From the restaurant below, tantalizing scents wafted heavenward. At the bottom of the stairwell, she hesitated. The shouting inside the kitchen would send most people fleeing but she had a heist in her future and needed to locate the portrait of Justice. Drawing up her courage she hurried forward, only to discover smoke billowing from the massive stove in the center of the room. An old woman, oddly done up in her Sunday finery, was flapping her arms.
“Hells bells! We’re doomed!” The ruffled sleeves of her dress brushed across veined wrists. “Quick—put it out!”
Shoving the woman aside, Finney slammed a lid over the flames. “Didn’t I tell you to stay clear of my stove?”
“You said nothing of the sort.”
“You’re as deaf as a post. Back off, old fool. I’ve got red blazing before my eyes!”
The cook’s tirade brought Birdie to a standstill. Finney Smith was fiery and attractive in a heavy-set sort of way, but she didn’t seem like the sort of woman to mess with. Her gaze settled on Birdie, who saluted.
Finney gave a short nod of approval. “Tell me you’re working the dinner shift.”
Birdie inched toward the dining room. “Um…I don’t start until tomorrow.”
“You got an appointment somewhere in town?”
She had an appointment to find the portrait of Justice, which probably didn’t count. “My social calendar is empty at the moment.”
“Put on an apron, get out to the dining room and help Delia.” Finney grabbed the fluttering old woman by the shoulders. “Take this with you.”
Birdie shrunk back. “What is it exactly?”
“A thorn in my backside.” The cook prodded the woman forward. “This here is Ethel Lynn Percible. She’s been waiting tables and doing the books at The Second Chance since before you were born. Get her to retire and I’ll owe you.”
Who worked rigged up in a daisy-dotted dress and a saucy church hat of pink velvet? “You mean she’ll be helping me and Delia out front?” Of course, there was an additional problem. Birdie had never waited tables in her life.
Ethel Lynn’s hat slid sideways as she approached. Birdie stepped back. “Heavens, child, don’t be afraid of Finney’s bad temper. Why, she’s evil to the core but she won’t hurt you.”
Finney leaned over the stove to check a bubbling pot. “I’d like to hurt you, old bat. Come near my stove again and I will.”
“Idle threats.” The woman proffered her hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I already know who you are, Birdie. What a delightful name.”
“It’s short for Bertha.” Birdie grimaced. “My mother had a sick sense of humor.”
“Apparently.” Ethel Lynn straightened her hat. “Why don’t you take your coat off, dear? Gracious, it’s awfully big for a slender girl like you.”
From the stove, Finney waved a spatula like a sword. “There’s an extra uniform in the closet back there by the sink.”
Worry rooted Birdie to the spot. Everything worth keeping was inside her coat: money sewn into the hem, tools of the criminal trade deftly hidden in secret pockets. The few private remnants of her life were also tucked inside. Complying with the command was not a good plan.
“Why don’t I run back upstairs and leave my coat in the apartment?” As the words left her lips, she remembered Hugh, asleep upstairs. What if Mr. Reporter rifled through the pockets? “Nix that. I’ll keep it on.”
Finney sliced the air with the spatula. “While you work? You’ll overheat.”
“I’m cold—freezing, really.” She checked the closet and found a white shirt with black piping. There was also a black skirt sized for a much shorter woman. She held it up. “This skirt is too small. It’ll barely cover my ass.”
Something in the cook’s expression warned she’d take enjoyment in stringing Birdie up if she didn’t get changed, and fast. Thankfully, the cook’s narrowed gaze returned to Ethel Lynn. Mortal enemies, those two. Birdie made a mental note never to be caught standing in front of Ethel Lynn if Finney was throwing cutlery.
The cook marched across the room and grabbed Birdie by the shoulders. “Go. Hang up your crazy military garb. Put on the uniform. Now.”
Several hours later, Birdie thought she’d run enough miles to qualify for a track and field event at the Olympics. An employee-training program didn’t exist at The Second Chance Grill—Delia thrust a pad into her fist and shoved her into the hungry mob.
Which wasn’t so bad. Sure, she dropped a few plates and poured coffee on one of the tables. But compared to Ethel Lynn, she was the epitome of calm. The old woman screeched whenever a plate slid to the edge of her tray. She twittered when waiting by the pass-through window for an order. She dropped a bowl of tapioca into a toddler’s lap and, while serving coffee at table nine, bashed into a man’s head with the coffee pot.
But Liberty was a small town. The restaurant’s diners seemed familiar with Ethel Lynn’s high-strung constitution. The man, quietly rubbed his aching head, ducked the next time she approached. The toddler, a boy, took a daisy from the vase on the table and handed it to Ethel Lynn. It was touching to watch the diners treat the old hen with affection.
The townspeople were just as friendly with each other. Birdie slowly wiped down the counter as a middle-aged lady with a constellation of freckles sauntered from table to table bestowing kisses and hugs. Her generous spirit altered the energy in the room, smoothing over the tantrum of a toffee-skinned tot at table three, who veered from tears to rapture when she whispered sweetly in his ear, and bringing an elderly gentleman to his feet, his arms beckoning her in for a short waltz between the tables of delighted onlookers. The lady settled at table five, where a younger woman waited with a bright smile. When the women embraced and the older one planted another kiss, Birdie absently feathered her fingers across her own cheek.
She’d spent her life drifting from state to state. It had been years since anyone kissed her. The last man she dated, a gambler in Reno, stole most of her cash on his way out of the relationship. Desperation brought her a woman roommate in St. Louis, but they’d lived in wary silence. Even the Chens, who’d been her only friends in Kentucky, had known to keep their distance.
Mesmerized, Birdie wandered to the end of the counter. The two women bent their heads, deep in conversation. What did it feel like to experience such closeness? Neither woman kept an eye on her purse. In between the hushed smiles and soft laughter they could’ve been stealing each other blind. They weren’t. Such unquestioning trust was overwhelming to behold. How did people do that?
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