ever since she got jilted.”
“I’m sorry to hear she was jilted. Can you tell me what happened or is it too personal?”
“Too personal? It made the headlines! She was left at the altar, and when the reverend and her maid of honor went looking for the groom, they found him with his best man … in the altogether.”
“You mean in flagrante delicto?”
“If you mean altogether together, yeah,” Stella said.
“Good heavens!” Penelope gasped.
“Yeah, they ran off together that night. Last I heard they opened a racy cabaret in San Francisco.”
“That poor woman.”
“Poor woman, nothin’!” Stella shouted, rising in agitation. “I bet she drove him to it. Everything is about appearances with her. It doesn’t matter what the truth is as long is it looks good. Even when Dan lost his business, did she show a moment’s compassion? Nope. She kept pouring poison in Lily’s ear, telling Lily she should leave Dan if he didn’t start making more money. That’s how he ended up with The Pig—Elsie talked him into it—yelled him into it is more like it. She railed on him when he was at his lowest, saying that if he were any sort of man he’d do whatever it took to keep his family living at the level people expected. She shamed him into bootlegging.”
“How do you know all this?” Penelope asked.
Stella moved closer, taking a seat in the chair by Penelope.
“I’m a bored high school girl in a small town. I know my onions and pretty much everything that goes on around here. … Ya see? I was born to be an investigative agent,” she said, putting her feet up on the coffee table.
“Investigative agents know better than to put their feet on the table,” Penelope said, pouring another cup of tea. “You make a superb pot of tea, I’ll give you that.”
“So do you really think you can get all this jazz sewn up by Wednesday? I’m all for a whizbang thrill same as the next gal, but  …”
“Not to worry, we have until Friday.”
“Wednesday,” Stella corrected.
“But the judge said Friday!” Penelope yelped.
“Judge Houston’s goin’ out of town,” Stella said, retrieving an unopened newspaper from beside the front door and dropping it Penelope’s lap.
What?!” Penelope cried, opening the paper and reading the headline.
It’s a Bouncing Baby Boy for Proud Grandpa Judge Houston
He and the misses will be heading out to Salinas on Thursday to visit daughter Mindy and her husband Josh, and to meet their first grandchild. Congratulations to the whole Houston clan.

She crumpled the newspaper, her eyes darting in erratic thought.
Zara descended the stairs, her hair and makeup flawless, to find Penelope pacing in figure eights and muttering.
“Uh oh, looks like she found out about Judge Houston,” Zara said.
“You mean you knew?!” Penelope shouted, leaving off pacing to fume at Zara.
“I just found out this morning,” Zara said. “I was going to tell you.”
“When?!”
“Today, this evening, I don’t know, before the bells chimed midnight. It simply slipped my mind.”
It slipped your mind?!
“Uh, maybe I should go,” Stella said, standing up.
“She’ll be fine. Just give her a few minutes to let off steam,” Zara said, putting a hand on Stella’s shoulder to keep her from fleeing.
“Looks like there’s more than a few minutes worth of steam there,” Stella said.
“Z, I’m a goner,” Penelope said, collapsing onto the couch. “What could we ever hope to accomplish in the next two days?”
“More or less what we could accomplish in the originally allotted four days, if we stay on track and work efficiently,” Zara said.
“It’s impossible,” Penelope said, her face in her hands. “This whole thing is impossible. I should make a will. Yes, that’s the thing to do. Drop all this sleuth play-acting and do the sensible thing and make out a will. I’ll call Bernard Beekham first thing in the morning. He’s good at that sort of legal tommyrot.”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” Zara said.
“Of course, I’ll make sure you’re taken care of, Z. And Stella, I’ll include enough to get you through college. Please promise you’ll go to college … for me?”
“Yeah, umm sure, boss.”
“I’ll want to leave something for Vincent as well. I know he could most decidedly use it. Be good to him, Stella. Be so very good to him. We never know how much time we have on this orb we call home.”
The front door opened and Vincent walked in.
“Vincent, it’s so good to see you,” Penelope said, walking swiftly toward him and flinging her arms around him in a tight embrace.
“You too, Miss Price,” he croaked, gasping for air.
“Are you alone, Vincent?” Zara asked nervously.
“No, ma’am. Come on in,” he called out once Penelope had released him.
“So glad you could make it,” Zara began. “Oh … Paolo … it’s you.”
“Signorina,” he said, unsure as to whether he would be welcome.
“Of course it’s Paolo. Who else would it be?” Penelope said, holding the door open and gesturing for him to enter.
“You’re right, yes,” Zara said, walking toward Paolo and hugging him perfunctorily while peering out the still-open front door.
Paolo produced a red rose he’d concealed behind his back, then kissed it and handed it to Zara.
“That was very thoughtful, Paolo. Grazie,” she said stiffly.
“I’m so glad you’re all here,” Penelope said. “I cherish every moment with you. Please make yourselves comfortable. Dinner should be ready in a quarter of an hour,” she continued, walking around to each person and affectionately touching his or her arm or head.
“What’s all that about?” Vincent said under his breath to Stella.
“She read about the judge going out of town.”
“Ah,” he responded, nodding. “Looks like the heat’s been turned up on your case, Miss Price. If there’s anything I can do … within the law …”
“Penelope. Call me Penelope, please. I think we’re beyond all pretense at this point, don’t you?”
The phone rang and Penelope wandered in its direction. Zara hoped the call was intended for herself, and made up an excuse to answer the phone.
“You’re in no fit state,” Zara said, striding past Penelope and picking up the receiver.
“Price residence, Zara speaking … Why, I’m glad I answered too,” she said twirling the phone cord around her index finger. “Oh really? … That’s a shame … I’m sorry you … no I understand … another time then … Yes … all right … You too.”
“Who was that, P?” Penelope asked.
“Walter. He won’t be joining us after all. Something about a busted water main on the way here. I fear he ruined his suit,” Zara said, slowly sitting and gazing out the window.
“Walter? Who’s Walter? A friend of yours, Vincent?” Penelope asked.
“Walter’s my boss. Chief Walter Harrison?”
“What in the Sam Hill was he coming here for?” Penelope asked.
“Dinner would be my guess,” Stella said.
“Well it doesn’t matter now, does it,” Zara said, swallowing her emotions. She turned toward Paolo and smiled brightly, “How was church?”
He looked at her perplexedly.
“Chiesa,” Vincent translated.
“Ahh, choorch,” Paolo said, smiling, then kissing his hand and raising his eyes toward heaven.
Penelope glanced at her watch and announced, “Friends, I do believe our pot has roasted.”
All chuckled.
“Oh, you know what I mean. Let’s go in to dinner, shall we?”
“You sure you’re up to this Miss—” Vincent began.
“Uh, unh,” Penelope admonished.
“… Penelope,” Vincent continued. “If you’d rather work on your case, we can just—”
“No, Vincent, thank you. This is exactly what I want to do tonight. No talk of the case. I don’t want to hear a word about it. I want to hear about all of you. Now you get seated. Z, would you like to help me in the kitchen?”
Zara followed her in and asked indifferently, “What would you like me to do first?”
“You sure you’re all right?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Just checking … Very well. Would you get drinks for everyone?”
“I’d love to,” Zara replied, affecting fervor.
“And if you want a bottle of wine … well, I won’t tell,” Penelope said in an attempt to perk up Zara’s spirits.
“No, no. That’s quite all right … Besides, we don’t want to put Vincent in an awkward position.”
“You have a point there.”
* * * *
Within a few minutes, dinner had been dished out—pot roast with potatoes, carrots, pearl onions, lots of gravy, and Brussels sprouts on the side.
“Who would like to say grace?” Penelope asked.
Just then the doorknocker struck.
“Now who could that be?” Penelope said.
“God?” Vincent quipped.
Stella snorted.
“Come on in,” Penelope hollered.
“Anyone have a towel?” a voice called as the door creaked open.
“Walter?” Zara said, rushing to the door. “Look at you, soaked through. Paolo, do you have anything Chief Harrison can wear to get him out of his wet clothes?”
Paolo looked at her unresponsively.
“Uh, vestititi … vestiario,” Vincent said, trying to interpret for Paolo.
Paolo huffed, made a fist, and muttered as he walked to his room, all the while glaring at the chief.
A few minutes later, Walter emerged from the bathroom wearing Zara’s cherry blossom kimono robe over his undershirt, shorts, and gartered socks. Paolo burst out laughing and all joined in—the scene made all the funnier since it featured the chief of police. Good-humoredly, Walter strutted into the room and did a turn, one hand on his hip, the other by his ear, posing like a saloon girl.
“Paolo’s clothes are made for his fit physique, not this bowlful of jelly,” he said, patting his ample mid-section. “You should all thank me for wearing this robe. It covers much more, believe me.”
“You look splendid, Walter. It’s so nice to have you with us,” Penelope said.
“Thank you, Miss Price,” he said, eyeing her skeptically as he took the table’s empty seat. “She isn’t drunk again, is she?” he whispered to Vincent.
Stella snorted again and Vincent shook his head no.
“We were just about to say grace. Would you like to do the honors?” Zara said.
“I’d be … well … honored!” Walter said with a chuckle. He then bowed his head and folded his hands. “For food that stays our hunger, for rest that brings us ease, for homes where memories linger, we give our thanks for these … Amen.”
“Amen,” all said.
Vincent and Paolo crossed themselves.
“This looks delicious,” the chief remarked as Zara placed a plate in front of him.
“Looks can be deceiving,” Penelope said sagely.
“Pay no attention to her. She’s waxing doomed,” Zara said.
“She read the paper today, did she?” Walter asked. “Mmmm mmmm you ladies make a fine pot roast … mighty fine,” he said, taking a large bite and smiling benevolently.
* * * *
The evening proceeded as though no one had a care in the world, and not at all as if the lady of the house was facing certain death. At Penelope’s insistence, no talk of the case was conducted, and all agreed the pot roast was entirely edible.
When time came for dessert and coffee, Zara lamented that they’d forgotten to make dessert. Without a word, Walter toddled out to his car and returned with a devil’s food cake. Stella made coffee, and the ragtag group genially caroused for hours. Even Paolo had a good time and laughed along with the others, whether or not he had any idea as to what they were laughing about.
Walter insisted on staying to do the dishes, and Zara was all smiles when tying a frilly apron around the floral dressing gown he still wore. The sleeves kept unrolling and dipping into the dishwater, much to Zara’s amusement, and Walter blew a handful of suds at her as retribution for her jeering. Penelope noted she had never before seen Zara dry a dish. Then again she had never before seen Zara so happy. Penelope looked at Walter—whom she estimated to be twice Paolo’s age as well as girth—and then she looked at Paolo whose good looks could stop traffic. Yes, under Walter’s influence, Zara looked to be settling down, but in no way settling for second best.
Paolo and Vincent busied themselves crooning Italian songs, and Stella insisted on teaching Penelope how to Charleston.
“If you’re going to the electric chair, you may as well dance your way there,” the young flapper counseled.
A short time later, another knock came at the door. Penelope answered to find the uniformed Jimmy Matlin. “Constable Matlin?”
“Good evening, Miss Price. We had a complaint from a neighbor regarding a noisy party taking place here. They suggested that the drinking of liquor was going on. I’m afraid I’ll have to search the premises and your guests for alcohol. Is Miss Zara here? I can start my search with her,” he said, craning his neck to look for her.
“What seems to be the problem, constable?” Walter said, drying his hands on the frilly apron as he approached the door.
Jimmy looked him over and was rendered dumbstruck.
“Nothing to worry about here, constable. I have everything under control,” Walter said, striking a heroic stance with his feet apart and fists on hips.
Jimmy merely gaped in silence. The others exploded in an outburst of mirth.
“Go on back to the precinct, constable. You have my word we have not been drinking,” Walter said.
“Then how do you explain—” Jimmy began.
“Devil’s food cake, son, devil’s food cake.”
The revelers in the parlor burst into additional peals of laughter.
“It’s the devil’s work!” Stella howled through tears of hilarity.
Walter closed the door then turned to the group. “Well folks, looks like that’s my cue to get going. Thank you for a splendid evening. I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself so thoroughly.”
“Ah, c’mon, Chief, you have fun wherever you go,” Vincent said.
“It’s true, Walter, you’re more or less the official life of the party here in Pacific Grove,” Stella said, wiping the remnants of mirth-induced tears from her eyes and spreading her smoky eye-makeup into even larger, darker circles.
“Well, nonetheless …” he continued, untying the apron to expose his imposing belly that had escaped the confines of the kimono.
No one dared laugh … until he did … then none could stop laughing.
“Life of the party or court jester?” he joked as he donned his shoes and hat, still wearing the dressing gown, with his damp clothes thrown over his arm. “I’ll return your robe tomorrow, if that’s all right, Minnie,” he said to Zara.
“Who’s Minnie?” Stella asked.
“I meant Zara,” Walter corrected. “Good night all … oh and Miss Price, I’ll be in Monterey tomorrow morning, testifying in a case, but when I get back, we should have a conversation.”
“If you’d like,” Penelope answered blithely.
She was beyond the point of regarding any news or development as either good or bad, but rather resigned to her fate and determined to live out her days as an exemplary prisoner. A life in lockup would give her time to read and even master the art of knitting. Yes, she was ready for the hoosegow.
“Looks like we’ll be going too,” Stella said. “Zara said we have a big week and need our rest.”
“Zara said that?” Penelope asked, astonished at her friend’s responsible advice.
“Told you I was a good influence,” Zara said, smiling and dipping a finger into the last of the cake’s frosting.
“Zara, per favore,” Paolo said, pulling her aside and whispering.
“Good night all. Buona notte,” Vincent said, opening the door for Stella.
“Oh, just a minute. Will you do me a favor and take this?” Penelope said, grabbing a basket full of leftovers and holding it out for Vincent.
He frowned. “Thank you, no. I don’t need your charity, Miss Price.”
“No, I … uhh …” Penelope stammered, at a loss as to how to respond.
“Please, Vincent, for me?” Zara said. “Penelope knows I can’t bear to look at leftovers the next morning … makes me retch … It’s awfully wasteful and over-indulgent I know … Just one of the deplorable habits I picked up living abroad. If someone doesn’t take those victuals I’ll just throw them in the waste bin.”
“Oh, I see … Well, it would be a shame to see such delicious food thrown away. I’ll be happy to dispose of it for you so you don’t have to face the trauma of waking up to leftovers,” Vincent said, taking the basket in hand.
Zara pinched his cheek. “You’re a doll.”
“And you’ll see Stella safely home?” Penelope said, trying to re-enter the conversation after her blunder.
“I always do,” Vincent said, putting an arm around his girlfriend.
“Sorry, Mac, bank’s closed,” Stella said, ducking his embrace as she always did in front of others.
“Good night, you two,” Penelope said, closing the door after them.
 “Belle donne,” Paolo said, bowing chivalrously. “Ti amo, Zara,” he added, retiring to his room without requesting her to follow.
“Everything all right?” Penelope asked Zara as they once again sat in the parlor and put their feet up.
“Never been better,” Zara said, looking intently at the last of the cake which she consumed pinch by pinch.
“I mean with Paolo,” Penelope said.
“Oh! Yes! Of course. What makes you ask?”
“Well he went to his own room for starters … without you! And you two looked to be deep in discussion earlier, or as deep as one can be with Paolo.”
Zara smiled. “Yes, everything’s fine there too. We discussed—at least I think we did— giving our relationship a serious look after your trial is over … to see where we stand.”
“He really cares about you, you know,” Penelope said.
“You think so?”
“Of course! Why else would he put up with all of the nonsense we’ve put him through … and without anyone to talk to.”
“Free room and board?”
“I highly doubt it. You know as well as I that an Adonis like Paolo could find free room and board wherever he liked … but he chooses to be with you.”
“Have you been eavesdropping on us?”
Penelope looked at her curiously.
“Paolo mentioned, or rather mimed, much of what you just said. Poor lamb seems so forlorn. You don’t think he’ll do anything drastic do you?”
“How so?”
“Well, he asked if he could borrow the car tomorrow to drive to San Francisco. You don’t think he’ll …”
“What? Jump off a cliff?”
“The thought did cross my mind. You know how dramatic he is … short on words but big on gestures.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine. Probably just wants some time away to think, and get some perspective.”
Zara nodded.
“Speaking of perspective, I’ve made my peace. I’m ready for the gallows,” Penelope said calmly, closing her eyes and breathing deeply.
Zara erupted in a spate of sniggers.
Penelope opened her eyes, her mouth agape.
“I’m sorry, P. It’s just … You’re not going to the gallows, not if I have anything to say about it, that is. I won’t allow it.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve been sidling up to Chief Harrison just to keep me from hanging.”
“What a heinous thing to say!” Zara snapped uncharacteristically. “He’s the finest man I know and if I’ve been sidling up to him, as you say, it’s because I enjoy his company and feel privileged that he seems to enjoy mine. Really, P, that was not only uncalled for, but cruel.”
“Z, I … I am sorry … truly … I didn’t realize … You really care for him, don’t you?”
“Well of course I do! Everyone in town does. What’s not to like?”
“I suppose you’re right. He seemed very different tonight than when I first met him. Maybe someday I’ll find out what I did to anger him at the outset, but you’re right, the man I dined with tonight was wonderful. Accept my apology?”
Zara nodded, wiping an errant tear from her chin.
“And another thing, as long as I’m ranting,” Zara continued, “no more of that fatalistic talk, ya hear? You may not give a fig if you live or die, but I do! You’re all I’ve got in this world and I’m not about to lose you. Are we clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Penelope said.
“Good. Now tomorrow we’re going to get up at the crack of dawn and go to the shop to recreate the day before Dan’s death, as planned. We can stop by the Butterfly CafĂ© on the way to get breakfast take-away. Paolo will be gone … and eventually return, God willing … Stella will be in school until mid-day, Vincent will be at work, and Walter will be in court in Monterey. It will be just you and me.”
“That’s all we need,” Penelope said, smiling.
“Darn tootin’,” Zara said, finishing off the last pinch of cake and licking her fingers to punctuate her words.
The two walked up the stairs to turn in.
“Just what time should I expect dawn to crack tomorrow, by the way?” Penelope asked as they ascended.
“I should think around nine o’clock?”
“You’d make a terrible farmer, you know that?”
“Good thing I’m a professional investigator then, eh?”

Lucy Duff Gordon gears up

Time to strap in for another #UnmentionablesMonday





One Lump or Two - Chapter Eighteen

“Does this mean I’ll be going back to jail?” Penelope asked as Chief Harrison took out his handkerchief to lift the bust and inspect it.
“I’m afraid not, Miss Price. That has proven to be too distracting for our personnel,” he said, giving a knowing look to Zara.
She smiled modestly and tucked her hair behind her ear.
“No, you remain out on bail; and your turning over this bit of evidence is a good faith gesture of your cooperation,” he said.
“But not of my innocence,” Penelope lamented.
“Unfortunately, no. Bag the evidence please, Caruso.”
Vincent put on a pair of white cotton butler’s gloves and deposited the statue in a drawstring canvas bag.
“Would either of you like some tea? It should still be hot,” Zara offered.
Penelope glared at her. As far as she was concerned, the sooner Chief Harrison left, the better.
“I thought we were going out for phosphates!” Stella cried.
“I do love a good phosphate,” the chief said, putting his hat on. “Shall we?”
“I don’t understand what is happening here,” Penelope said.
“Just go with it, P. This is one of those present moments we discussed,” Zara whispered, swaying through the door as Chief Harrison held it open for her.
Vincent gave Stella a peck on the cheek that she rubbed off in feigned disapproval. In retaliation, he took her hand and led her out.
“I still need to find my keys,” Penelope murmured, plunging her arm back into the carpetbag. In the absence of the bulky statue, she found them in seconds, and locked up.
“Don’t dawdle, Miss Price,” the chief called back to her as he strolled alongside Zara.
* * * *
At the soda shop, Penelope sat in silence, sipping a chocolate soda and watching in wonder as Walter Harrison joked and laughed with Zara and the young couple.
“Cat got your tongue, Penelope?” Stella asked.
“Blink if you can hear us,” Zara said.
Penelope opened and shut her eyes several times as she continued to sip. After an exceptionally long shlurp, she worked up the nerve to address the lawman. “Chief Harrison, do you really think I killed Daniel Cooper? And if not, why are you painting me as public enemy number one?”
All other conversation stopped.
Walter took a long drag on his phosphate and responded, “Why, Miss Price, you know I can’t discuss the case with you.”
“But—”
“But nothing, Miss Price,” he replied.
Zara inconspicuously extended her hand in a stop gesture, admonishing Penelope to drop the subject.
“Ahhhh, that hit the spot,” Walter said, finishing off the last of his drink. “Caruso, you and I need to get back to the station. Ladies, will you excuse us?”
He scooted out of the booth from his seat next to Vincent and lay down a dollar bill, covering the cost of all five phosphates as well as a hefty tip.
“Awfully generous for a civil servant,” Penelope commented once the men were out of earshot.
“He’s always been generous like that. That’s how he got the nickname Santa,” Stella remarked.
“Curious,” Penelope remarked, sliding out of the girls’ side of the booth to sit across from Zara and Stella.
“One needn’t be a Rockefeller to be generous, P,” Zara chided.
“So what’s the plan now, P?” Stella asked.
Zara snickered loudly at hearing Stella address Penelope by only her first initial.
Penelope lifted an eyebrow in response. “Well, I’m not exactly sure, to be honest.”
“We’ve gotten a lot of answers today. That must be of some comfort,” Zara suggested.
“Yes, it is. Though I seem to have more questions than ever! I want to look through that book from the library on The Bohemian Club … and we should probably consider expanding the scope of our interviews … as well as revisit a few—Mr. Edwards, for starters,” Penelope said.
“Oh really!” Zara said, smirking.
“Yes, really,” Penelope said, not daring to make eye contact. “He was the most forthcoming, and, as you recall, he offered to tell us more about the club.”
“What about Lily?” Stella asked, leaning in.
“I sense she’s told us about as much as she knows,” Zara said.
“Let’s leave her be for now,” Penelope said.
“I had a thought … and it’s not a particularly pleasant thought,” Zara said, also leaning in. “Shouldn’t we batten the hatches and take a crack at that reporter Elsie Davies?”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Penelope whispered, huddling with the others.  “But I’d rather not unless it becomes absolutely necessary.”
“Best watch your back around her. She’s a real snake in the grass,” Stella slurred, using her tongue to tie a maraschino cherry into a knot.
“Agreed,” Zara said in a low voice, “on both counts.”
“You’re not sitting down on the job, are you Miss Price?”
All three turned to see Florence Morgan standing beside the booth.
“Mrs. Morgan? I didn’t know people like you drank phosphates,” Stella said, surprised to see the matriarch of Pacific Grove at a soda fountain.
“Miss Parker, I would venture to say there is a great deal you don’t know about people like me. But I am not the person you should be investigating, now am I?”
“No, ma’am,” Stella said.
“Is this how you’re spending the money I paid you, ladies?”
“No, Mrs. Morgan,” Penelope said. “This is not … we were just … my apologies, Mrs. Morgan. It won’t happen again.”
“Miss Price, you really must learn to discern when someone is speaking in jest … especially those with dry humor,” Florence said.
“Oh … I …” Penelope stammered.
“We’ve made some headway, Mrs. Morgan,” Zara began. “We believe we’ve found both the murder weapon and the motive for the crime. A valuable object was taken from the shop.”
“Excellent, Miss Zara. This news pleases me greatly. I imagine you will now want to revisit that last critical day before the tragedy. You’re sure to find something in the way of a clue leading up to Daniel’s demise.”
“That’s actually our next step, Mrs. Morgan,” Zara said.
“It is? I thought we were going to interview Elsie Davies,” Penelope said.
“Dry humor,” Zara said to Florence, attempting to override Penelope’s statement.
“I see you’re catching on, Miss Price. Do be careful when it comes to questioning Miss Davies. She’s a member of the press, you know. Chances are she’ll get more out of you than you will out of her,” Florence warned.
“Yes, Mrs. Morgan,” Penelope said.
“Now if you ladies will pardon me, I’m quite in the mood for a chocolate malted,” Florence said with a trademark double tap of her parasol.
The trio collected their things and began walking back toward AntiquiTeas.
“Where do you want to go from here, P?” Zara asked. “Do you want to interview Elsie Davies? Or Hank? Or read your Bohemian Club book? Or try to work out a timeline of what took place the day before the grand opening?”
“Yes,” Penelope answered.
Zara chuckled. “Well, it’s getting late—”
Penelope stopped and shook her head.
“What is it?” Zara asked, halting and turning to face her.
“I never thought I’d see the day when Zara the goodtime gal would call eight in the evening late.”
“I meant late for the people we might interview, of course,” Zara said, resuming walking, “So we should probably pick up the interviews tomorrow.”
“Nuh unh,” Stella commented, trailing her.
“Why not?” Zara asked.
“Tomorrow’s Sunday,” Stella and Penelope said in unison.
“And?” Zara asked.
“And civilized people don’t do things like interview murder witnesses and suspects on the Lord’s day,” Penelope said.
“No, I suppose not. They most likely go to church and have dinner with their families, don’t they?” Zara thought aloud.
“Yep, dullsville,” Stella said, extracting a cigarette from the top of her stocking.
“Stella, really!” Penelope said. “Put that thing away!”
“Relax, P. I don’t usually light ’em unless I’ve got some hooch to go with it,” Stella said.
“I’ll never understand you flappers,” Penelope replied.
“Here’s what I suggest,” Zara began. “Let’s all go home and get a good night’s sleep. Stella, no speakeasy for you tonight. Agreed?”
Stella nodded reluctantly.
“That reminds me, what’s become of The Blind Pig in Dan’s absence?” Penelope asked.
“Beats me. Guess I’d have to go visit it to find out,” Stella commented satirically.
“Good point,” Zara said.
“Very well, but no drinking liquor!” Penelope said.
“Why not?!” Stella protested.
“Because first off it’s illegal, and second, you’re underage,” Penelope said.
“Never stopped me before. Ya know, if I wanted another mother—”
“Because you’re on duty,” Zara interjected. “You’ll need to be extra keen … especially since you’ll be engaged in an undercover operation and all.”
“Ohhhhh … okay … makes sense,” Stella said, tucking her cigarette back in her stocking.
Zara crinkled her eyes at Penelope. “As I was about to say … P, tonight you can bone up on the Bohemian Club, and tomorrow we can have a nice family dinner at home. I’ll cook.”
“You’ll what?!” Penelope balked.
“Oh, how hard can it be?” Zara retorted.
“What has this town done to you?” Penelope said, shaking her head in dismay.
“It’ll be nice,” Zara said, disregarding her friend’s taunts. “And it will give us time to talk through the events that took place on the day before it happened.”
“And it will give us time to get our stomachs pumped, you mean,” Penelope moaned.
“Hush, you. Stellar, I’m sorry we’ll have to miss you tomorrow. I’m sure your mother will want you at home on a Sunday,” Zara said.
Stella frowned and nodded.
“Count your lucky stars,” Penelope whispered.
Zara glared at her. “Your humor? Not so humorous. By the way, Stella, before I forget, does Chief Harrison attend church?”
“Mmm hmmm, every Sunday.”
“Protestant or Catholic?” Zara asked.
“Methodist. Vincent almost turned down the job at the police station because of it. You know how those Italian Catholics are.”
“Oh no!” Zara shouted.
“What is it, Z?” Penelope asked, her heart instantly racing in concern.
“Poor Paolo!” Zara said, holding her hat on her head as she began to run the last block toward the antiques shop. “I forgot all about him. I really must do something about him. We can’t … I need to get home, P. Drive me?”
“If I ever catch up to you!” Penelope gasped, her petite legs racing as Zara pulled away into the distance.
“The end,” Stella said in farewell as she trotted home.

* * * *
Once they’d parked at the Victorian, Zara dashed into the house in search of Paolo. By the time Penelope got to the parlor, a full-scale argument had broken out behind closed bedroom doors with a great deal of shouting in both English and Italian.
Penelope quietly took a bath and dressed for bed. She’d just burrowed under the covers and cracked open Bohemian Jinks when Zara tapped lightly on the door, opening it without waiting to be invited in.
“Z, what’s wrong?” Penelope asked, scooting up in bed and noting Zara’s tear-streaked face.
“We had an enormous row,” Zara said sniffling.
“Oh? I didn’t notice,” Penelope said.
Zara smiled. “You’re an awful liar, you know.”
“Tell your pal Chief Harrison that! But for now, tell me what happened with Paolo.”
Zara got into bed with her. “Amazing what anger will do for your communication skills. Somehow we got across what we wanted to say loud and clear.”
“What is it he wanted to say?”
“That I never spend any time with him or pay any attention to him and basically, that he’s leaving.”
“And what is it you wanted to say?” Penelope asked, lying on her side to face Zara.
Zara turned over on her side as well. “That I was sorry for being so distracted, but that surely he must understand that your life is at stake here.”
“And did he understand that after my case is settled, one way or the other, things can get back to normal for you two?”
“No … I don’t know … You see … I didn’t give him a chance to even discuss that … When he told me he wanted to leave I told him that was fine with me and that I wanted him to go.”
“Surely he must know you only said that because you were hurt and upset and that you didn’t really mean it.”
“Didn’t I?” Zara said, looking dolefully into Penelope’s eyes.
“Z, I’ve never seen you like this. Something’s really wrong, isn’t it?”
Zara looked away and rolled out of bed. “I suppose I’m just overly sensitive, leaving the lifestyle behind and all … and settling into hometown USA. I’ll be fine. Goodnight, P,” she said as she walked toward the door.
“Minnie Clark, don’t think for one moment I’m buying that malarkey. Something is wrong. Now spit it out!”
“That’s just it. I don’t know what it is … truly,” Zara said, exiting the room and weeping softly as she walked down the hall to her room.
* * * *
Penelope slept in later than she would have liked. “Darn! How the devil did I miss church?” she said aloud as she stumbled through the motions of making coffee.
“Buongiorno,” Paolo said sheepishly, walking into the kitchen.
“Good morning, Paolo. What has you up so early in the day?” she asked, pointing to the kitchen clock.
He thought for a minute then gestured, making the sign of the cross.
“Ah, good man. I was supposed to be at church myself. Think God will forgive me?” she said with a smile.
He looked at her vacuously.
“I really have to work on my sense of humor,” she mumbled to herself. “Coffee?” she asked, holding out a fresh pot.
“Si,” he replied, smiling as he took a mug off the shelf.
“I wish you would think twice about leaving. Zara really is awfully fond of you, you know. She’s just consumed with my situation at the moment. She’s a very good friend, you see.”
Paolo sipped his coffee, staring absently into his cup.
“You probably don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?” she said.
Paolo looked up and gasped. “Ritardo!”
“I beg your pardon!” Penelope said. “I called you no such thing!”
He hurriedly drank the rest of his coffee and pointed to the clock.
“Ohhhhh, do you mean you’re late?”
“Ciao,” he said, giving her a kiss on the cheek and racing out of the house to attend mass at San Carlos Cathedral in neighboring Monterey, the closest Catholic church in the area.
Penelope held the side of her cheek, a twinge of melancholy overcoming her as she watched him leave. She prepared a pair of poached eggs and rye toast and let her mind wander, pondering the vastly different paths she and Zara had trod since their school days.
Zara had seen far off countries, exotic peoples, and several of the famed wonders of the world. Penelope had seen little more than a never-ending procession of balance sheets and a handful of motion pictures. Zara had known physical intimacy with a variety of men, whereas Paolo’s peck on the cheek was one of the few kisses Penelope had ever experienced. Zara lived each day like it might be her last on earth, Penelope lived each day carefully so as not to jeopardize the future.
She’d noticed a change in Zara recently though—a mellowing, a domesticating. Zara truly seemed ready to settle down, whereas Penelope’s life was just getting started. Unintentionally, her thoughts drifted toward Hank, and she again caressed the side of her cheek where Paolo had planted his friendly kiss. She sighed and got up to wash her breakfast dishes, not even realizing she’d eaten.
After dressing, she grabbed Bohemian Jinks, which she’d failed to read the evening before, and descended the stairs to the parlor, determined to dive into the book at last. Just then the front door opened.
“Good morning, lazy bones,” Zara said, smiling with flushed cheeks.
“Good morning to you too! Are you all right? Your cheeks are red. Do you have a fever?”
“Not at all. I feel marvelous. I just walked briskly home from church is all.”
Penelope shut her book and regarded Zara in astonishment as Zara removed her hat and gloves.
“I don’t know which terrifies me more—to hear you went to church or that you walked all the way home.”
“All the way there too.”
“It’s settled. This has all been one very long bizarre dream. Aunt Dee never died and I’m home in my bed in Mrs. Holcomb’s boarding house back in San Pedro. My best friend, Zara, is off in Europe somewhere living the life of a duchess.”
Zara pinched her hard.
“Oww! What was that for?!”
“Proof you’re not dreaming. Now, tell me how to make a pot roast.”