Monday, January 11, 2016

Toying with Mrs. Prescott - excerpt #7, One Lump or Two

Back in Penelope’s room at the boarding house, things were far from quiet. Penelope had taken to brainstorming her ideas for the new home while standing on top of the flimsy cot on which she slept, and Zara smuggled Paolo into the dwelling through a second-story window. The jazz-loving flapper blared Duke Ellington at decibels of which Mrs. Prescott would surely disapprove if she were home … which, mercifully, she was not. Paolo prepared cocktails and struck Charles Atlas style poses as Zara used her long cigarette holder to direct him. In her reverie, Penelope failed to comment on the illegality of having either a male or alcoholic beverages in her room.

The room shook with a brief jolt, causing the three revelers to freeze. “P, kill the music,” Zara said.

Penelope’s mind raced to recall from her youth what to do in case of earthquake.

“Paolo, under the bed, now!” Zara said, pushing him down to the ground.

“Actually, I think you’re supposed to stand under a doorway when there’s an earthquake,” Penelope said, opening the door and surprised to find Mrs. Prescott standing before it. “Mrs. Prescott, ehrm good afternoon.”

“Miss Price, was that loud music I heard coming from your window as I walked up?”

“I’m afraid so, Mrs. Prescott. It was my fault,” Zara said, penitently approaching Mrs. Prescott and standing with her hands folded before her like a virtuous schoolgirl. “When I turned the Victrola on I didn’t realize how loud it would be. I was unable to find a volume lever so I turned it off completely.”

“And you are …?” Mrs. Prescott said, sizing up Zara with an experienced eye.

“Minnie Clark,” Zara returned, adopting an air of innocence.

At hearing Zara’s real name, Paolo emitted a brief chortle from his hiding place beneath the bed in front of which Penelope stood. Penelope let out a small cough to cover up his laugh.

“You’re not coming down with a cold, are you Miss Price? Come to my room and I’ll dose you with some castor oil. Can’t afford to infect the whole of the boarding house, now can we?”

“No, ma’am,” Penelope said, scratching her cheek to disguise the wince she felt coming on at the thought of the castor oil. “Really, I’m surprised at you, Miss Price. I believe I was quite clear about our policy on guests. All must be approved prior to ascending to the dormitory level.”

“I … ehr …” Penelope stammered.

“No exceptions,” Mrs. Prescott added, a look of sadistic satisfaction taking hold of her features as she watched Penelope squirm.

“Mrs. Prescott, Penelope—I mean Miss Price—and I are childhood friends, and after hearing her praise your hostel so highly, I begged to view it for myself. You see, I’m new in town and looking for lodgings,” Zara said, winning over Mrs. Prescott with ease.

“Oh … well … that’s different. I require two months payment up front,” Mrs. Prescott said, eyeing Zara as a tiger does its prey. “Two? Huh, I planned for three. All the better,” Zara said, toying with the avaricious housekeeper. “Shall we, Penolope? Miss Price is going to show me the town. I should really freshen up first. Delightful to meet you at last, Mrs. Prescott. I see everything Penelope said about you is true. Now if you’ll excuse me … all those hours on the road … the water closet calls. Which way is it, Penelope?”

“Oh, uh, down the hall on the left,” Penelope answered, still trying to comprehend what had just happened and maintain Zara’s ruse.

Zara strode down the hall with Mrs. Prescott hard on her heels.

“Three months would be fine too,” Mrs. Prescott called, running to catch up to Zara.

Zara stopped at the lavatory door and turned to face Mrs. Prescott. “Thank you, Mrs. Prescott. I think I can handle things on my own from here.”