I Found A Knife

A Story site from EldonHughes

Chapter Eight --
High Tea in a Small Town

Love and scandal are the
best sweeteners of tea.” 

~Henry Fielding 

What can I say?  The ride was everything I hoped it would be.  The Auburn’s stately carriage turned the back roads and state highways into lanes as soft as summer cotton.  Max Tatum was a deft and alert driver, expertly anticipating each gear change, flattening out the curves.  The hand built coachworks and deep plush interior was as comfortable, and as comforting, as my grandfather’s favorite recliner. 

For a few moments I was back in 1968.  I was a small child, sitting in Grandpa’s lap and listening to the radio as “our Cardinals” played “those bastards from New York”.  Baseball had been on television for almost 30 years by then and available on the family TV for a decade, but Grandpa said that baseball belonged on the radio.  “I can see the game just fine from here,” he’d say, tapping the side of his head with a gnarled old finger.

Forward momentum and a slight cross wind kept the sun’s heat at bay as we darted in and out of the shade of passing trees.  We were over an hour down the road before it finally occurred to me again to ask where we were going.

Miles Lake,” Max answered.

Never been there.”

No reason you should have.  It’s a private lake, about halfway down to the state line.  Good fishing in the summer, pretty good hunting, about 200 acres.”

200 acres?” I was surprised.  “That’s pretty big for a private lake.”

Max nodded.  “Maybe two dozen homes.  None of ‘em worth less than a million bucks.  Not that ol’ Boone paid that for his.”

Boone?  Is that who we are going to see?”

Max nodded again, and downshifted as we started up a small hill.  We were over the hill and into a long straightaway, surrounded by cornfields before he spoke again.

Boone Singer bought this place for his wife.  He owned the bank in Joshua’s Hollow back then.”  Max took his eyes off the road ahead briefly to look over at me.  “Not even forty yet, and he owned a bank.  Can you imagine it?  He’d been a mover and shaker since he came out of high school; firm handshake, clever with words, captain of the high school basketball team.  They won the state championship that year, last time the team has even been to state. He probably could have been Governor by the time he was through…”

But….?” I asked.

But, in 1957 he bought this mansion on Miles Lake, sold the bank and moved his family out of the Hollow.” 

Even before I opened my mouth he raised a hand off the steering wheel to stop me. 

I’ll let him tell you the rest when we get there.”

What was that you said about high tea?”

Boone is an anglophile… He is obsessed with British things.  Plus, he has always considered himself a member of the society elite… not that that’s saying much in the Hollow.”

I gave Max an open look of doubt and curiosity.

Hey, son, you’re along for the ride, right?”  I nodded.  “Well, just keep going along for the ride, and we’ll get you where you want to go.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A high ceilinged stone entranceway led to a pair of 12 foot high doors.  They had been formed from some ancient red oaks and then hand carved to match the arch of the entrance.  The giant brass door handles looked like they would take two hands to operate, but the door swung inward easily and silently as the butler let us in.  We followed him into a main hall; vaulted ceilings, lots of dark wood, giant over stuffed furniture, and a pale, shrunken old man in a wheelchair.

Max led me to him.  “Mr. Boone Singer, may I introduce Marshall Farraday.  This is the young man of which we spoke yesterday.”

It was yesterday, Max, not a hundred years ago.  I remember who he is.”

In his voice you could still hear some remnants of the commanding tone,  of the man he had once been… the one that Max had described.  But now the words contained the far away sounds of breaking glass, the breath had the rasping sound you get when somebody wads up a brittle old newspaper, just before throwing it away. 

His handshake was dry, skin like I imagined a dead bat’s wing would feel.  I was careful not to let my grip get too firm.

Max ignored his gruff response.  “We in time for tea?”

Singer grunted in amusement.  “Of course you are, you old freeloader.”  His right hand landed on a toggle switch on the chair arm and the chair pivoted and left us standing there.  “Come along,” the voice said faintly.

Walking behind him I could see an oxygen tank strapped to the back of the chair.  A clear hose ran from it into a small plastic canister with some kind of clear liquid in it.  The hose continued out to an oxygen mask that was hung over the right arm of the chair.

We followed him down a wide hallway and out onto a large open patio.  The floor was natural stone, each one fitted and pieced and worked until the surface was as smooth as possible and perfectly even.  The patio looked out on a long expanse of lush green grass.  Off in the distance I could see a man on a large riding lawnmower, working his way through this week’s checkerboard pattern.  Beyond him the grass sloped abruptly down to the lake.

A young woman in a formal English maid’s outfit was waiting for us beside a large round table.  “High Tea.”  Max wasn’t kidding.  Crisp white linens covered the table, draping almost to the floor.  The centerpiece was a giant vase of freshly cut flowers.  I hadn’t seen flower beds on the long run up the driveway.  There must be a huge garden out on the grounds somewhere, I thought.  That or somebody had to make a run into town for them every morning.  Either way….

The flowers were the centerpiece, but the center of attention was a large sterling silver tea set, surrounded by a dizzying array of cakes and sliced fresh fruits and some kind of golden brown meat pastries.

Please, sit, gentlemen.  Make yourselves at home,” Singer said.  “You do drink tea, don’t you, young man?”

I had one of those rare moments when my college loans didn’t let me down.

You can never get a cup of tea large enough, or a book long enough, to suit me,” I said.

Ahh.  C. S. Lewis,” he answered.  “Perhaps there is hope for you, after all.  Even if you do shake hands like a little girl.”

I was trying to…,” I started to protest, but my mind was already waving warning flags about the first part of it. 

Hope for me?” I looked back and forth between the two of them.  “Do you gentlemen have some kind of goal in mind for me?”

Of course,” he replied.  “Why else would you be here?”  He motioned for the woman to begin serving.  “But later, perhaps.  Right now?  Let’s have some tea.”

The only way to get the full effect of high tea is to suspend any awareness of the 21st century around you.  You have to let yourself believe that you are in the English countryside, circa 1900.  That is how Singer described the ceremony and history surrounding the meal. 

Except for some primitive cretin’s willingness to use pre-packaged, bagged tea, the ceremony hasn’t changed in the last two hundred years.”

The tea was delicious, and unlike any I have ever had before.  (You see, I’m one of those cretins.  Probably a good thing I don’t try to do High Tea at home.)  The food was wonderful, too.  The third time I complimented the young woman, who it turned out had also helped prepare the meal, Singer sent her back to the kitchen for some fresh cream.  While she was gone he gently chastised me; “Wouldn’t want her forgetting her place.”

As the meal wound down Max rose from the table.  “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I think I’ll walk off a bit of this wonderful meal.”

Singer watched him go down the stairs and start across the lawn in the direction of the lake.

He dismissed the maid and waited until she had disappeared toward the kitchen.  Then he fixed me with a hard gaze.  “How much has Max told you about me and my interest in you?  And, as succinctly as possible, tell me what you know about the deaths of Lawrence and Madelyn McColley.”

I didn’t see where I owed this guy anything other than a good meal, but hey, like Max said, I’m here.  I might as well take the ride.  So I told him that I had only been living in Joshua’s Hollow for a couple of years, and that I had never heard of him other than some places where his name showed up in the old newspapers..  I told him what Max had said, and what I had learned, or at least heard, about those two nights, two years apart and so many years ago.

After I finished he sat back against the wheelchair and stared into the distance.  Then he asked.  “So Tulley told you Madelyn cut herself on the window.  Glad to see he still remembers.”

I looked at him. “Sheriff Sinclair doesn’t strike me as a man who forgets much of anything, ever.”

Got that right, boy.”  His short laugh had a bitter quality to it. “But just because he remembers to say it, doesn’t make it so.”

I beg your pardon?  That isn't how she died?”

Hell, no.”  He started coughing.  It was a painful sounding, racking cough, coming from somewhere deep inside him.  I started forward, but he raised a hand in a “wait” gesture.  He picked up the oxygen mask and, after a number of breaths in the mask, the coughing stopped and his breathing evened out again.   Finally he pulled the mask away from his face and placed it back over the chair arm.

I’ll tell you how she died.  I was there, and it wasn’t that damned window.  I haven’t talked to anyone about this in over forty years, and I don’t plan to ever repeat it again.  So, listen up, boy.”

Up Next:  1956, Again...

 


 

Book One of the Poison and Wine series by C.H. Valentino and Eldon Hughes.

    There's a battle underway in New Orleans. It's a game being played between the voodoo Barons Samedi and LaCroix.

    Danni Toussaint has a nail in her chest, the mark of her debt to The Baron Samedi. To repay him, she steals souls.

   Michael Belew works for the Sisters of New Orleans. Nuns in the 9th Ward are missing, and he suspects voodoo is the cause.  He's desperate.

    He drafts Danni to help find them. Now they are pawns in the Baron's game.

There is no winning the game. There's only survival. But even that could cost Michael his soul.

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I Found a Knife

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