The Iced selections of the fine teas were going well at the Goodness Gracious Tea Room. A few patrons ventured into hot tea, but the majority drank it cold. This did not bother Caroline and Blanche. Their patrons were still broadening their horizons, trying different varieties of the teas. They were offered fresh wedges of Meyer lemons, Persian Limes, and Blood Oranges, as well a springs of fresh mint for their tea.
The Tea Room also had a selection of different sugars - including refined (white), Demerara (raw pale brown coarse-textured cane sugar from Guyana), and Turbinado (another raw sugar) for sweetening both hot and iced tea. And, naturally a good variety of artificial sweeteners for those who wanted 'Sugar Free' sweet tea. For those drinking hot tea, their was always cold fresh milk and also cream. Some patrons had their favorites, their 'standard' that they enjoyed at every visit. Others were willing to try something different on each visit, or use a different combination of fruit and/or sweeteners to 'perfect' their choice.
Blanche had found several lots of used fine crystal tea glasses on Ebay. They ranged from Gorham to Fostoria to Waterford to Baccarat, each beautiful in their own right. The crystal on the tables just added another beautiful dimension to the Tea Room.
Later one afternoon, Aunt Cordelia was hosting 4 or 5 other ladies for tea. They were having a grand time. Caroline checked on them several times herself to make sure everything was OK. Cordelia was not one to be very particular or to complain. If there was a major issue she felt you should know about to improve your business, she would politely discuss it with you at a very private time in a way that was never offensive. Everyone adored Cordelia, so it was rare she ever got poor service. She had been known to get up and serve her guests herself, if she felt the staff were too busy to get to her table.
"I'll tell you one thing," Caroline laughed when she approached their table. "Whatever the topic of the conversation is, it must be terribly entertaining. It is a joy to watch you ladies enjoy yourselves. Is there anything I can do for you?"
Aunt Cordelia smiled and said, "As a matter of fact there is. We were just discussing how much we love coming here. Not only is beautiful, but you and Blanche have done a superb job with the Tea and Coffee. And I think serving it iced has helped some folks, let's say, ease into the idea of hot tea. And who can come close to Hattie's skills in the kitchen." Cordelia looked at the table. Then she looked back at Caroline. "We were thinking how nice it would be to enjoy an afternoon toddy about this time. You know a glass of sherry or a cordial or perhaps maybe some port."
Helen, one of the other ladies at the table added,"Or a nice Chardonnay."
A second lady volunteered, "Or glass of champagne."
Cordelia smiled,"I know you and Blanche had an idea and a business model which has proved most successful. But I was thinking, It seems that the addition of the iced teas has been such a hit, that perhaps an Apres High Tea Social Hour - or so, may be as well."
Helen spoke up once again,"I'm sure it would be profitable. And if you had a limited 'social hour' then you would not have to deal with anyone getting out of hand, so to speak."
"Well, that's definitely a thought. An alcohol license would be easy to get." Caroline gave a wicked smile. "But we may lose our Baptist customers."
There was a laugh from the table. Caroline thanked them for the idea and promised she and Blanche would discuss their idea.
When Dr. Magill arrived at the small Bay Minette hospital, he found Widow Barker is surprisingly good health. When he first walked in the room Mrs. Barker was sitting in a chair. She gave him a warm smile. "I am so glad to see you."
"Well, I am glad to see you and especially glad to see you up. How are you feeling?"
"Like a new person. It is like waking up from a bad dream. I have memories and flash backs, but I do not know what was real and what was just a nightmare." She paused, "I do know John is dead. I remember that."
"Well, we can deal with that later. Right now, everyone is going to be thrilled at how well you look. Let's get you home."
"That's another issue, unless I dreamed that up also. Didn't my house burn?"
"It did, but Wade Gallagher has a nice cottage furnished and ready for you to move into."
She smiled, "That is nice of him."
"I think you are well enough to ride back to Gallagher with me in my car, unless you think you need an ambulance."
"Dr. Magill, it would suit me fine if I never see the inside of a hospital, clinic, or ambulance for the rest of my life." She laughed,"Your office of course being an exception."
Mercer pulled his phone from his pocket and called Medics to let them know he no longer needed them. He helped her gather her few belongings. After he had discussed her situation with the attending physician, got her records, and she was discharged, Mercer walked her to his car.
As they were driving out he said, "Mrs. Barker, I know it will take you a while to work through all this. You may need a professional to help you sort things out and get on even footing. What I am trying to say is, whatever I can help with, please just let me know."
She looked at him and smiled,"First, please call me Iris."
She turned and looked out the window at the Alabama countryside as they drove down the road. "What confuses me most is who am I now?" Mercer just kept quiet and listened.
"I feel the way I remember feeling many years ago. Then it all went away."
"My reason for living . . . joy . . . happiness. Looking back, for years I have been in a dark place."
"Mental and emotional health is not my area of expertise but that sounds like depression to me." He paused. "And from what you are telling me, you are in a better place."
Iris looked at him, "I am. But, God what a journey. And to think all those years I wasn't there for John. I just existed - that was it - just getting from day to day. It is like waking up."
Mercer hesitated before he asked, "Can I ask you something? And you don't have to answer if you don't want to."
"What was the Midsummer Sanatorium like?"
Iris laughed,"Did you ever see the movie,'Stonehurst Asylum', with Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine?"
"Can't say I have."
"Well, the movie was about a young doctor going to work at this asylum. However, he soon learns that the administrator of the Asylum is twisted and there are eerie and unusual things going on. I expected Boris Karloff, wearing a white coat, to walk in my room at any time."
"What kept you from just leaving?"
"I must have been drugged because I can remember being unable to sit up in bed and barely say a coherent sentence. Then this morning the Sheriff walked in and took me out of there. They gave me something in the hospital that helped me regain my strength and cleared my mind."
"Do you remember anything at your house just days before it burned?"
"Bits and pieces, in those minutes when I have been able to think straight, I have tried to put the scattered thoughts I have together and make sense of it all."
"If I may ask what do you remember?"
"I remember the color red, which I think must have been blood. I can remember a young man who I did not know with a knife."
"Did he attack you?"
"No, I can just barely remember images of him fighting deer in my yard. I remember having a gun. I remember aiming the gun at someone. God, I hope I didn't shoot anyone?" She looked at Mercer in fear.
"No, you didn't shot anyone, at least that I'm aware of," he laughed. "The red was blood. The young man was named John Dean. He wasn't fighting the deer, he was gutting them to get the blood."
"John Dean? I don't know him, but I have seen him somewhere, I just cannot place him."
"Iris, did you or John have a nephew?"
"No, that was a large hole in our lives. We had no children, nor did either of us have nieces or nephews. Thinking back on it, I'm not sure my 'depression' as you call it, may have been brought on due to wanting a child so badly."
"Have you seen this John Dean since you remember him in your backyard with the deer?"
"I'm not so sure he is not the young man who took me from the hospital I was in in Montgomery to Bay Minette."
"So you remember going?"
"I do . . . " Iris said slowly. "He walked into my room in a white coat, acted like he knew what he was doing. He didn't say a word. I remember seeing a needle and the next thing I remember was waking up in the back of some kind of van. I passed out again. Then I was in my room at the Sanatorium."
"Was he there?"
"Never saw him again."
Mercer explained who John Dean was, that he tried to impersonate being her nephew, and the rest of his plan."
"That's where I have seen him - at the investment firm. The last appointment John and I had at the firm, the young lady we usually work with was not there. He was the one we spoke with."
Mercer looked at Iris. This was a new person sitting next to him, nothing like the hysterical possessed psychotic woman he had tried to help a week or so ago. "Iris, I think we have talked enough about the past for now. Let's talk about the future. Is there something in particular you would like to do once you get settled in?"
"Live, just live." Iris said with a large smile. "I am taking this as the beginning of my new life. I can start over, find myself, get involved in the community, make friends." She paused. "God, I have missed so much."
"That's OK, just live in the moment now. Take it one day at a time. You are still going to have some adjusting, if nothing else it is going to take a while for us to get all the drugs out of your system."
"Do you know drugs they used?"
"No, but the results from the blood work should be here next week."
They discussed life in general. Iris said she did not want to leave Gallagher right now. She also did not want to throw herself into the church. She said John never did, but she felt it was the only place she could go. She looked at Mercer,"I need a life."
"Oh, I think you will find one and one you will enjoy. Most folks in Gallagher do not even know your first name. You were just 'Mrs. Barker" or John's wife. No one knew you well enough to use your first name." He smiled. He made a mental note to call Vivian Vontese and ask if she could help Iris get a hair appointment and shop for new clothes
She asked him questions about his personal life. Was he married? No, a widower of 4 years now. Children? Yes, a daughter married, living in Mobile with 2 precious little boys, and a son in Biloxi, also married with a little girl. They were a very close family. Since his wife died, he had just thrown himself into his work. He had a partner in his medical practice, but he retired a year or 2 ago and moved to Florida. Iris told him she envied his having a family.
"I do not take it for granted."
By this time, they were back in Gallagher. Mercer took her to the cottage Wade had set-up for her. After she was settled, he made sure she had his contact information. "Iris, please do not hesitate to call me if I can do anything."
She walked him to the door. "Dr. Magill, thank you for everything, especially for the ride home. It has been a while since I have been able to have a nice conversation with someone."
"Iris, it is Mercer, not Dr. Magill. It was my pleasure. Now go get some rest." Mercer left and Iris went back into the house.
Bunny was into her second Mai Tai and entertaining Buzz with her description of her visit to the Sheriff's Station earlier that afternoon. "And then she just breezed in. She looked like a witch to me. She was wearing this long deep purple colored robe with this colorful material wrapped around her head like a turbine."
Ike, who was standing at the bar listening to them while he dried some glasses, "That was probably a gele."
"What was a 'gele'? It looked like a turbine to me."
Ike just smiled, "A gele is a traditional African head dress."
"Anyway, she just showed up out of nowhere, put 2 cards on Mary Lou's desk and then disappeared."
Buzz laughed, "I bet they were 'Tarot' cards. That would make sense coming from someone like her."
"Exactly what do you think she really was? Mike said something about a Priestess."
"My guess would be a Voodoo Priestess."
"Probably the Bayou."
Bunny finished her 2nd Mai Tai and ordered a 3rd. Ike gave Buzz a look that indicated he wanted Buzz to make sure she got home. Buzz nodded to let Ike know he would take care of her.
After starting her 3rd drink, Bunny continued,"Then she just gave this blood curdling laugh and disappeared."
Buzz shook his head,"What a story? No telling what would come next from Bunny, given her condition."
That evening Blanche, Caroline, and Hattie were sitting at a table in the Tea Room after it closed. They were enjoying a supper of sandwiches and some other treats Hattie had put together for them. About once a week, the 3 of them tried to do this to see what was working, what was not, what ideas any of them may have. Caroline threw out Cordelia's request. Both Hattie and Blanche were interested. By keeping a time limit on it every day, they could prevented becoming a bar.
They discussed some details and devised a plan. The three of them came up with a list of libations they would offer. Blanche said she would start looking for wine, sherry, and cordial glasses. Hattie said she had a great recipe for spicy cheese straws and some other savory treats that would go well with the alcoholic beverages. They decided they would have a initial offering of their 'Apres High Tea Time' on Wednesday of the following week.
At the Sheriff's office Reeza showed up one more time. The Sheriff told her how much he appreciated her help. "Is she home safely now?' asked Reeza.
"Yes, Mercer called me 10-15 minutes ago. He said he had gotten her settled into her new house."
Reeza laughed her eerie laugh, "I see Mercer and Iris finding happiness."
Reeza did not answer. Instead she let out one of her wicked cackling laughs. "My work is done here." Her body twirled in a circle. On the second revolution, she melted into a mist. When the mist cleared, only her gele was left. The Sheriff looked around, full well expecting to see her somewhere else in the room. But she was no where to be seen. All he had was a gele on the floor with a bit of mist still rising from it.
Across town, Hattie stopped and held her head. Suddenly there were loud voices in her head. Then just as quickly, the voices were gone - complete silence. Hattie stood there for a moment. Caroline had been watching her. "Are you OK?"
Hattie looked at her. "Yes, em. She's gone, gone for good. That evil one will no longer be 'round to cause mischief." Hattie looked at Caroline, "This is some good day."
Hattie looked down at the table. Sitting face up was a card. Without touching it she looked at it.
"What is that?, asked Caroline looking at the card.
Hattie carefully turned it over. "The 6 of Cups." She paused and her countenance changed."She will return. She will be back. This is not over with. But it will be a while."