For nine months, September 1990 to June 1991, I worked as a Maître d' at the bustling Russian Tea Room, where movie stars, agents and producers hobnobbed every day, making deals and catching up on the latest gossip.
I always thought it would make a fascinating setting for a novel, sort of an Upstairs Downstairs of the restaurant world.
I finally made time to sit down and write it. With advice from a brilliant agent and writer friends, the final draft is almost done.
March 1991, New York City
Rosa let herself in through the servant’s entrance of the classic-seven apartment on Park Avenue, set her bag down in the back hall and changed out of modest heels into her Keds sneakers. She slipped a starched white apron over her head and tied a large bow in back just the way her employer, Prudence Dunn, insisted on and checked it in the back hall mirror to make sure it met her rigorous standard. She walked past what they still called the “maids’ room,” though she rarely spent the night there preferring to take the subway back to her studio apartment in the Bronx each evening. There was little need to stay late anymore since there were no longer festive dinners or late parties.
The kitchen was quiet. Rosa looked for the list detailing what she should focus on that day, which Mrs. Prudence usually left for her on the marble island. But it was not there. She tried to remember if anything had been said the day before, but Mrs. Prudence had come home in a foul mood and disappeared into her bedroom, announcing she was not to be disturbed. This happened a lot since Mr. Frank left.
From the full coffee pot, Rosa could tell that her employer had not come out yet. She helped herself to half a cup of coffee, then worried that Mrs. Prudence might come in and catch her not cleaning so she drank the hot liquid quickly and washed and dried the cup and put it back in cupboard. The apartment seemed so quiet. It was not like Mrs. Prudence to sleep late. She was usually immaculately dressed and ready to march out the door to be at The Russian Tea Room before the staff to make sure they arrived on time, check the reservations, and approve the lunch and dinner menus. What if she had overslept? Would she be angry if Rosa didn’t wake her? It was so much easier when her daughter Diana was still living at the apartment. She was always cheerful and helpful and would roll her eyes at her mother’s snappishness and give Rosa an encouraging smile.
Rosa tiptoed down the hall and listened at Mrs. Prudence’s bedroom door. There was no sound. She knocked softly. “Mrs. Prudence?” Silence. She knocked a little louder. “Mrs. Prudence?” She tried the door handle. Locked. She knocked a little louder and called again. What if she was in there and had taken too many sleeping pills, mixed with the vodka she thought she was keeping secret. There was another key in the freezer; Diana had showed her where she hid it as if preparing for just this moment. Rosa hurried to the kitchen, opened the freezer, and pulled out a small bag from under the tray of expired frozen canapes. She would need to clean out the freezer next. Back at the bedroom door, she took a deep breath, trying to forget how mad her employer could get, and called out “Mrs. Prudence? Are you asleep? I'm coming in!” She took another deep breath, unlocked the door, and slowly pushed it open.
The blinds were up, and the bright morning sun illuminated a large dark stain on the usually pristine cream carpet. Mrs. Prudence will be very angry when she sees that, Rosa thought before she saw her employer's hand. The large diamond ring which she wore on her left hand that she told everyone her second husband had bought her for their anniversary, but she had really bought herself, sparkled in the sun. The delicate pale peach silk sleeve of her dressing gown was now a dark reddish brown. Blood. Rosa could smell it; she felt sick. “Mrs. Prudence?” she called again, half expecting her boss to sit up and scold her for coming in uninvited. But the body did not move.
A shiver of fear ran through Rosa. She pushed the door, the newly laid thick carpet resisting. She looked around. The bed had not been slept in. Mrs. Prudence was lying on her back. The side of her dyed-blond hair like a rusty Brillo pad. Rosa carefully moved around the carpet stain. It’s going to be really hard to get that stain out. She leaned over and looked into Prudence’s half-closed eyes. “Mrs. Prudence?” she said softly, still expecting her employer’s face to twist with disgust and snap at her. Rosa touched her shoulder. It was cold. She jerked back and hurried out of the room, down the hall to the kitchen. Was there someone still in the apartment? Did someone do this to her? Mr. Frank had a key.
Later the police would find it suspicious that she did not use the phone in the bedroom next to the body. And Rosa would explain honestly that she was only allowed to touch the kitchen phone. As she waited for someone to answer, she felt scared and a little guilty. Guilty because she was relieved. She was glad Mrs. Prudence Dunn was dead.
@Copyright Lisa Faith Phillips