The beginning of this will look familiar...
“She’s a Russian spy,” Leaf said. “A sleeper. She’s been here for 30 years, and her kids want to be rock stars, but her heart belongs forever to Mother Russia.”
Lily checked out the stout middle-aged woman down the street, picking her scarf up off the sidewalk and dusting it off, puffing out her breath on this cold, windy day. It was the afternoon lull at the Evil Coffee Shop, and a particularly dead one at that. Lily sat at the counter, her chair swivelled around so she could look out the window, while Leaf leaned over her shoulder.
“He’s a drug dealer,” said Lily, flicking her fingers at a shady-looking young man in a trenchcoat with the collar up, lurking in the doorway of the laundromat.
“Oh, now that’s no fun,” said Leaf. “I mean, he looks like a drug dealer. It’s more fun if the old man with the bowler hat is a drug dealer, and this guy’s a ...I don’t know, a Sunday School teacher who happens to have shifty eyes.”
“No, I mean, he really is a drug dealer. Jared knew him.”
“That figures. Geez, what were you doing with that guy?” Leaf shook his head back and forth slowly.
Lily, staring out the window, unconsciously shook hers the same way, at the same speed. “No idea,” she said, then paused. “He had a motorcycle,” she admitted finally.
"Ooh! Shallow!” said Leaf.
“Good thing I have a bicycle. Lures the chicks in every time.” Lily gave him a small, subtle eyeroll. “So, hmmm, should we call the cops or something? About that guy?”
“The old man in the bowler hat’s a cop,” Lily said calmly.
Lily shrugged. “He might be. Or a spy. Keeping an eye on the Russian sleeper – except she’s getting away, so he’s not very good at it.”
“He’s too noticeable for a spy. They have to blend in. Now there – she’s a spy.” Leaf pointed to a teenaged girl with blue hair and a skateboard tucked under her arm. “MI-5.”
“Okay, CIA, then. She’s actually thirty-seven. It’s a great cover.”
“So the old man in the bowler hat is...” Lily considered. “A famous writer. Very reclusive. Best-seller. He writes under a pseudonym. No one knows where he really lives except his agent. We could out him and make a million bucks from the tabloids.”
“The old man in the bowler hat’s a lion tamer.” Lily and Leaf looked up. They hadn’t even heard Elana coming out from the back room. “Or he was. Used to be with the circus. He had a nasty accident. He’s got a scar running all the way across his torso, and that limp? The lion had to be put down. Sad, really. Broke the old guy’s heart. He kept sobbing, ‘It wasn’t Bobo’s fault! He’s a wild animal, he wasn’t meant for this life!’ ”
“Wow,” said Lily. “You’re good.”
“Elana is the queen,” said Leaf.
“No, no, no!” said Lily, suddenly waving her hands around crazily. “Look, look! She’s the queen!”
Leaf and Elana followed Lily’s gaze out to a woman who was suddenly standing in the middle of the sidewalk, looking around her at all the storefronts on Main Street. She had aggressively blonde hair, styled for full volume and wave effect, under a massive black cowboy hat with silver studs in it. Her fringe jacket didn’t quite conceal the colorful broomstick skirt underneath, or the big silver belt whose ends dangled down. Her silver earrings were bigger than half-dollar coins. She stared at the Evil Coffee Shop window with an open mouth, as if it were a Wonder of the World.
Lily said breathlessly, “She’s the deposed queen of – of – ”
“Ruritania?” Leaf suggested.
“Of...Litho...swaz...eria...mark. She’s in exile, but she can’t quite forget her days of finery and jewels, and so she buys these silver things...”
“And disguises herself as a rich Texas tourist with no taste whatsoever?” Leaf shrugged. “Okay, I’ll buy that. So why’d they throw her out of Lithoswazeriamark?”
“I’m glad you asked that,” said Lily, stalling for time. “Because it’s a really interesting story. You see...” Suddenly she coughed. The bell over the door jingled, and the deposed queen of Lithoswazeriamark walked right into the Evil Coffee Shop, where she saw three eager faces smiling at her. The queen smiled right back, her white teeth flashing, her brassy hair glinting under the lights.
“Howdy!” she said. “Are y’all open? There’ll be three of us.”
Elena was the first to recover, snatching up three menus and thrusting them at Leaf. “Yes, of course we’re open. Please, sit anywhere.”
Shortly afterward a man came in – the man in the bowler hat. The Queen waved at him excitedly, and he sat opposite her in the booth. Lily averted her fascinated eyes and focused them on Bleak House, which was open before her on the counter. She was wondering whether number three would turn out to be the MI-5 agent with the blue hair, but it wasn’t. He was a small, thin man with fluffed-back sandy hair and oddly high cheekbones.
“Washed-up underwear model,” Leaf whispered to her on his way to the table.
“Can I get you folks something to drink?” he asked, pen at the ready.
“Oh, we’re ready to order,” said the Queen. “We’d like one of every dessert you have, please.”
“There are fifteen desserts,” Leaf observed.
“Yes,” said the Queen. “And three spoons, please. Or three forks.”
“Three spoons and three forks,” said Leaf, sweeping the menus away. He gave Elana a wide-eyed look as he passed her on the way to the kitchen. Elana busied herself around the counter, wiping things down, fiddling with the coffee machine, any excuse not to go back to the office while the fifteen desserts were consumed.
It took several trips to deliver them all, but finally the table was full, and the three dug in.
Lily, Leaf and Elana carefully didn’t watch, but listened intently to the conversation.
“Oh, my! This is very good,” said the Queen.
“The best cake I’ve ever eaten,” said the high-cheekboned man.
“You’ve got to try this peach cobbler,” said the bowler hat.
As they traded plates back and forth, making happy noises, the high-cheekboned man made notes in a little book. “Intense chocolate flavor,” he mumbled. “Melt-in-your-mouth pie crust. Not too sweet, but just right...”
“Excuse me, young man,” called the Queen at last, waving excitedly to Leaf. “May we please talk to the manager?”
“That would be me,” said Elana, coming over to their table. Every plate was empty, she noticed with raised eyebrows.
“Ah, excellent. We’d like to buy your dessert recipes.”
“You’d like to buy our recipes?” Elana repeated.
“Yes – oh, I didn’t explain. I’m Adair Hoffman. Perhaps you recognize me?”
“I was featured on the TV show Dueling Restauranteurs. I came in second.”
“Oh. Um...congratulations,” said Elana.
“Well, thank you, dear. Of course I’d rather have won. This is my associate, Dale Brockley,” she said, geturing toward the bowler hat, “and this is John Halliday.” The high-cheekboned one tossed his sandy hair to acknowledge the introduction.
Elana had the feeling she was supposed to recognize all these names. “Very nice to meet you,” she said.
“Now, if you had watched the show, you’d know that I have a brand-new restaurant in Dallas, called Hearthside, specializing in high-end comfort food.”
“High-end comfort food,” Elana nodded, aware that she was repeating things again. She had no idea what high-end comfort food was, besides a contradiction in terms.
“And Dale here,” said Adair, “will be opening a branch in Chicago, while John will head up our New York location. We’ve been looking for the best comfort-food desserts in the country, and word of mouth sent us here.” Adair pointed a deliberate finger straight down at the table before her.
“I’m sorry,” said Elana. “Our recipes are not for sale.”
“Oh,” said Adair, “but it would be good for your business as well. We would advertise all our desserts as being genuine Evil Coffee Shop recipes. You’d be world-famous.”
“Uh-huh,” said Elana. “Well, that’s very interesting, Miss...”
“Adair. As it happens, I don’t own the recipes for our desserts. I don’t know what the recipes are. They’re top secret. Only our dessert guy knows.”
“Your pastry chef? Is he here?”
“Our, uh, pastry chef, yes.” Dessert guy had seemed more appropriate somehow. “I have to tell you, I don’t think you’ll get too far with him.”
“Please ask him,” said Adair with a big white-toothed grin. “I’d love to meet the genius who created these masterpieces.”
Elana cleared her throat. “Leaf,” she said. “Would you go see whether Chuck is available, please?”
“Chuck?” Now Leaf was repeating things.
“Yes,” said Elana with a smile. “Chuck.”
“Uh, okay, sure.” Leaf coughed.
A few minutes later, he emerged from the kitchen, followed by a man you would not want to meet in a dark alley – or a well-lit one, for that matter. He was broad-shouldered and gave the impression of being big, yet squat. He had no neck, or a neck so wide it appeared to be part of his torso. His head was shaved, revealing a tattoo in the shape of an X on top, and his red face was scrunched up in a permanent scowl. More tattoos decorated his thick, muscular arms, and Lily did a quick sweep with her eyes to make sure there weren’t any swastikas among them.
“Yeah?” said Chuck. “Someone ask for me?”
“Why yes, I did,” said Adair, with all the composure befitting the Queen of Lithoswazeriamark. “Howdy. I’m Adair. And am I right in assuming you’re the pastry chef here?”
“Yeah,” growled Chuck. :”I’m the pastry chef. You got a problem with that?”
“Not at all, Mr....Chuck. We’ve just been sampling your marvellous work. And we’d like to make you an offer.”
Chuck scratched his head. “You want to buy a pie?” he asked.
“No, no, more than that. We want to buy your recipes. We’ll pay very well.”
“Recipes? I don’t use recipes. I cook –” Chuck slapped his right fist across his chest like a warrior issuing a challenge. “I cook from the heart.”
“Well, isn’t that the sweetest thing!” Adair gushed.
Lily choked on her mouthful of coffee. Leaf patted her back as she coughed.
The bowler hat cleared his throat. “What happens when you get sick? No desserts?”
“I never get sick,” Chuck snarled.
“There was that time last February,” Elana reminded him.
“Oh, yeah. Well. Okay. The flu. Everybody gets the flu. Yeah. My daughter filled in for me. She cooks from the heart, too.”
“Well,” said Adair brightly, “Next time you make a dessert, you could just write down what you’re doing, and then you would have recipes. Very valuable ones, I might add.”
“No recipes!” Chuck’s face turned, if possible, even redder. “If it’s written down, the spontaneity of the moment is lost. Every dessert is a unique experience, a single moment in time, unrepeatable. You ask me to compromise that?”
“Well, now,” said Adair. “If you put it that way, of course not. But I’m telling you, I want these desserts. They’d be a huge hit in Dallas. If we can’t have the recipes, can we have you?”
“I am not for sale!” Chuck said proudly.
Adair chuckled. “I’m just offering you a job, darlin’.”
Lily dropped all pretense of interest in either her book or her coffee. Had the Queen of Lithoswazeriamark actually called Chuck ‘darlin’?’
“I have a job,” said Chuck.
“I could pay you way more than you’re making here. No offense, honey,” Adair said, nodding at Elana.
“None taken.” But Elana stood, arms folded, expression grim, teeth clenched.
“Thing is,” Chuck said, scratching his head right over the X tattoo, ‘I’d need things. They accomodate me here. I work the extra-early shift mostly. I’m not usually here in the afternoon like this. I need to be alone.”
“Why is that?” asked Adair, in a way that suggested she found Chuck completely charming.
“Because I sing to them.”
“The desserts. My whole heart goes out to them, and for me that means singing.”
“Well,” breathed Adair, “That is absolutely adorable. The singing pastry chef. We could make you famous!”
Chuck scoffed. ‘If I wanted to be famous, I’d go on one of those stupid reality TV cooking shows.”
Lily, Leaf and Elana averted their eyes. Adair patted her hair as if adjusting it, but it didn’t move.
“Oh,” said Chuck. “Adair. That’s right. You’re the one whose custard failed.”
Adair coughed. “I’ve put that behind me. I am not a pastry chef. That’s why I need you.”
“And the singing?”
“Well, why do you have to sing alone? I think customers would find that so charming, to hear singing from the kitchen. What do you sing, exactly? Would you do something for us now?”
Leaf leaned his elbows on the counter and put his chin in his hands. This was so he could tuck his fingers into his ears without being too obvious.
Chuck took a deep breath, going slightly purple in the process. “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair,” he warbled with passionate intensity and no regard whatsoever for tuning. His voice, appropriately, resembled a Cuisinart mixer. “And send him on his way....”
“Oh,” said Adair. “I see. And is it always that particular song?”
“Nah,” said Chuck. “I sing lots of songs. But I like that one. It’s zippy, you know? It’s got zip. I sing it to the pies. The hot fudge needs something a little slower, like Moon River, wider than a mile...”
Lily leaned her elbows on the counter, following Leaf’s example.
A tinny version of Pachelbel’s Canon suddenly rang out. John Halliday flipped open his phone.
“No cellphones,” said Elana, pointing to a sign over the counter. “Take it outside.”
“But there’s no one here!” Halliday sputtered.
“We’re here,” Lily ventured. Halliday made a snarling face and went outside.
“All right, “ said Adair to Chuck. “Never mind the fame. Think of the people out there in the world who could experience your desserts. Surely you wouldn’t deny them the chance/”
“There’s people here.” Chuck said. “Thing is, I like Pineville. My daughter’s in college here. And, you know, I have my friends.”
He did? Lily tried, unsuccessfully, to imagine Chuck with friends. They’d have to be zippy, she thought. People with zip.
Halliday poked his head back in the door. “Hey, Adair. That other place, the diner? It’s only about 30 miles from here. Our guy says the pies are out of this world.”
“Well,” said Adair, perky as ever, “it seems there are other pastry chefs.”
“Of course there are,” said Chuck. “But they’re not me. You want to know my secret, Ms. Adair?”
Adair wheeled around, her hands clasped in front of her. “Oh, Mr. Chuck, that would be so gentlemanly of you.”
“The secret is, there’s no secret. You just have to believe.” Chuck eyed Adair up and down. “I don’t think you believe.”
Dale Brockley jumped out of his chair. “I believe,” he said. “let me shake your hand, Chuck. You are a true artist.”
Adair turned on him. “Oh, you believe, do you? I guess you think you’re better than I am, Dale. And I guess you’ve forgotten who’s financing this project. I’m beginning to think you’re not the right man for the Chicago location.”
Dale put his chin up with dignity. “I’ve been thinking the same thing, Adair. And Chuck’s convinced me. If I’m going to open a restaurant, it’s going to be my food. Food I believe in, not this high-end happy stuff you’re talking about.”
“High-end comfort food!” Adair shouted. “You can’t even get the concept name right! That’s it, Dale. We’re done. I don’t need the Evil Coffee Shop desserts. The name’s too long anyway. Maybe – the Happy Home Desserts!”
“Happy Home?” repeated Chuck, scratching his X again..
“Dale!” Adair barked. “We’re leaving now.”
“Oh,” said Dale. “Did we pay yet? I’d like to leave the nice young man a tip...” Leaf leaped forward with the check, and Dale dug through his pockets for bills.
“A tip?” said Adair. “After I’ve been insulted? I think our desserts should be on the house.” She put her hands on her hips and stared at Elana.
“Fifteen desserts?” said Elana. “Forget it, lady.”
Lily leaned over to Leaf. “That’s why they deposed her from Lithoswazeriamark,” she whispered. Leaf nodded
“Hey,” said Chuck in a low, menacing voice. “Lady – Adair – whatever your name is – I didn’t insult you. I was just honest. Believe me, if I’d insulted you, you’d know, and so would everyone else. You’d be crumpled up on the floor in a little ball of humiliation.” He shrugged. “Just saying. Now I need to get back to the kitchen. I’m working on a new chocolate cinnamon bread pudding.”
“Well,” huffed Adair. “needless to say, we won’t be coming back here!”
Dale’s face dropped. ‘Not coming back? But I loved that cake so much...” Nevetheless he trailed after Adair as she grabbed her cowboy hat and stormed out the door hard enough to make the little bell clang and then fall off completely.
“The Happy Home Diner,” Chuck said to himself. He chuckled. “That should be interesting.”
“Oh?” said Elana.
“The dessert guy there, he’s my twin brother Buck.”
“Identical?” Elana asked, a slow smile dawning on her face.
“Peas in a pod,” said Chuck, relishing the joke. “Except one thing. Buck can’t sing worth a damn.” He practically waltzed back into the kitchen.
Lily’s attention was quickly distracted by the scene across the street. The skateboarding girl with blue hair was showing a shiny badge to to the drug dealer Jared knew. She turned him around roughly and handcuffed him, while a uniformed officer stood by watching.
“Wow,” said Lily. “She’s an undercover cop. I didn’t see that coming.”
From the kitchen came the faint, barely recognizable strains of “I Feel Pretty.” Lily winced – and then smiled, looking forward to tasting that bread pudding.