Prologue – When the Music Died
Autumn Equinox – Last Year
Her crystal armband signaled alarm with its dark orange color, turning a more crimson with each heartbeat. What was the problem? Adelia surveyed her tea soiree from the balcony. She could see the three grilling stations with their attendants, staff, and guests. The bluegrass band was playing ‘She’ll Be Coming’ Round the Mountain’. She checked her pocket watch. The music would stop in another ten minutes and the guests would rotate stations. Although she couldn’t see into the tearoom, her impression was that something was off outside, not inside. She knew she should check her seer goggles, as her armband prompted, but she felt she could rely on her own powers of observation and ignored the prompt.
The décor was perfect for her red, white, and blue American barbeque theme. Cecil ropes, crisscrossed from trees, dangled red kerosene lanterns and provided light in the September evening. Three round tables were covered in red and white checked cloths, made from American cotton. Lazy Susan centerpieces were laden with a teapot and its companions, condiments, and two trays, one pickles and the other vegetables. The high tables up-scaled the alternative of being spread on the ground.
Each grill was a fifty-five-gallon metal drum, cut in half lengthwise and filled with burning wood. A grate held skewers over the coals. The grills provided heat in the chilling Autumn air. Each was manned by a cook, outfitted in cowboy boots, blue Levi dungarees, a red and white plaid shirt, leather chaps, red neckerchief tied at the back of the neck, and a wide-rimmed Stetson hat. They were dressed to protect themselves as well as add ambiance. Smoke and flames rose when new skewers were added to the grate. The cooks kept the guests back from the flaring flames. No reason for alarm there.
Staff were dressed in cowboy attire as well, with crisp white double-breasted shirts. There was one man for each station. When guests emptied their skewer, the staff removed the leftovers. They were also responsible for replacing empty teapots, refilling the trays, and seeing to special requests. No one seemed to be offended with the service, so no cause for alarm on that front.
The four band members were also cowboy outfitted, the difference being their shirts were solid red. The pleasant twangs of banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin were emitting strains of ‘Oh Susannah’. The air smelled of burning apple wood, smoke, and sizzling food. The air buzzed from the guest chatter. All appeared as planned.
At the African station, named for the type of tea rather than the food, guests were served skewers of barbequed beef, tomato, onion, and green pepper. Once the skewer was acquired from the cook, guests moved to the nearest table to unconventionally stand and eat. Adelia liked to incorporate unfamiliar elements at her gatherings to give the guests something to gossip about. The tea service was an earthy African black tea to compliment the beef. The earthenware teapot must be empty as it was being replaced. Steam rose from the new pot. Running out of tea at a tea party was not the thing to do, but again, not the source of alarm. The Lambsdorffs, a forward-thinking couple from Russia, noticed her and waved. They looked to be enjoying themselves. She smiled and waved back, then turned her gaze to the next station.
The Southern station served ice cold American southern sweet tea. The tea paired with the pork, zucchini, red onion and pineapple skewers. There were two sauces for the skewers. The Carolina sauce was a tart mustard and the Kansas a tangy tomato, to augment the guest’s preference. Luckily, the tea went with both. Pickle and vegetable trays were getting low, about ready to replace. The guests gathered round the checkered table were smiling and enjoying the unorthodox picnic. She could see the surprised expressions of those who were sampling the tea for the first time. Compared with their usual English tea, the Southern version was like drinking sugar with a hint of lemon. Most appeared to be satisfied with the novelty. In her experience, those who sampled the tea for the first time either loved it or hated it. There were few in between.
These Londoners could be quite imperial when it came to their beloved tea traditions. When a guest put British tradition over those of the rest of the world, forgetting that her gatherings were about expanding their cultural horizons, they were removed from the guest list. No need to have someone attend who was not able to enjoy themselves and would disturb the other guests.
The Oriental was the last station. Guests were served skewers of chicken, oranges, yellow squash, and red onion. A heavenly dark oolong tea from a squat cast iron pot complimented the roasted meat. She noticed Ottilee Lewis, her best friend, was standing at the checkered table with her daughter, Oaklyn. They were laughing, which was odd. She noticed that Ottilee’s constant companion, Mr. Dameon, was not with them, which was even more odd. She realized his absence was the reason for their humor. She did not trust the man, even though she had known him since her college days. Her armband was now a bright scarlet and vibrated in high alert, but nothing, except Mr. Dameon’s disappearance, seemed out of place.
The meal was almost halfway through. There was one more turn of the stations, then the guests would be ushered back into the tearoom for desert. They would sample chunks of fresh fruit drizzled in a honey and cream sauce, served in a watermelon rind, and paired with a fruity India black tea. Five minutes were left before the music would stop and guests would rotate.
Adelia knew she had to hurry if she was going to glimpse what was to happen with her goggles. Her sense of impending urgency had elevated past alarming. She leaned against the balcony rail and removed the ever-present goggles from her hat, lowering them to her eyes. There was no need to adjust any of the dials or switch lenses to bring the display into focus. She watched the goggle display the chicken grill explode. Adelia removed the goggles and replaced them on her hat while running down the wide steps to warn her guests. She hoped she could avoid injury, which would be good for her fortune telling business and future tea parties, not to mention her reputation.
Just as she got to the last step on her descent, the scene she had just previewed, happened. The band stopped playing mid note.
Startled guests screamed and coughed as smoke billowed.
Adelia was too late.
When the smoke cleared, her best friend was gone.