Café Etta was shaded by the tall pines, which grew majestically in most of the city’s vacant land. The summer sun was still well above the horizon. White clad waiters with red checked aprons ran everywhere: lighting lanterns hanging around the edge of the awning, showing guests to their tables, cleaning up after guests who had left, and bringing great trays of food out to those who had already ordered. One waiter, a tall thin young man with black hair and the beginnings of a mustache carried a dessert tray to a table in the back of the café. Carefully balancing it in one hand, he lowered plates of cheese, sliced apples, butter biscuits, grapes, and thickly sliced gingerbread onto the cloth-covered surface. Replacing these on the tray with the last of the dirty dinner dishes, he nodded to the four seated patrons and headed for the kitchen.
“I don’t think I have room for another bite,” said Saba Colbshallow, leaning back from the table. He patted the waistcoat of his charcoal grey suit to show how full he was.
“It was a lovely meal,” said his wife, reaching over and popping a pair of large grapes into her mouth. “This new chef really can do wonders with a pork roast.”
Mrs. Loana Colbshallow was without a doubt the most beautiful woman in the café. Her multihued hair was swept back beneath a broad-brimmed, bright red hat with white flowers that matched her bright red dress. The plunging neckline showed a bit more skin than was current fashion, but neither her husband nor any other man in the establishment seemed to object. Directly across from Mrs. Colbshallow in a quite fetching sky blue gown, Mrs. Dot Shrubb clearly was bothered both by the lack of cloth which covered her dinner partner’s breasts and by the amount of breast which threatened to jump out at her. All through dinner she had stared at the prodigious amount of cleavage and scrunched her nose. Her husband seated to her right had been oblivious to this, and fortunately for him, seemed oblivious to the cleavage as well.
“I’ll say this,” he said. “If we had dined on this meal in Brech City, we would have had to pay a pretty pfennig for it.”
“I think we may very well pay a pretty pfennig tonight,” replied Saba. “Dining out is one of the few things that isn’t dirt cheap in Birmisia.”
“I hear the new café, Bonny Nurraty, is only half the price, because they employ a lizzie wait staff.”
“It’s Bonne Nourriture,” said Saba. “I also hear the food’s not half as good, though I’m sure that has nothing to do with the lizzies.”
“Unless my mother-in-law decides to open her own restaurant,” said Loana. “I don’t see anyone taking the fine dining crown away from Aalwijn Finkler.”
“And you can be bloody positive he won’t ever have a lizzie wait staff either,” added Eamon. “Actually it’s nice to have a place to come where there aren’t any.”
“What do you think about it, Dot?” asked Saba.
Dot just shrugged.
“Dot’s getting to be a lizzie-lover,” said Eamon, stroking his wife’s long coppery hair.
“You like her too,” said Dot, in the nasal voice that was the result of her deafness.
“Well, our lizzie is all right. She dotes on the boys—takes them for walks and plays her little block game with them.”
“That’s just it, isn’t it,” said Loana. “Everyone seems to like their own lizzie. They just don’t trust the rest of them. I have several to take care of things and one that comes in twice a week to clean and have never had any problem with any of them.”
“How are the boys, anyway?” said Saba, intentionally changing the subject.
“They’re fine. Young Saba showed me this week that he can do addition, and little Al isn’t far behind.”
“Alasdair,” corrected Dot, punching her husband on his meaty shoulder.
“And how is Darsham?”
“Wonderful. He follows Saba and Alasdair everywhere they go. Best dog I’ve ever seen.”
“You know he was going to name one of the boys Darsham,” Saba told his wife.
“That’s right,” said Eamon. “But I was overruled on account of my wife fancying your husband.”
Dot hit him again. “You named Saba. I named Alasdair.”
Saba, Eamon, and Loana all laughed. Dot scrunched up her nose. Aalwijn Finkler stepped up to the table between Saba and his wife.
“Inspector, Sergeant, ladies. How was your dinner this evening?”
“Dinner was lovely,” replied Loana.
“Wonderful,” said Aalwijn. “And what are we celebrating?”
“We’re celebrating being able to afford to go out for dinner,” replied Saba.
“I’ve always said the police were underpaid. I’m having a very nice sparkling wine brought out. It’s on the house.”
“I hope this isn’t a bribe,” said Eamon, grinning.
“Nonsense,” replied Aalwijn. “Everyone says that Inspector Colbshallow is above such things, and I don’t expect that you could be bought for less than three bottles.”
Saba burst out laughing. Eamon’s grin dropped to a rather uncomfortable smile. As Aalwijn walked away, he said, “What do you suppose he meant by that?”
“He was just joking,” said Saba. “Everyone knows you’re honest to a fault.”
“It’s just that you accept quite a few gifts,” said Loana.
The smiles on both men’s faces were wiped away. Dot, noticing a sudden change in the mood though she had not followed all the conversation, looked from one to another of her fellow diners.
“Well, you do accept gifts,” repeated Loana.
“There’s nothing wrong with a police constable receiving a gratuity now and then,” said Saba.
“But you never do it.”