‘Great hinds may stink alike,’ Sarah Kingston said, wrinkling her nose, ‘but this one is particularly pungent.’
‘Hey, don’t look at me.’ Art Jenada raised his hands, either in innocence or to ward off the foul odor that was permeating the Brookhills Wisconsin coffeehouse that Sarah and yours truly, Maggy Thorsen, operate.
‘Just ignore her, Art,’ I said from behind the counter. ‘And, Sarah, before you insult the rest of our customers, I noticed the smell when I opened up this morning. Only now it’s getting worse.’
Art was a neighbor, his catering business diagonally across the street from Uncommon Grounds. Our shop – now in its second incarnation – had opened just the month before in a historic train depot at the west end of a commuter-rail line to Milwaukee. In fact, the service counter I now stood behind had been the station’s original ticket windows. The building was in Sarah’s family for decades, the property eventually passing down to her.
Which was one of the reasons I put up with my always downright outspoken – and often outright rude – business partner.
That, and I’ve truly become fond of Sarah. Being her friend is like having your own, evil alter-ego without the guilt.
My alter-ego's eyes were wide with innocence now. ‘But I didn't accuse anybody, Maggy. Besides, a baby hippo feeding on rotted seaweed couldn't cut a fart of this magnitude.’ Sarah fanned her face with an open palm. ‘I just don't think Art's got it in him.’
Art looked like he wasn’t sure whether to agree or disagree. But then, he wasn’t given the chance to choose either.
We all turned to see Tien Romano coming out of the kitchen. She used a thumb and forefinger to pinch closed the nostrils of her pretty nose. ‘The smell's become worse since I started baking.’ Tien sounded like she was bearing up under a heavy head cold. ‘I bet we have mice and some of them died in the wall.’
Great. Many of us connected to Uncommon Grounds had worn more than one hat in life, but none, to my knowledge, bore an exterminator logo on it. I had been in public relations and Sarah ran – though these days, kind of remotely – Kingston Realty.
Tien, along with her father, Luc, had owned a market and butcher shop. Now he was retired and she was our chef, responsible for the homemade pastries and soups, sandwiches and packaged meals we sold to commuters office-bound in the morning and home-bound in the evening.
Tien pointed toward our street-side front entrance. ‘Maybe we should open the door.’
As she said that, the sleigh bells attached to its top jingled. While the door was swinging fully open, the four women sitting in tennis togs at a nearby café table simultaneously hunched their shoulders and grabbed for their napkins.
A racquet-and-ball drill team? No, just seasoned Wisconsinites bracing for the winds of impending winter, following the cruel joke we refer to as ‘Indian Summer’.
The prior five days, our October weather had been unseasonably mild, the thermometer hitting a high of seventy-nine degrees Fahrenheit yesterday. By Wednesday morning, though, the temp had plummeted to near-freezing and the tennis -- along with any potted plants -- had been moved indoors.
An unwelcome development for most of the population, but for a coffeehouse it was nirvana come to earth. Hot drinks were selling like . . . well, hot cakes. Especially the ‘Triple Shot, fully-loaded’ latte I had just made for Art. The autumn specialty drink had enough caffeine and sugar to warm the cockles of the coldest heart. And maybe even send it into fibrillation.
‘Close the door,’ the tennis quartet sang out.
The man who obeyed was fortyish and dapper. You’d never guess his arms were usually covered to the elbows in the blood of sea-creatures.
‘Zee wind, she is a bitch out there,’ Jacque Oui said. ‘Oh, how I long for zee south of Fronce.’
Tien’s face lit up at the sight of Brookhills’ fishmonger to the stars and owner of Schultz’s Market. ‘Jacque, you are the only person I know who can make “bitch” sound sophisticated.’
I was a little surprised by the adoration in Tien’s voice, though maybe I shouldn’t have been. Tien looked at Jacque as intriguingly foreign though she, herself, was the true exotic flower. Italian-American on her father's side and Vietnamese on her mother's, Tien represented the best of all her worlds.
‘The hell with “zee south of Fronce”,’ Sarah said, caricaturing Jacque’s accent and sentiment. ‘I’d take zee south of Chicago right now.’
Where the mercury was probably hovering in the balmy forties.
I sniffed. ‘South of Chicago is Gary. Which, come to think of it, smells pretty close to –’ I gestured widely and vaguely – ‘our establishment right now.’
The industrial city in northernmost Indiana had a reputation for its flame-belching, Mordor-like smokestacks and malodorous haze. A well-earned one, I thought, at least judging by the last time I’d driven through, my windows up and air vents set on ‘RECIRCULATE’.
‘Gary has its steel mills to blame,’ Art said, sniffing, too. ‘What’s Uncommon Grounds’ excuse?’
A little brutal, especially given my earlier defense of him. But like our county’s sheriff Jake Pavlik, the love of my life – or at least of the second half of that span – Art was a native of greater Chicagoland. The caterer was just standing up for a sister-city, albeit one with an atmospheric ambience beyond dragon’s breath.
‘You’re right, Art,’ I said. ‘We have no excuse here. Like Tien suggested, maybe opening the street-side door – and, I guess, the platform one – would cross-ventilate the place.’
Sarah snorted, then winced from the air she drew in. ‘If our customers have to choose between asphyxiation and hypothermia, they’ll vote with their feet and brave the outside world.’
‘Sarah?’ I said quietly.
‘You have a better plan?’
Her features twisted into an expression that reminded me of the old Cabbage Patch dolls. Which was answer enough for me. Not for the first time, I surveyed our layout.
The coffeehouse was square, with the service area, office and kitchen forming a smaller square snugged into the back right corner, thereby creating an ‘L’ of public space. The shorter base of that ‘L’ paralleled the street out front and was filled with café tables. The long leg was lined with a high bar-top and stools where customers could sit facing the windows that overlooked the train tracks. The bar-top ended at the doorway to the train’s boarding platform. Across a corridor from that platform door were our restrooms.
As I pushed out the swinging gate that connected the serving area with the public part of the shop, our mail carrier, Ann, came through our street-side entrance. Ignoring the chorus of ‘brrr’s’ in her wake, she nodded to me without breaking stride and dropped a rubber-banded stack of envelopes at a service window. Then Ann wheeled about-face on her heel and quick-marched back outside.
‘Wow, Ann’s in a hurry today,’ I said, continuing toward the platform door.
‘She was – wisely – holding her breath,’ Sarah said, picking up the mail packet and fanning the air with it as she followed me. ‘The only reason those Brookhills Barbies are still here is that their own perfume is out-reeking the aforementioned baby hippo that died beneath our floorboards.’
‘Shhhh.’ I looked over my shoulder at the foursome in tennis skirts, a subset of the larger population of Brookhills Barbies.
As unnaturally proportioned and coiffed as the dolls of the same name, most of the women were also Barbie-plastic in their personalities. Plastic, though, being just one of the elements from the Brookhills Periodic Table that often included silicone and saline, collagen and Botox.
‘Oh, come on, Sarah,’ I said, pushing the platform door wide open and sucking in a lungful of chilly air, ‘it’s certainly not that . . . oh, dear Lord!’ I put my hand to my mouth. Cross-ventilation would be less the stink-solution and more the vehicle for spreading the problem.
As I closed the door, Sarah was staring down at a fat envelope. ‘What the hell?’ She ripped the thing open.
I knew to keep my mouth shut. Not that hard now, since, despite being indoors, I still was trying not to breathe at all. Sarah seemed to absorb the gist of the document she’d unfolded.
Finally, my ever-circumspect partner looked up. ‘That bitch is dead.’