When Indigo Tea Shop owner Theodosia Browning is invited by Doreen Briggs, one of Charleston’s most prominent hostesses, to a “Rat Tea,” she is understandably intrigued. As servers dressed in rodent costumes and wearing white gloves offer elegant finger sandwiches and fine teas, Theo learns these parties date back to early twentieth-century Charleston, where the cream of society would sponsor so-called rat teas to promote city rodent control and better public health.
But this party goes from odd to chaotic when a fire starts at one of the tables and Doreen’s entrepreneur husband suddenly goes into convulsions and drops dead. Has his favorite orange pekoe tea been poisoned? Theo smells a rat.
The distraught Doreen soon engages Theo to pursue a discreet inquiry into who might have murdered her husband. As Theo and her tea sommelier review the guest list for suspects, they soon find themselves drawn into a dangerous game of cat and mouse...
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Palmettos swayed lazily in the soft breeze, daffodils bobbed their shaggy heads as Theodosia Browning stepped quickly along the brick pathway that wound through a bountiful front yard garden and up to the polished double doors of the Calhoun Mansion. Pausing, she pulled back the enormous brass boar’s head door knocker . . . nothing wimpy about this place . . . and let it crash against the metal plate.
Claaaang. The sound echoed deep within the house as the boar’s eyes glittered and glared at her.
Turning to face Drayton, her friend and tea sommelier, Theodosia said, “This should be fun. I’ve never visited Doreen’s home before.”
“You’ll like it,” Drayton said. “It’s a grand old place. Built back in the early eighteen hundreds by Emerson Calhoun, one of Charleston’s early indigo barons.”
“I guess we’re lucky to be invited then,” she said. Their hostess, Doreen Briggs, also known to her close friends as “Dolly,” was president of the Ladies Opera Auxiliary and one of the leading social powerhouses in Charleston, South Carolina. Theodosia had always thought of Doreen as being slightly bubbleheaded, but that could be a carefully cultivated act, aimed to deflect from all the philanthropic work that she and her husband were involved in.
A few seconds later, the front door creaked open and Theodosia and Drayton were greeted by a vision so strange it could have been a drug-induced hookah dream straight out of Alice inWonderland. The man who answered the door was dressed in a powder blue velvet waistcoat, cream-colored slacks, and spit-polished black buckle boots. But it wasn’t his formal, quasi-Edwardian attire that made him so bizarre. It was the giant white velvet rat head perched atop his head and shoulders. Yes, white velvet, just like the fur of a properly groomed, semi-dandy white rat. Complete with round ears, long snout bristling with whiskers, and bright pink eyes.
“Welcome,” the rat said to them as he placed one white-gloved hand (paw?) behind his back and bowed deeply.
At which point Theodosia arched her carefully waxed brows and said, as a not-so-subtle aside to Drayton, “When the invitation specified a ‘Charleston rat tea,’ they weren’t just whistling Dixie.”
It was a rat tea. Of sorts. Drayton had filled her in on the history of the quaint rat tea custom on their stroll over from the Indigo Tea Shop, where they brewed all manner of tea, fed and charmed customers, and made a fairly comfortable living.
“Seventy-five years ago,” Drayton said, “rat teas were all the rage in Charleston. You see, at the advent of World War Two, our fair city underwent a tremendous population explosion as war workers arrived at the navy shipyard in droves.”
“I get that,” Theodosia had said. “But what’s with the rats specifically?”
“Ah,” Drayton said. “With the increased populace, downtown merchants were thriving. Because they were so franticly busy, they began tossing their garbage out onto the sidewalks, which immediately attracted a huge influx of rats. The local public health officials, fearing some kind of ghastly epidemic, quickly spearheaded a ‘rat torpedo’ campaign. Volunteers were tasked with wrapping poisoned bait in small folded bits of newspaper and sticking them in alleys and crawl spaces.”
Theodosia listened, fascinated, as Drayton continued his story.
“These rat torpedoes were so effective,” Drayton said, “that prominent society ladies even held fancy ‘rat teas’ to help promote the campaign.”
“And the rats were eventually eradicated?” Theodosia had asked.
“Charleston became a public health model,” Drayton said. “Several major cities even sent representatives to study our method.”
The blue rat at the door was still nodding to them as Theodosia and Drayton stepped inside the foyer. Here, they were greeted by a second rat wearing a pastel pink coat. This rat was equally polite.
“Good afternoon,” pink rat said.
“I feel like I’ve been drinking to excess,” Theodosia said. “Seeing pink rats instead of pink elephants.”
“This way, please,” pink rat said to them in carefully modulated tones.
They followed him down a long, red-tiled hallway where oil paintings dark with crackle glaze hung on the walls and the hum of conversation grew louder with each step they took. Then pink rat turned suddenly and ushered them into an enormous sunlit parlor where fifty or so guests milled about and a half-dozen elegant tea tables were carefully arranged.
Pink rat consulted his clipboard. “Miss Browning, Mr. Conneley, you’re both to be seated at table six.”
“Thank you,” Drayton said.
“Do I know you?” Theodosia asked pink rat. Her blue eyes sparkled with curiosity and her voice was slightly teasing. She was a woman of rare and fair beauty even though she’d be the first to pooh-pooh anyone who told her so. But with her masses of auburn hair, English rose complexion, and captivating smile, she certainly stood out in a crowd.
“I don’t think so, ma’am,” pink rat said as he spun on the heels of his buckle boots and hastened off to escort another group of guests to their table.
“Who was that?” Theodosia asked as her eyes skittered around the rather grand room, taking in the crystal chandelier, enormous marble fireplace, gaggle of upscale-looking guests, as well as tea tables set with Wedgwood china and Reed & Barton silver. “He sounded so familiar. The rat guy, I mean.”
“No idea,” Drayton said as he regarded the table settings. “But isn’t this lovely? And what fun to stage a madcap homage to the rat teas of yesteryear.” Drayton was beginning to rhapsodize, one of the most endearing qualities of this debonair, sixty-something tea sommelier, while Theodosia was suddenly fizzing with curiosity. Why had she been invited when she had just a nodding acquaintance with Doreen Briggs? And who were these white rat butlers, anyway? Professional servers shanghaied from a local catering company? Or actors who’d been hired to wear costumes and playact a rather bizarre role?
These were the kind of things Theodosia wondered about. These were the things that kept her brain whirring at night when she should have been fast asleep.
“Drayton!” an excited voice shrilled. Theodosia and Drayton turned to find Doreen Briggs closing on them like a five-foot-two-inch heat-seeking missile. She charged up to Drayton, rose on tiptoes to administer a profusion of air kisses, and then flashed an enormous smile at Theodosia. “Theodosia, she said. “So good of you to come.” Doreen gripped her hand firmly, pumped her arm. “Welcome to my home.”
“Thank you for inviting me,” Theodosia said. “And I must say, you have a very lovely home.”
“It is cozy, isn’t it?” Doreen said. Her green eyes glinted almost coquettishly, her reddish-blond hair cascaded around her face in a forest of curls that didn’t seem quite natural for a woman in her late fifties.
“We’re thrilled to be here,” Drayton added.
Doreen, who was stuffed into a pastel pink shantung silk dress with a rope of pearls around her neck, waved a hand that was festooned with sparkling diamond rings, and said, “Don’t you think this is jolly fun? The rat tea theme, I mean? Aren’t my liveried rats just adorable?”
“Charming,” Theodosia responded. Truthfully, she thought the rats—she’d seen at least four of them chugging officiously around the room—were a little strange. But this was a woman who supported the arts, gave money to service dog organizations, and was on the verge of bequeathing a sizable grant to Drayton’s beloved Heritage Society, so she was willing to cut her a good deal of slack.
“Where’s Beau?” Drayton asked. “He’s certainly here today, isn’t he?” Beau Briggs was Doreen’s husband, a self-professed entrepreneur who owned apartment buildings in North Charleston and was a partner in the newly opened Gilded Magnolia Spa on King Street.
Doreen pushed back a strand of frizzled hair. “He’s around here somewhere. Probably bending the ear of one of our guests, talking about one of his pet business projects.” She put a hand on Theodosia’s arm and said, “Isn’t it cute when men work themselves into a tizzy over business? I love how they think they’re masters of the universe when it’s really we women who run things.”
“And a fine job you ladies do,” Drayton said.
“Aren’t you the most politically correct gentleman yet,” Doreen fawned. “You’ll have to indoctrinate Beau with some of your fine, liberal ideas.” She managed a quick sip of air and said, “We’re sitting right here.” Then she waved a chubby hand. “Your table is right next to us.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting your husband,” Theodosia said. She’d heard so much about the man who’d helped create Gilded Magnolia Spa. Magazines had run full-color spreads, health and beauty editors had rhapsodized about it in articles, and the ladies-who-lunch types, who shopped at Bob Ellis Shoes and Hampden Clothing, had been exchanging whispers about the spa’s gold foil facials and amazing electrostim lifts.
“I imagine Beau will pop up any moment,” Doreen said as she glanced around the room. Then her face lit up and she cried, “There he is.” She waved a hand as bracelets clanked. “Beau!” Her voice rose higher. “Yes, I’m talking to you, hunky monkey . . . who do you think I’m waving at like a crazy lady? Get over here and say hello to Theodosia and Drayton.”
Beau Briggs, who was forty pounds overweight, with slicked-back red hair, the jowls of a shar-pei, and perfectly steam-cleaned pores, came huffing over to join them.
“Dolly,” he said. “What?” His pink sport coat was stretched around his midsection, the gold buttons looking about ready to burst and go airborne. Theodosia decided Beau might partake of his own spa’s skin care regimen, but not their low-cal smoothies and fruit salads.
“These are the people I was telling you about,” Doreen said. “Theodosia and Drayton. They run that lovely Indigo Tea Shop over on Church Street. You remember, they bake those chocolate chip scones that you adore so much?”
Beau turned an expectant smile on them. “I hope you brought some along?”
Doreen gave him a playful slap. “Silly boy. You know our caterers are handling the scones and tea sandwiches today. Theodosia and Drayton are our guests. They’re here to partake of tea, not serve it.”
“A respite,” Drayton said, trying to be jocular.
“Then sit down, sit down,” Doreen said as all around them guests began taking their seats. “Oh!” She spun around to position herself at the head table, all the while looking a little scattered. “I suppose it’s high time I get this fancy tea started.” She glanced down, looking slightly perturbed. “Now, where did I put my silver bell?”
The tea turned out to be a lovely affair, albeit a trifle strange. The rat theme continued as everyone took their places and more liveried rats came scurrying out of the kitchen. They carried steaming teapots in white-gloved hands, pouring out servings of Darjeeling and Assam tea. By the time silver trays overflowing with cinnamon and lemon poppy seed scones arrived, Theodosia was well past her initial surprise. In fact, she was able to sit back and enjoy herself as Drayton did the heavy lifting, chatting merrily with all the guests as their table, most of whom she had only a nodding acquaintance with. Then again, Drayton was a stickler for politeness and decorum. And tended to be a lot more social than she was.
Let’s see now, Theodosia thought after they’d gone around the table and made hasty introductions. The two blondes, Dree and Diana, were on the board of directors for the Charleston Symphony. The woman in the fire-engine red suit . . . Twilby . . . Eleanor Twilby? . . . was the executive director of . . . something. And then . . . well, she just wasn’t sure. But the crab and Gruyère cheese quiche she was digging into was incredibly creamy and delicious.
Doreen turned in her chair and tapped Theodosia on the shoulder. “Having fun?” she asked.
Theodosia, caught with a bite of food in her mouth, chewed quickly and swallowed. “This quiche is incredible!” She really meant it. “I’ll have to get the recipe. Haley would love it.” Haley was her chef and chief baker back at the Indigo Tea Shop.
“Carolina blue crab,” Doreen said in a conspiratorial whisper. “From a caterer that’s brand-new here in Charleston and making quite a splash. We even tapped them to cater all the appetizers for our grand opening party at Gilded Magnolia Spa next Saturday.”
“You have quite a large group here today,” Theodosia said. “Are most of them spa customers?”
“It’s a sprinkling of all sorts of people,” Doreen said. “Spa members, media people, a few friends and neighbors, some business associates.” She raised a hand to one of the rat waiters and said, “We’re going to need a fresh pot of this orange pekoe tea for Beau.” And to Theodosia: “It’s his favorite.”
“One of Drayton’s recommendations?” Theodosia asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” Doreen said. “I consulted with Drayton on all the teas we’re serving here today. As usual, he was spot-on.”
“He’s the best tea sommelier I’ve ever encountered. We’re fortunate to have him at the Indigo Tea Shop.”
“Watch out someone doesn’t try to steal him away,” Doreen said. She turned, held up Beau’s teacup for the waiter to pour him a fresh cup of tea, and said, “Just set the teapot on the warmer, please.”
The pink rat leaned forward, set down the teapot, and, in the process, the edge of his sleeve brushed against one of the tall white tapers.
“Watch the! . . .” Doreen cried out as the candle wobbled dangerously in its silver holder.
But it was too late.
The burning candle bobbled and swayed for a couple more seconds and then tipped onto the table. It landed, flame burning bright, right in the middle of an enormous, frothy centerpiece. As if someone had doused it with gasoline, a ring of dancing fire burst forth. A split second later, the decorator-done arrangement of silk flowers, pinecones, twisted vines, and dried moss was a boiling, seething inferno.
As the guests at Doreen’s table began to scream, two people leapt to their feet and began beating at the crackling flames with linen napkins. Their efforts just served to fan the flames and set one of the napkins on fire. It twisted and blazed like an impromptu torch until the person waving it suddenly dropped it onto the table.
Beau Briggs, as if just realizing they might all be in mortal danger, suddenly jumped to his feet, knocking his chair over backward. “Somebody get a fire extinguisher!” he yelped as flames continued to dance and scorch the tabletop. Now everyone from his table was jigging around in a fearful, nervous rugbylike scrum, while people from other tables were rushing over to shout suggestions. Doreen, no help at all, put her hands on her head and let loose a series of high-pitched yips.
“Somebody do something!” a woman in a black leather dress screamed.
At which point Theodosia grabbed the teapot from her table, elbowed her way through the gaggle of guests, and poured the tea directly onto the flames.
There was a loud hiss as an enormous billow of black smoke swirled upward. But the tea had done the trick. The fire had fizzled out, leaving only the remnants of a singed and seared centerpiece swimming in a brown puddle of Darjeeling tea.
“Thank you,” Beau cried out. “Thank you!”
“Good work,” Drayton said to Theodosia, just as blue rat arrived, fumbling with a bright-red fire extinguisher. He aimed the nozzle at the table and proceeded to spray white, foamy gunk all over the remaining plates of food.
“Stop, stop,” Beau yelled at the rat. He lifted his hands to indicate they were all fine, that the danger was over, even as a few tendrils of smoke continued to spiral up from the charred centerpiece.
“Goodness,” Doreen squealed, nervously patting her heart with one hand. “That was absolutely terrifying. We could have . . . all been . . .” She spun around toward Theodosia, a look of gratitude washing across her face. “Thank you, my dear, for such quick, decisive thinking.”
“But your tea party’s been ruined,” Theodosia said with a rueful smile. “I’m so sorry.” The head table, which had looked so elegant and refined a few minutes earlier, was now a burned and blistered wreck. The ceiling above was horribly smudged.
“We’ll salvage this party yet,” Beau said. Undeterred, he pulled himself to his full height and raised his hands, like a fiery evangelist, ready to address the upturned, still-stunned faces of all his guests.
“I don’t know how,” Doreen muttered.
“My dear friends,” Beau said. “Please pardon the inconvenience.” He pulled a hankie from his jacket pocket and mopped at his florid face as a spatter of applause broke out. He acknowledged the applause with a slightly uneven smile and continued. “Even though everything is firmly under control, I think it’s best that we finish our . . . ahem, that we adjourn to . . .” Stumbling over his words, he halted midsentence as a tremendous shudder ran through his entire body. It shook his shoulders, jiggled his belly, and made his knees knock together. Then his eyes popped open to twice their normal size and he let out a cough, razor sharp and harsh. That cough quickly became a series of coughs that racked his body and morphed into a high-pitched, thready-sounding wheeze.
Doreen, looking properly concerned, held out a glass of water for her husband. “Please drink this, dear.”
As Beau struggled to grab the water, his hands began to shake violently. He managed to just barely grasp the glass and lift it shakily to his lips.
“I just need . . .” Beau managed to croak out.
But just as he was about to take a much-needed sip of water, his head suddenly flew backward and he let loose a loud choke that sounded like the bark of an angry seal. The water glass slipped from his hand.
Crash! Shards of glass flew everywhere.
“Beau?” Doreen said in a small, scared voice, as if she sensed something was catastrophically wrong.
Beau was waving both hands in front of his face now, gasping for breath and hacking loudly. “Wha . . . bwa . . .” He fought to get his words out, but simply couldn’t manage it.
At least five sets of hands stretched out to help him, all holding water glasses. Instead of grabbing one of the glasses, Beau struggled to pick up his cup of tea. He managed to get his teacup halfway to his lips before his right hand convulsed into a rigid claw and the cup slipped from his grasp. As it clattered to the table, he clutched frantically at his throat. Eyes fluttering like crazy as they rolled back in his head, he managed a hoarse groan. Then, as if made of rubber, his legs gave way completely.
Bam! Beau dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes, smacking his forehead on the sharp edge of the table on his way down.
In a frenzy now, screeching for help, Doreen bent over and tried to grab him. But Beau was so heavy and unwieldy that all she managed to do was bunch his shirt above his jacket collar. “He’s not breathing!” she screamed. “Does anyone know the Heimlich maneuver?”
One man from a nearby table immediately sprang to his feet and came flying around to help. He knelt down directly behind Beau, wrapped his arms around his chest, and pulled him halfway upright. Then, locking his hands under Beau’s sternum, the man pulled his arms tight, making quick upward thrusts.
Beau’s eyes flickered open, then turned glassy as white foam dribbled from his mouth.
“It’s working, it’s working!” Doreen cried. “He blinked his eyes.”
“Thank goodness,” Drayton said. He sank into his chair as the Good Samaritan continued to thump and bump poor Beau Briggs.
“Is he coming around?” Doreen asked in a tremulous voice as Beau’s head jerked back and forth spasmodically and then lolled to one side as if his neck were made of Silly Putty.
“His color’s looking better,” the skinny woman in black leather cried out. “His face isn’t purple anymore.”
“That’s good?” Doreen asked. Then, as if to reassure herself, said, “That’s good.”
Meanwhile, the man who was still administering the Heimlich maneuver was struggling mightily and beginning to lose steam. “If I could just . . .” he grunted out, trying to catch his breath. “. . . Dislodge whatever he’s got caught in his throat. Try to get him breathing on his own.” He pulled and thrust harder and harder, his own face turning a violent shade of red. “Where’s the ambulance?” the man gasped. “Where are the EMTs?”
“On their way!” the pink rat cried. “I can hear sirens now.”
“Can somebody take over here?” the Good Samaritan gasped.
A man in a white dinner jacket sprang into action. He employed a different technique. He bent Beau forward and thumped him hard on the back. But nothing seemed to be working. Beau’s eyes, open wide but unseeing, looked like two boiled eggs. His bulbous body was as limp and unresponsive as a noodle.
“I don’t think that technique is going to work,” Theodosia said in a quiet voice.
Drayton heard her and frowned, his eyes going wide with alarm. “Why would you say that? What do you think is wrong with him?”
“You see that white foam dribbling from his mouth?” Theodosia said. “You see his pale, almost waxy complexion? I think he’s ingested some sort of poison.”
“Poison!” Doreen suddenly screamed at the top of her lungs. “Don’t drink the tea! The tea is poison!”
Excerpted from "Pekoe Most Poison"
Copyright © 2017 Laura Childs.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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