They were cops.
Alexandra could have given many reasons, had you asked her, why she knew they were cops. Given her black skin, you could be forgiven for assuming all her reasons were negative ones but that was not the case. In fact, at least a third of those reasons were positive and very strong ones at that. She’d only recently moved from a county on the other side of the country where the white sheriff and his white deputies had been the firm and courageous line between the minority black people and the minority white people who hated them to the point of violence. The reason for this hatred was a logical one. They hated anyone who hadn’t come by the extra melanin in their dark skin through the only honest way there was; by spending too much time in the sun.
The negative feelings Alex had developed toward some law enforcement agencies had developed since leaving the town where she’d been raised. She’d found the enlightened outside world wasn’t all that enlightened.
With her signature smile that people felt right down to their toes, Alex welcomed the couple and pressed the paddle that was mounted under the counter with her knee. She had not understood the need for such a device when she first started working part time at Sophie’s Cove. There had never been any hint of criminal intent from any of the store’s customers. By now, though, Alex had become as intrigued as Sophia herself with the interesting people, locals as well as folks from many miles away, who came through the door of the store. People spent hours roaming the aisles and uncovering treasure they never knew existed before but now simply had to have.
Yet, no matter how much their purchases might weigh on their way back to their cars, people always left with shoulders now lighter and a newfound spring in their step.
Alex sensed rather than saw Sophia checking out the couple as they stood by the door getting their bearings. As soon as the pair started down the aisle with the sign Kitchen Kitsch hung over it, the beaded curtain parted at the back of the store. The strands were nothing more than a suggestion of a door for the room with a sign that said Staff Only, but had been visited by at least half of the town.
Sophia approached the front counter and looked over Alex’s head at the convex mirror that showed the couple was barely a third of the way down the aisle despite the purposeful and brisk pace with which they were covering ground. Her average height and her average looks were meaningless given the piercing blue eyes of her intellect.
When she was sure the new customers were out of earshot, Sophia leaned forward with her elbows on the counter and, voice subdued, said, “Your thoughts?”
“Law enforcement,” Alex said as she turned the last page of the Eugene Register-Guard she had earlier that morning liberated from Sophia’s husband, Chris. “I’m not as good at this as you, yet. But that much I’m sure about.”
“I agree,” Sophia said. “And their reaction to you?”
“Nothing in or around the eyes to indicate they were surprised.”
“Big city then. Could be Portland but most likely California. Subtle actions meant to cover up their profession, too. That’s suggestive.”
“Yes,” Alex said, eyebrows raised. “I caught that too. Not sure why, though.”
“Just go with it, dear,” Sophia said. “It’s easier that way.” Turning to look down the long and, now, empty aisle, she said, “I’ve got to get closer.”
Without a word, Alex plucked a set of keys that hung from a hook next to the alarm pad and held them out just as Sophia, still staring down the aisle, put out a hand. Alex clasped Sophia’s hand as she gave her the keys so that the older woman turned.
“I’ll want to know everything,” Alex said.
Sophia patted the back of Alex’s hand. “Of course, dear. Don’t I always? And I’ll need the duster too.”
It had been Sophia’s intention to make a show of cleaning the display case for the 1930’s Georg Jensen Pyramid Condiment Set and, if needing more than her usual time to get a read on the couple, she was prepared to unlock the case itself to give attention to each individual piece.
But she was surprised to see that the pair was already moving on from the art wall where most of her customers were usually transfixed for a period of time by some image that touched them on a deep personal level. Sophia prided herself on always knowing when to change the display to have just the right artwork on the wall when some new customer made an appearance. She was close to doubting this skill when the woman did a quick double take as she passed the picture of a young woman walking in profile with a sunrise behind her. The man was already transfixed by a sign in the far back of the annex that read Music.
Head down as if still seeing the picture, the woman turned up the aisle where Sophia was standing and nearly collided with her. Eyebrows raised and taking half a step back, the woman forced a smile and said, “Oh, excuse me. I didn’t see you. I was -- uh -- isn’t it wonderful? A person could get lost in here for days. There seems to be a precious treasure wherever you look.”
Holding the woman’s eyes for several seconds, Sophia waited until the woman shifted her weight. “Thank you,” she said. “We like it.”
“Oh, are you the owner?”
Again the forced smile and again Sophia waited until she sensed the lump in the other woman’s throat. “Oh, yes. My husband, Chris, and I own it.”
“You must be Sophie, then.”
Making sure the smile on her face didn’t reach her eyes, Sophia said, “Actually, until I get to know someone, I prefer Sophia.”
The woman visibly sagged and she closed her eyes. “I’m not doing this very well, am I?”
Her smile broadening, Sophia said, “What could you possibly mean, dear?”
The woman straightened and took on Sophia’s eyes in a test of wills. “Please don’t insult me. It’s bad enough that you made me out as a fake already.”
Laughing, Sophia said, “We might become friends after all. Care for a cup of tea?”
“He said you’d be onto us for sure if you offered us tea.”
“Anthony Pierce,” Sophia said.
It wasn’t a question but the woman replied anyway. “I think he’s outmatched.”
“Not yet he isn’t, hon. But I’m working on it. I know he’s a bad man but I can’t prove anything. And point of clarification, dear. It was you I offered the tea. From the look on your ex husband's face, he’ll be absorbed in the music room for hours. You probably won’t know what I’m talking about but I've been experimenting with bancha leaves. It’s my theory that most westerners can’t tell the difference between that and first flush shincha.”
“Wanna bet?” The woman replied. “I’m Barbara Keener. You can call me Barbara.”
Sophia laughed more loudly this time. “Oh, this could be fun.”
“I warn you, Sophia, you shouldn’t be so condescending and assume I know nothing about tea. There are lots of people who care just as much about tea as you. And how did you know Peter’s my ex? We never wore rings so no tan lines or little indentations.”
“I tend to go with my instincts. Bait a hook, see if you bite. I sensed a deep affection for one another but, wow, you two couldn’t be more ill matched. Also, there’s a hopeful tension. You’re probably looking for some miracle that will keep you together. That would be another reason you’re here.”
“Fair enough. And one more thing, Sophia, as long as we’re discussing my reasons for being here. I’m not faking it when I say your store is amazing. Pierce mentioned your reputation for finding the best of the best from any age and style. That Georg Jensen set is magnificent. If I find a way to beat you at this little game we’re playing, I’ll probably be back with my share of the fee to make an offer.”
“You won’t win, dear,” Sophia said. “If I thought you had any chance of winning, I wouldn’t waste any of my tea on you no matter what the grade.”
“Again, Sophia, you’re assuming. You shouldn’t underestimate me. Case in point, why not invite the young lady behind the counter to join us? She made us as cops as soon as we walked in the door. And I picked up a tiny movement when she tripped the switch under the counter that alerted you to our presence. Since she’ll be on your side in this. it’s only fair that I be given the chance to size her up, too, over a cup of tea, of course.”
Sophia cocked her head to one side. “Point made, Barbara dear. You just might be worth a cup of tea after all.”
Putting down her now empty cup, Barbara Keener tongued the aftertaste that remained of her last sip of the tea. “I’ll grant you,” she said, “that of the 22 grades of bancha, finding one of a mid grade price that comes that close to a decent shincha is a real bargain. But there is still just a tiny hint of the smokiness that gives it away.”
“Right again,” Alexandra said. “Soph, I think you’ve met your match.”
“I hope so, Alex,” said Sophia while studying Barbara’s rapt expression as she enjoyed the final notes of the tea. “It would be nice to add another member to the rolls of the Tea Snob Club.”
Barbara’s eyes popped open. “Tea Snob Club?”
Alex smiled. “Yup. We teased one of our members once who’s a logger that he smelled all woodsy and it was messing with our tasting.”
“So,” said Sophia, “he started calling us the Tea Snob Club. The name stuck. But he does quit work early on tasting days now so that he has time to shower and change into what he calls his civilian clothes. Frankly I miss the woodsy smell.”
Sitting up straight in the overstuffed chair that had her slightly below eye level of the other women, Barbara said, “Okay. Enough chit chat. Get to it.”
Sophia and Alex considered the other woman for a moment before Alex glanced at Sophia while putting her own cup down.
“You first, dear,” Sophia said.
Clearing her throat, Barbara said, “We got a call from Pierce -- “
“No, dear,” Sophia interrupted. “Not that.”
Barbara stared hard at Sophia for a moment before replying. “Fine. Open kimono to build trust. A decent opening move to start with. Peter and I are crazy about one another but it’s more insane for us to be together. When the chips are down, he’s there totally. Will take a bullet for me without a nanosecond’s hesitation. The rest of the time --“
“His music,” Sophia said.
“Exactly. And the other aspects. He can be so romantic. When he’s really there. I keep hoping against hope we’ll work it out and get back together.”
“But you are a cop through and through,” said Sophia. “Even this side gig, you’re one hundred percent in the moment. Still working. Even when your cover is blown, you land on your feet.”
Barbara smiled and shrugged.
“Wow,” Alex said, “she is good.”
“Very,” agreed Sophia. “Okay. Open kimono. Anthony Pierce came in and introduced himself when he first moved to the area. Instinctively, I didn’t trust him. He’s gone on to make inroads with the county commision, school board and local church youth groups. He’s spread around money he says he made as an investment banker. Naturally, people love him.”
“Naturally,” agreed Barbara.
“My friend, Victor,” Sophia continued, “is a member of Tea Snobs and works at the local building supply. Vic’s long past retirement but loves helping people so he’s pretty much indispensable where he works.”
“And he sees things,” Barbara said.
Sophia stopped to consider the other woman, he head cocked to one side. “You know, Barbara, you’re beginning to grow on me.”
“Call me, Barb, Sophie.”
Eyes narrowing a bit, Sophia finally replied, “Yes, I think I will. So, to continue. I hadn’t been able to figure out what was going on with our friend, Pierce, and then Vic stopped by. He mentioned that this guy was bugging him but didn’t know why. I asked what Pierce had been buying.”
“Let me guess,” Barb said. “Small purchases that, by themselves, are meaningless but, put together -- “
“Yes,” Sophia said. “I’m worried he’s building something he doesn’t want anyone else to know about. So, now, I’ll make a counter proposal to the one Pierce made to you Barbara.”
“You want me to work for you instead.”
“No, Barbara. I want you to do the right thing.”
Alexandra came into Sophie’s Cove, turned and flipped the sign that hung on the front door so that the word Open would be displayed to the public. “I see you got the paper already.”
“Yup,” Chris replied. “Learned my lesson. If I want a paper that hasn’t been all crinkled and wrinkled so that it’s practically useless, I’m going to have to set the alarm a half hour earlier.”
Alex plopped her purse on the front counter and placed her hands on her hips. Chris laughed. “Well, I guess it wasn’t quite that bad.” He took out the part he’d saved for last, Sports, and handed the rest to Alex who stood on the other side of the counter to spread out her share of the paper and began with the front page.
Sophia exited the Staff Only room with a tray of cups, saucers, organic cookies and a pot of tea.
“Still on a bancha kick?” Chris asked.
“You gotta guess,” Sophia replied.
“C’mon, Soph. You know I suck at that.”
“I’ll play,” Alexandra said.
Looking over Alex’s shoulder, Sophia said, “We have company.”
The Keeners entered and, with no greeting, Barbara declared, “Good news.”
Sophia studied the vacancy in Peter’s and Barbara’s eyes and guessed what had happened. “Have a cup?” She offered. “Just brewed.”
“No,” replied Barbara. “We don't have time. I’m catching a flight out of Eugene a little later.”
“At least accept the challenge,” said Sophia as she poured a cup and handed it to Barbara. “Chris, the wimp, says he’s not up to it.”
With a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, Barbara took the cup and, peering at Sophia over the rim as she did so, inhaled the aroma of the brew and took a delicate, but audible, slurp. “Better grade,” she said. “You paid more for it but it’s still bancha, not shincha.”
Sophia sighed. Her guess had been verified but the news was what she’d been expecting. She nodded. “Spot on, Barb. You nailed it.”
“You’ll be glad to know” Barbara said, “that Anthony Pierce will be leaving the area, if he hasn’t already done so. We can’t prove he was up to anything here but our investigation suggests there are some irregularities in his past that the Securities and Exchange Commission will be looking into. I wouldn't be surprised if charges are filed later.”
Sophia pursed her lips, glanced at Chris and nodded at Alexandra. Alex strode away down the aisle marked The Finer Things while Chris reached behind the counter to pick up a guitar case that he opened on the counter for Peter to see. Opening it, the man’s eyes grew wide. “The ‘37 Martin 00-17?” He spun around to look at the back of the store where the music room was then back to face Chris. “Are you kidding me?”
Chris shrugged. “You’ve been in here playing it every day you could for the past three weeks while the two of you worked this Pierce thing out for us. Heck, if you’re that determined to wear the thing out --” Chris pushed the case across the counter to the young man. “We’re grateful, Peter.”
“Here,” Alex said as she came up beside Barbara and placed a tray on the counter.
“No way!” Barbara hurriedly put the cup of tea on the counter, her hands shaking. “The Georg Jensen set? I don’t know what to say. And where did you find the matching Jensen tray?”
“That was Alex’s idea,” Sophia said. “She’s been scouring the web to find just the right one.”
“No,” said Peter, pushing the guitar back in Chris’s direction.
Chris cut his eyes to Sophia before he closed the case, picked it up and headed for the front door. “C’mon, Pete. You and I need to discuss some things about music.”
Barbara watched the men leave and, her eyes still on the door, said, “Thank you, you two. Do you think the guitar will help him get over it?”
“No,” Sophia said.
“Not for a while,” said Alex. “It will be sad songs for quite a while. But eventually, the pain will be manageable.”
“After he drops me off in Eugene, he’s going to Portland,” said Barbara. “Maybe Seattle. Try to get something going musically. Already turned in his papers. I’m going back to the LAPD. Maybe start my own investigative firm some day.” Turning back to the owner of Sophie’s Cove, she said, “As for you Miss Sophie, I’ve learned a thing or two about you too. You’ve done quite well for yourself backing the right people during your time in Silicon Valley so I’m going to accept your kind gift. I hope someday to see you on my turf. I’ll brew you a proper cup of tea.”
Eyes glistening, she took the box that Alexandra had wrapped the Jensen service in and, without another word, walked out to catch her plane.
“Ah, Sophia, Sophia,” said Alex. “No miracle while you wait, this time, from Sophie’s Cove.”
“On the contrary, Alexandra. Miracles are like water. They are everywhere in some form, always seeking their own level. It’s not up to us to dictate where they will finally come to rest.”