"Good morning, Mr. Hampton!" The women greeted him unison and together dipped a silly, florid curtsy.
"Good morning, ladies," he answered, equally jovial.
"Coffee today, Mr. Hampton?" Sally asked with a grin.
"Please..." Jack offered up his mug, and as usual she poured him the dregs from the bottom of the pot - a bitter sludge of grounds mixed with eggshells - coffee so thick he could easily get his spoon to stand upright in it.
Widow Merrick tipped her tray, which was empty save for a lone raisin scone. "Can I tempt you today, Mr. Hampton?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Merrick - I think the scone."
"Good choice." Mrs. Merrick plucked up the scone and placed it on her plate. "Sally baked this one special for you."
Sally peered into his mug with some concern. "Och! The coffee seems a bit on the strong side this morning Shall I brang ye a lump of sugar and a wee bumper of cream, Mr. Hampton?"
"No need, Sally, this coffee is perfect." Jack pushed his spoon through the muck in his cup. No amount of cream would salvage this brew, and at any rate, as he knew from past experience, any cream brought to him would be curdled, and the lump of sugar would more than likely be a lump of salt.
"Well then" - Anne Merrick smiled - "enjoy!"
Jack was subjected once again to the ridiculous tandem curtsy before they left him to stand at the back of the shop, arms akimbo, watching his every move.
Jack eyed the scone on his plate. Sprinkled with a generous amount of brown sugar and baked to crusty golden perfection, it looked delicious. The regular customers always raved about the quality of the fare produced in the widow's kitchen. He broke the scone in two to expose a soft, crumbly interior, loaded with plump black beetle bugs. Jack pushed the tainted scone and coffee aside. Sally and Anne scampered back to the kitchenhouse, giggling.
Among the many dreadful things he'd been served since becoming a regular at the Liberty Coffeehouse were scones burnt to a charcoal crisp, muffins sprinkled with mouse droppings, cakes frosted with dung and puddings drenched in what smelled like horse piss. The clever women contrived to couple the friendliest, most charming service with the meanest, most rotten fare. The most insidious being the servings where the food seemed perfect and he could discern nothing amiss - steaming coffee, rich cream, sweet sugar, lovely baked goods. Suspecting the food might be laced or injected with some undetectable poison or emetic, Jack could do nothing other than pay for the wonderful fare left uneaten on his plate. Those were the days when the laughter coming from the kitchens was the loudest.
You have to wonder why Jack keeps on frequenting the Liberty Coffeehouse!
If you feel so inclined to share, let us know if you have ever found something untoward in a meal!
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