Champagne and Strawberry pie

Frank settled himself at his usual table when he was alone. It was a dark corner of the supper club’s balcony. He could sit there and rarely be noticed by the rotating crowd of patrons below. He leaned on his elbow and rubbed his forehead. If he had to hear one more thing about wallpaper or draperies, he was going jump off the pier with bricks in his pockets. The house, the new house was the only thing Caroline ever talked about. He built it to please her. She wanted the stable family life and to some degree Frank did too. Only he had imagined it with Margot, but she was dead, rotting in the ground outside Chicago.

“Is Mrs. Connolly joining you this evening?” Frank was torn from his thoughts by a waiter standing next to him expectantly.

“Uh, no, she’s busy tonight,” Frank sighed. “Just give me the usual.”

“Yes, very good, Mr. Sicero.” The waiter bowed and hurried away. Frank stared down at all the people smiling and laughing below. He frowned. He thought about moving into the lounge where it was quieter, but it had been rented out for a stag party that evening. The waiter arrived with Frank’s drink. He drained it and put it back on the waiter’s tray before he could even leave.

“Keep ‘em coming,” Frank growled.

***

Caroline hummed as she bustled around the kitchen. She opened the door on her new kitchen range and checked on the chicken that sat inside. Just a little while longer, she thought. She grabbed the china and went to set the dining room table. She quickly gave the new silverware a finishing buff and twirled as she made her way to the sitting room.

She gave the Victrola a few cranks and reset the needle. She adjusted the crystal ash tray slightly for the fiftieth time. She wanted it to be just the right distance from Frank’s chair, where he would sit after dinner and relax. Or should it be on the right?  Caroline moved the table to the other side of the chair. Then readjusted the angle of the chair, but then he’d be able to see into the dining room and she didn’t want him harried by the sight of her cleaning up. She moved the furniture back to where it was, but decided to switch the lamps. Once the lamps were settled, Caroline stood back and took in the room. Yes, that’s it, she thought, Wait, is that?

“My chicken!” Caroline cried. She bolted back to the kitchen to see smoke curling out of the oven. She slammed it open, hastily grabbed the pan and slammed it on the stove top. Coughing, she rushed to open the backdoor and let the smoke escape. She waved a kitchen towel around to get the air moving. As the smoke cleared, she saw the chicken. Its skin was blackened and charred. She bit her lip and picked up the carving knife.

Delicately, she cut into the breast. Well, at least it’s done, she thought. I’ll have it already carved and on the plate before Frank gets home. Caroline set to work salvaging her chicken and hiding the evidence of her neglect.

***

Frank pushed his plate away. The waiter stepped forward and held open a box of cigars.

“Thank you, tell the cooks everything was superb.” Frank helped himself to a cigar and the waiter quickly lit a match for him. He leaned back as his plate was whisked away.

“Now, ladies and gentleman, a preview by The Night Owl cabaret,” the bandleader announced. The band picked up their instruments again and began a new tune. The dancers high kicked as they entered. Their dresses glittered in the stage lights. Modest enough for the late evening crowd, but tight enough to pique the interest. They swung their feather boas playfully at the crowd and were encouraged by hoots and hollers. Dining wives gave their husbands steady glares and ordered them to sit down. Frank laughed. He forgot about his earlier worries. Then it was as if he had the wind knocked out of him. She looked straight up at him as if she could see through the shadows and she smiled. A platinum blond dancer he hadn’t seen before.

Frank waved Jack, his bodyguard over.

“Fetch Seymour, would you?” Jack nodded and went to the lounge bar. He returned with a confused Seymour.

“Yes, Mr. Sicero, is there something the matter with your drinks this evening?” the bartender asked.

“No, I was wondering if you knew anything about that new dancer. The blond,” Frank asked. Seymour stepped closer to the balcony edge and squinted.

“Oh yes, I see now, I think Jerome said her name was Bea. She picks up a tune pretty quick in rehearsal.”

“Thank you, that’ll be all, Seymour.” Frank kept his eyes on the stage. The barman nodded and headed back to his post. Jack lingered at the table side.

“Jack, you can head home for the night,” Frank said.

“Sir?” Jack wasn’t used to being sent away this early.

“Yes, and do me a favor, stop and tell Mrs. Connolly not to wait up. Some urgent business needs my attention.” Frank didn’t even look at him.

“Yes, sir.” Jack turned to go. He was already dreading the delivery of that particular message.

***

Caroline sat at the dining room table alone. The plated food was still untouched. The ticking of the grandfather clock emanated through the house. The Victrola had long since ran down. Where was Frank? She heard the door latch click and quickly picked up her fork to poke food around her plate. She forced a smile and looked over to the sitting room, but it wasn’t Frank standing there. It was one of his henchmen, Jack.

“Oh, you startled me!” she said brightly.

“I’m sorry to impose, Mrs. Connolly, but Mr. Sicero had some urgent business to attend to tonight.” He watched a grimace cross over Caroline’s face, before she put on a resolute mask.

“Did he say when he’ll be home?”

“No, Ma’am, I don’t think he’ll make it home tonight.” Caroline’s face pulled again.

“Well, are you hungry, Jack? I have plenty of roast chicken, potatoes and carrots.”

“Oh no, Ma’am, I’ve already eaten.” Jack fidgeted where he stood.

“Oh dear,” Caroline sighed, “What am I going to do with all this?” Her shoulders slumped and she shook her head. Jack shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He glanced at the door, then back at Caroline.

“On second thought, it does smell really good.” Jack took off his jacket. Caroline beamed as he came around the table to sit at what would have been Frank’s spot.

“No hats at the table, Jack.” He quickly obeyed. He picked up his fork and started to eat as Caroline looked on. He forced a smile, even though the food had gone cold.

“Very good, ma’am.”

“Why thank you, Jack. I also have strawberry pie for dessert.” Her hand shook as she reached for her drink and she tried to take a steady gulp, but her throat tightened and she ended up coughing.

“Ma’am, are you okay?” Jack was almost halfway out of his chair, before Caroline waved him off.

“I’m quite alright. Do you have any idea what kind of business detained Frank?”

“No, ma’am, I don’t.” He felt like Caroline looked right through him, but she looked down at her plate and shrugged.

***

Bea slowly came through the curtain of the private parlor. She had expected the groom-to-be, but instead found someone very different. He wasn’t one of the raucous young men from the edge of the stage. This man was very well composed as he puffed on a cigar. She paused.

“My manager said you wanted a private dance?” she asked.

“Yeah, but perhaps you’d like a drink first. I ordered you some champagne. It’d be a shame to let it go to waste.” Frank pulled the bottle out of the ice bucket and poured her a glass.

“Oh thank you,” Bea blushed a little. She came forward and accepted the glass he held out.

“Sit down,” Frank patted the cushion next to him. “I hear you’re new. What’s your name?”

“Beatrice Stevens, but my friends call me Bea.” She perched on the seat and sipped her champagne.

“Do you know who I am?” Frank said slyly. Bea shook her golden curls.

“Should I?”

“Yes, because I own the place.” Bea’s a grew wide, then her rosebud lips broke into a wide grin.

“I see…” she smirked. She had finally landed the big one.

***

Jack pushed away his plate, empty save smears of strawberry pie. Caroline had relaxed through out the dinner and sat smoking a cigarette as she watched him eat.

“Thank you Mrs. Connolly, that was delicious,” Jack said.

“You’re welcome, Jack, but please, I told you to call me Caroline.” She dabbed out her cigarette and stood. She patted him on the shoulder and gave him a beaming smile. He forced one in return. He still felt uncomfortable, as if Frank would walk through the door at any minute. She began gathering up the plates and carried them into the kitchen. Jack grabbed the remainder and followed. She smiled again as he set them beside the sink.

“Oh, you didn’t have to do that. Why don’t you go relax?” She placed a warm hand on his arm.

“Actually, I ought to get going ma’am. It’s awfully late.” Jack noticed her wince as he spoke, but it was true. He couldn’t, no shouldn’t stay any longer. Caroline’s grip on his arm tightened. He gently put a hand on top of hers and lifted it away. He clutched it in both of his.

“Thank you again for dinner, Mrs. Connolly. I really appreciate it. Now why don’t you head upstairs and get some rest. Leave the dishes for the maid in the morning. I’ll lock up.”

Caroline sniffed as she stared at their hands. Then she finally nodded in agreement. She didn’t look up as she left the kitchen. Jack waited until he heard the creak of the stairs before he moved to check the locks and the windows. He turned out the lights and stood at the front door in the dark. Lamplight spilled down the stairs and he thought he heard a faint sob. He strained his ears, but heard nothing else. He left the house and locked the door.

***

Bea shrieked with laughter as she burst into a room of the Cormorant hotel. She twirled and flopped on the bed. Frank staggered in behind her. He took off his hat and flicked it onto a chair.

“Move over and make some room, Bea.”

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