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The Ghost and the Actress

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In the morning, Penny took care of adding Helen’s name to their suite and saw her friends off on their way to Bavaria. She didn’t mind seeing Vienna on her own although there were some sights that she wanted to see with Missy, The Spanish Riding School topping the list. She asked the concierge if Albert was on duty yet because she wanted his help handling some errands and she wanted him to take care of her deliveries, today. She also asked the concierge about clothing stores that would have something for the Opera House this evening. He recommended the Sisi Vienna – Damenmodesalon just a few minutes’ walk from the hotel. Bearing the nickname of Empress Elisabeth, it was a well-regarded Austrian fashion shop that would be sure to have clothes fit for the opera. He also suggested several department stores that would have a wider price range if she wanted some more general fashion choices. Penny wanted to start with Sisi Vienna as soon as she browsed its webpage.

Penny texted Missy and Helen about the store and offered to be their virtual shopper for something to wear, tonight. Their scathing comments about finding the store without them put a grin on her face along the short walk to the salon while texting responses back at them. Annagasse street looked more like an ally to Penny. She checked her dictionary and snorted to find gasse meant ally in German. She decided she should trust her phone map and the hotel’s directions. She came to a small church side door, Annakirche, the church the street was named for. Above the heavy wood door a glass enclosed statue of Anna gazed down on the Nebraskan passersby.

The church was hosting a classical music concert that evening according to the small banners posted outside. Thinking of Bernadette, Penny went for a look inside. The ceiling frescoes were breathtaking. They depicted the lives of the saints in heaven in fabulous explosions of color. The small size of the building vanished from thought while trying to take in the splendor of the artwork. The walls were gilded and filled with religious iconography and statues of innumerable saints and angels who contemplated the parishioners in the pews. She approached a cleaning lady to ask if she could take some pictures around the church which the woman assured Penny was alright. She took a few snaps and did a quick walk around video that she sent to Bernie after going outside and continuing on to the clothes shopping.

The Sisi Vienna Lady’s Salon was less than a minute further down the little road right across from The House of Music, a museum of contemporary music technology.

‘I can guess which one Sheldon would pick.’ She rolled her eyes and skipped through the salon doors. She thought about the walk in closet she had enjoyed at Karnstein when she saw the first sets of clothes in the salon. She started thinking about remodeling the closet space that Sheldon had turned over to old files. The clothes were gorgeous and she was going to need the extra space.

A deep scarlet two piece dress called out to her from its display. The rose patterned cotton was impossibly soft. The top piece with its silver buttons and the pleated skirt that went with it left her smiling and looking for someone to help her. A sales clerk was quick to appear since the store was quiet in the morning. She suggested some additions while Penny considered shoes to go with the dress. Buying it was a foregone conclusion but it wasn’t what she wanted for the Opera House, this evening.

Helen and Missy were easily drawn into having a personal shopper even though they did want to be there after seeing some of the selections Penny had in mind for them. Helen was keen on a green silk jacket and skirt with a black rose pattern on the skirt. Missy was especially in love with a one piece dress, white with an ornate black paisley pattern. Penny finally found her opera wear, a dark purple jacket with black trim and white skirt with red roses. She found a perfect pair of black pumps to go with the dress. She also found a lovely dark purple dress with green shoulder straps and matching purse that she was sure Bernadette would love so she sent pictures of the dress being modeled for Bernadette to wake up to.

+++

Penny finished up her shopping spree and wanted to get a coffee. The Sisi staff recommended the Ferrari café next door to the Anna kirche so it was there where she got a call from Bernadette which surprised her. It was well after 3am in Pasadena so Penny hoped there wasn’t some emergency back in California.

‘Bernie, honey, what are you doing up? Is everything alright?’ Penny hoped it wasn’t Sheldon acting up somehow.

‘Halley came down with a cold a couple of days ago. The doctor says it’s nothing serious, but she can’t sleep comfortably.’

‘I’m so sorry. I wish I was there to help you guys out.’ Penny felt guilty about the shopping and sending off the pictures of the clothes so nonchalantly. She was having fun while Bernie and Halley were dealing with being sick.

‘That’s alright, kochanie. I guess you could’ve helped with Howard if you were here. He got it first. He ended up failing his flight physical because of it. He’s been a nuisance ever since but I have to admit I don’t mind. I hate those space missions of his.’

Bernie’s rundown of life at Los Robles gave Penny an earful. Howard was patient zero which Bernie enjoyed reminding him of. He had managed to give the cold to Raj and Lalita, too. They’d come over for a pavilion party along with Lal’s parents to celebrate their son Dev’s second birthday. Fortunately, Lalita’s parents hadn’t caught it with them so they had Dev at their hotel for a week of pampering. Bernie was grateful she hadn’t come down with it or she might have had to do away with Howard.

‘I hope I haven’t cursed you with this call, kochanie.’

‘If I do come down with this bug, you can just go back to that high-end store you found and get me something for work.’

That was an easy promise for Penny to make. She got Bernie’s measurements so she could go back to the shop to have any adjustments made. She also got her to tell her what else she’d fancy from the catalogue since she was right by the store.

‘You sound like you’ve gone native over there, honey.’

‘I could get used to Austria. It’s been wonderful ever since we got to Europe.’ Bernie’s warm chuckle over the phone brought back the feelings Penny had felt for Bernie after the séance.

‘Does this mean you’re ready to get out of that study? Mira called a few days ago wondering when you’d get back. She said she wanted to talk some more about a project you two talked about just before you left for Europe.’

Penny was ecstatic about Bernie’s news. She knew the film was still in its planning stages so it would be at least a year before casting happened but knowing Mira was checking up on her interest was a definite plus.

‘I’m glad it’s something that will get you out of that study. Speaking of, have you tried seeing anyone while you are there? A little summertime fling wouldn’t hurt you, either. You spend too much time working, Penny.’

‘You just want Los Robles for yourself, go on and admit it.’ Penny laughed and told Bernie about meeting Helen the first week they were in Europe.

‘What did you tell her that for? You can’t be serious about your heart being stuck up in that study working on physics. I will go up there and burn everything in that room if you do.’ The acting Bernie understood but she had never thought of Penny as a scientist. She couldn’t deny Penny’s ability with the math and physics. She could read those white boards so she knew how advanced the stuff was that Penny was working on but it had come out of the blue after they’d moved in. Penny had never shown any real interest in the sciences before they’d moved to Los Robles Cottage. It was uncanny and Penny’s attachment to the study was even more so to Bernadette.

‘Missy’s said kind of the same thing.’ She skipped over Sheldon and focused on the physics and dancing with Helen in Aachen to ‘Can’t fight the Moonlight’.

‘At least you’re dancing with someone else to that song, honey. Howard says I should stop pushing you so much to start dating but I don’t want life passing you by while you sit up there all alone. I know how much you love it up there but don’t miss out on what’s going on outside.’

‘You’re right, Bernie. I should get out of there more. I’ll get a hold of Mira and talk to her. And, we’ll talk more about getting out of the study. I promise.’ It wasn’t what Penny wanted but there were too many signs that it was what she needed to do.

‘That’s great, kochanie. I hear Halley crying again so I’m going to let you go while I take care of her.’

‘Let me switch the call to video and I can sing ‘Soft Kitty’ for her.’

‘That would be a big help. She’s been missing you and she says her Showden bear has been missing you, too.’

‘I’ll bet.’ Penny got on the video with Halley when Bernie got upstairs from the library. Halley perked up a lot seeing her Aunt Penny and hearing her voice live over the phone. Bernie perked up seeing how happy Penny was in Europe and she hoped her friend really was ready to make a break from her hermitage down the hall.

+++

Penny finished her call, and then she dropped by the Sisi salon again to get some adjustments done on Bernadette’s gift and got the other things she’d asked about from the catalogue. Her next stop was the Sacher Hotel to drop off her shopping. The conversations of the last few days ran through her mind while she strolled back. Austria was a focal point for a lot of her feelings for Sheldon. This was where they’d had their first date. It was the only word that expressed her emotions. She dropped the bags off in her suite and made up her mind to see the Hofburg where Sheldon had taken her dancing all those years ago. She changed into a white two piece dress she’d bought at the salon so she could slip into Viennese life as much as possible.

The imperial palace had been on her mind since they left Graz but there was one more place just as important to her. She wanted to see the sights with Missy but this first visit was something that she decided she wanted to do alone. The Rhine valley had been a tour of her fantasy Europe. The land of knights, and castles, and legendary that she’d read about for years. The home of Roland and Charlemagne. Vienna was something else. This was a city of theater and music. She stepped out of the Sacher and stared at the Opera House in the light of day. The hotel was facing the back side of the building with its great red wooden backstage doors. This was the business side to the actress. The side used by the cast and crew who made the productions inside. The building’s neo-Renaissance architecture by Czech architect Josef Hlavca inspired the performer in her.

Television had given her so much and now she had the chance to move into film which was her career’s next logical step. She felt confident of that but she had started on the boards of the stage. Nothing in her career on TV held the same pull on her heartstrings that came from theater. The thrill of hearing an audience on the other side of the curtain waiting to experience the play with you while you act. Acting without the safety net of re-shooting mistakes. Everything right or wrong was all hanging out in front of the audience in that living moment. ‘Maybe, my time with Sheldon is a little like that.’ Penny mulled over her feelings. His dreams were like TV or a movie, always the same, edited to the director’s whim, and always without the immediacy of the moment. Theater was live performance. Anything could happen in spite of all the rehearsal and repetition and sometimes it did. And when you could improvise and save that moment it was a giddy triumph lived in front of a thousand or more eyes.

She rounded the theater and went across the street to take in the full effect of the front of the State Opera House. The statues mounted on the upper floors captivated Penny. The second level had personifications of the heart of theater’s purpose- Heroism, Fantasy, Lorelei whose beauty lures all to her, Love with her roses and Mourning with her sadness, and Wild Revenge with her dagger. Surmounting the top, the Muses each riding a Pegasus. Penny imagined hearing the stage hands in their last minute rushing to make the final checks before the curtain went up. The dressing rooms where those last minute details mounted up and made you wonder why you ever took up this career. The calls for the actors to get up to their places that answered that question with the thrill of walking into another world that the audience took part in with you. Physics didn’t speak to her like that.

Penny hurried across the street to take the guided tour of the Opera House. She stood in line with the other tourists feeling like it was a first night performance. The opulence of the grand foyer dazzled her eyes as soon as she walked in. Sumptuous paintings of muses that were bursting with color nestled amid the great marble pillars of the foyer. Statues and busts of the great composers of history lined the gilded walls. This place was Penny’s true church.

‘Is everything alright, miss?’ The tour guide was used to overwhelmed first time visitors but she still loved seeing that delight in their eyes.

‘Oh yes, I never imagined… I’ve seen pictures…’ Penny laughed and apologized in embarrassment.

The tour was everything Penny hoped for, especially the true heart of the Opera House, the back stage part of the tour. Penny longed to wander off through the vast cavern of metal, rope, and wood that changed this place that looked like a construction site into anything the audience could imagine. The cavernous stage could easily hold six complete sets ready to be moved into place in minutes with still more sets down below the stage floor from where the elevators could bring them up to the performance area. Penny had several technical questions that made the guide certain that she was talking to a thespian.

‘Have you worked in theater?’

‘I started in theater and I try to get back to it whenever I can. I can’t imagine playing someplace like this’

The guide nodded in appreciation for the complement to the Opera and continued the tour. One of the other people on the tour was a Canadian woman who had thought she had recognized Penny, especially after her theater questions. She approached her after the tour to say hello.

‘Aren’t you Penny Queen?’ She was delighted she was right and introduced herself as Evelyn Moreau. She had friends who watched Penny’s show so she asked for a selfie to show them who she’d run into. Penny indulged Evelyn and they chatted about their travels in Europe.

‘Are those selfie-friends traveling with you?’ Penny was curious about Evelyn since she had asked as many inside theater questions as the Nebraskan actress had. She suggested they try the Opera House Café in the building.

The café’s white vaulted ceiling made the space look like a cathedral to conversation. The high roof and floor to ceiling windows made Penny feel elated. Evelyn suggested a booth along the side so they could take in the view outside. They marveled at the charm and elegance of the atmosphere in unabashed tourist delight.

‘Yes, but they wanted to go shopping. They weren’t as interested in the tour as I was. I produce plays in Toronto so I had to visit here. I’m surprised you’re so star struck by all this. Hollywood must have gotten you used to places like this.’

‘Cinema is a different kettle of fish from theater. This place is magnificent. I started in theater, like I told the guide. I would love to have the chance to perform on that stage and be part of this place just once.’

‘Do you still do any theater?’

‘The Coven takes up a lot of time but I still do short runs when I can.’ Penny went into more detail about her theater experience. They were delighted to find they shared a great love of experimental theater and Penny was intrigued by Evelyn’s work with translating European Absurdist works to Canadian theater.

Evelyn was eager to continue the talk but she noticed her phone had several messages waiting for her. Her friends had been calling to find out where she’d gotten off to after her opera tour. The speaker at the other end buzzed with concern. They were put out she hadn’t met them or called after the tour was supposed to have finished. Evelyn told them she was having coffee with one of the people that had been on the tour she’d taken but left out who for the sake of Penny’s privacy.

‘I can’t believe I’ve kept you here two hours. I’m sorry I took up so much of your time, Penny.’ Evelyn looked abashed by the volume of the call.

‘I haven’t had so much fun talking theater in ages. I hope I didn’t bore you like some self-important diva.’ Penny was every bit as surprised so much time had passed.

‘I loved every minute of it. You could make it up to me by giving me your agent’s contact information. Maybe, you’d like to try your talents out up north, sometime?’

‘I hope your friends weren’t too put out by my keeping you here.’ Penny gave her new friend the details of her agent. She wasn’t sure when she might be able to work in Canada but it was another sign post away from Pasadena. She couldn’t help feeling the universe was telling her something.

‘No, it’s my fault for forgetting I turned the phone off for the tour. We’ve all been on our guard the last few days. We went to a club in Berlin and some guy tried slipping something in my friend Natasha’s drink. She was the one on the phone. We were lucky the bartender caught sight of him and they had a good shot on camera of him at it too so that guy will be with the police and courts for a while. We’ve been twice as cautious ever since but I guess we lost half the fun we were having, too.’

‘Where are you meeting up with them?’

‘They’re already on their way here.’ Evelyn looked sheepish with that admission.

‘How about we meet them together? I’d like to take some of the edge off their worry if I can.’ Penny empathized with Evelyn’s friends. She’d choked down plenty of anxieties for weeks after Jonas had attacked her.

‘Thanks, but you really don’t have to do that.’

‘It’s my pleasure. I’ve had my own troubles like that. My friend Bernie was a life saver after one bad one.’ Penny recounted the events with Jonas Twill and her disquiet afterwards that Bernadette had helped her through. She was in the middle of describing the finale in the courthouse when Evelyn’s friends arrived.

‘Evy, you had us so worried when you didn’t- Oh. My. God.’ Evelyn’s friend Natasha stood gaping like a fish out of water not knowing what to say at the sight of Penny Queen sitting in front of her. Her other half, Annie, was brought up just as short by Natasha’s discovery. Evelyn’s silent phone was soon forgiven and forgotten by her friends. The two Coven fans flung a half dozen questions to Penny about the show and why she was in Vienna before they caught a hold of themselves. They bombarded Evelyn with just as many about how she’d met Penny and why she hadn’t called them to tell them who she’d met.

‘Why don’t you two have a seat and I’ll get us some coffee.’ Evelyn left her friends to talk with Penny while she got the drinks and some of the pastries she was tempted to try.

Penny danced around any spoilers about the show but she had to chuckle at the questions about Castle Karnstein. She had to disappoint them that the show wasn’t planning to film there. They shared some of their vacation stories while Evelyn came back with the coffees. Annie was especially interested in the Equestrian Festival. Their group had been there for a couple of days. She was thrilled to learn about Penny’s rodeo past before she got into acting.

‘You know Helen Geffin?’ Annie had insisted on going to the Festival just to see Helen’s performance.

‘Please, don’t make Penny sorry she met us, Annie.’ Natasha didn’t want to intrude on Penny and her friends since she knew how fanatical Annie was about horses.

‘You’re right, Nat, I’m sorry to be so intrusive on your trip, Penny.’

‘That’s alright. It’s nice to meet folks who want to talk about more than the show.’ Penny reminisced about Nebraska which recalled a lot of memories for Annie. Her family home was in Saskatchewan with its rodeo season that Annie adored. She’d started following Helen’s career when she’d seen her perform in Canada.

Penny finished up the wonderful get-together with the Canadian women. They were leaving for Toronto, tomorrow so Penny made sure to get Evelyn’s contact details. After leaving her new friends, Penny looked up Evelyn’s productions. Avant-Garde and Absurdist Theater predominated and she specialized in Ionesco, Artaud, and Fernando Arrabal more than the actress had expected. The productions were well reviewed and Penny was personally acquainted with some of the actors that had worked with Evelyn. She sent a text to Sharon about Evelyn’s work and asked her agent to look into the productions in planning to see if they sounded promising.

+++

The full heat of summer brought picnicking families and friends to the Burggarten, the palace garden of the Hofburg. Penny loved the mildness of the summer compared to Pasadena’s arid summertime. She strolled through the laughter and games enjoyed around her with daydreams of being onstage at the Opera House on her mind’s eye. She missed the theater. Recollecting her theater days with Evelyn had made her feel that lack of stage work acutely. She had spent her last long break from The Coven working on her M.A. instead of doing any productions. Penny had to call it a sign to have run into Evelyn where she did. She hadn’t really been able to do much more than teach some acting classes for the last couple of seasons. She was still glad of the accomplishment of the physics degree. String Theory was fascinating and Raj sounded excited by the ideas she’d formulated since she’d finished her degree and met with Professor Bauschinger. She did want to contribute more to it with him but after beholding the backstage of the Opera a sleeping part of her soul woke. That longing part of her that wanted to bolt like a wild horse toward a new horizon.

She left the park and walked along the Ringstrasse deep in thought. The monument to Empress Maria Teresa beckoned her over from the Hofburg so she toured the plaza around the statue to the empress. She resisted going into the Museum of Art History. It was one of the places she and Missy wanted to see together so it was a struggle to not take a quick peek inside the palatial museum commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph I to house some of the Habsburg’s incredible art collection. She huffed a wry snort of frustration but it would be worth the wait. She couldn’t help but be aware of the other museum across the plaza, the Natural History Museum of Vienna. It was the sister gallery to the Art Museum. The dichotomy of the two museums was a little like her mind these days, a little like Sheldon and her. His world of science across the way from hers of art.

She gazed at the gates to the Hofburg’s Heldenplatz across the street. She recalled her first visit, the dream visit with Sheldon. That had been at night. He’d decorated it like the nineteenth century. The evening dancing to Strauss waltzes had fired her imagination about the music and life of Vienna. The music felt a part of her when they danced. She thought of Miklos Banffy’s trilogy of Transylvanian novels, ‘The Writing on the Wall’. It was set in the years just before the First World War. A time when Austria ruled most of Eastern Europe and the seat of all that power was just beyond those gates. She had thought the story was wonderful. A romance of a doomed love affair that paralleled the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of war. Sheldon had thought it a silly affectation for a moribund aristocracy that paled to insignificance when at the same time Einstein and Neils Bohr were opening up the wonders of the universe for all to see. She had thought he was just too nerdy to get the tragic beauty of the story but her time getting an M.A. had given her some insight into Sheldon’s point even if she still didn’t agree with him. The argument she had with Sheldon over the novel brought a chuckle to the back of her throat that was cut off by the feelings she had stirred today mulling over her life that seemed poised like the space between these two museums.

‘I can’t go calling myself Empress of Pasadena, I suppose.’ She waved a small farewell to the famed Austrian empress before leaving to do more sightseeing.

She crossed the Ringstrasse and walked through the outer palace gate of the Hofburg into the vast Heldenplatz with the statures of Prince Eugene and Archduke Charles that dominated the plaza. Penny chuckled over her quandary in the dream visit with Sheldon. She’d seen photos of this plaza a hundred times or more in film and history books but standing there next to the towering statue of Archduke Charles she’d no idea where she was. That had been a fanciful night, a magical one she’d savored many times before she got here. She was seeing the place of her dreams in a panorama of memory underlying the reality of day and the flocks of tourists and their cars with arguing families tumbling out into the parking area instead of the coaches and elegant guests in Sheldon’s fantasy visit. She circled the plaza saying hello and signing autographs for people, mostly North American, who recognized her. She was coming to appreciate the Austrian reserve that let her walk around so freely. She’d missed the attention at first but she’d become aware that more people recognized her than she’d thought would happen before she left California. The Austrian respect for privacy meant she’d hear excited murmurs that let her say hello if she wanted to meet fans here or allowed her to smile and nod and remain alone if she wanted some peace. Usually.

Penny smiled at the girls that rushed up to her. Teenagers seemed a universal constant of exuberance in any country and these teens, one platinum blonde and the other strawberry blonde, both lanky and athletic, and sporting Coven T-shirts spilled out a torrent of enthusiastic questions to compete with the most ardent fans back in California.

‘You’re her!-Kaley-Penny-Miss Queen-been following your trip online!-What was Schloss Karnstein about?-Are you filming there?’

‘Hello, one at a time is much easier to understand.’ Penny grinned at the blushing hesitance once the girls reined in their exuberance.

‘We’re sorry. I am Maria Schiffer and this is my sister Teresa. We couldn’t believe you were here.’ The lighter haired of the girls spoke with embarrassment at the way they had ambushed Penny with their questions.

‘We’ve been following your trip on your social media. I didn’t know you were still so interested in horses. I’ve watched all your rodeo events online.’ Teresa asked about Aachen since she and her family had been at the Equestrian Festival. She and her sister had hoped to see Penny somewhere in the crowd.

‘Horses, always horses, ask about the show. Were you visiting Schloss Karnstein for the show? The stories about the Karnsteins would be a fantastic addition.’

‘Girls, you’re going to make Miss Queen sorry she ever visited Austria.’ The two teens turned to the older woman dressed in a quixotic Hawaiian themed tourist shirt and huffed in annoyance.

‘Mama, this is Kaley Jenkins. We had to meet her.’

‘Yes, always The Coven. You should put as much time and energy into your school work.’

‘I don’t recall such studiousness when you were at university, Annettechen.’ The woman rolled her eyes at the jocular tone of the tall, blonde man in matching Hawaiian gaudiness who joined in on the commentary.

‘That’s because you were always distracting me with your latest hobby, Gustl.’

‘Science experiments are not hobbies, my dear. Besides, Ms. Queen is no stranger to such hobbies, I believe.’ The man nodded to Penny with curiosity.

‘Papa, please, no lectures on physics.’

‘Teresa, do not hector your father about physics until your grades in the subject have improved. I must apologize for my family interrupting your time, Ms. Queen. You’ve met my daughters, Teresa and Maria.’ The woman’s authoritative tone brooked no more antics from her children. ‘I am Annette Schiffer and this is my husband, Prof. Gustav Schiffer.’

‘Gustav Schiffer doing the work on M-Theory at CERN?’ Penny had a volley of exuberant praise for the professor’s work. It was an important catalyst to her own ideas.

‘Ja, thank you. I have heard of your recent work through Prof. Bauschinger. He spoke highly of your ideas, Ms. Queen.’

Penny was at a loss for words. She hadn’t expected to run into the famed researcher much less find out her work was known to him. She launched into an exuberant volley of praise for the professor’s work and how it was a catalyst to her own ideas. They started swapping progressively abstruse theoretical ideas in sounds of excitement Annette and the girls knew all too well.

‘Gustl, I was just berating the girls on respecting people’s time and privacy.’ His wife’s laughter had everyone giggling at the distraction he and Penny had fallen into.

‘Yes, you are right, Annettechen, forgive me Ms. Queen but your ideas are quite extraordinary.’

‘I… thank you… but I am an actress more than anything else.’ The idea that someone like Gustav Schiffer would be impressed by her physics work had never crossed Penny’s mind.

‘So was Hedwig Kiesler, Hedy Lamarr but I prefer her real Austrian name. She was a scientist as well as an actress.’ Annette’s warmth of expression about the golden age actress touched Penny.

‘I doubt I’ll ever be as famous an actress or make any scientific innovations like she did.’ Penny chortled at the thought even though she was flattered by the kindness of the Schiffers.

‘She didn’t set out to be those things, either.’ Annette was ready to dive into the history of the Austrian film star but her family’s giggles drew her attention.

‘What were you telling Papa and Teresa, and me about privacy and boundaries, mama?’ Maria’s smirk set off more laughter.

‘Are you a fan of Hedy Lamarr, Annette?’

‘I teach film history at the University of Music and Performing Arts. Austrian film and theater of the early 20th century is my field of interest.’

‘My friend Missy is putting together applications for film schools. Your university is one she’s applying to.’ The synchronicity of today’s meetings with the questions in her head struck Penny deeply.

‘How marvelous the world is. Is she an actress like you?’ Annette’s curiosity had been peeked by Penny’s background. She wondered if Missy was of a similar kind to the American actress.

Penny shared some thoughts about her Texas friend’s intentions. Annette grew curious to learn more about Missy after hearing Penny’s opinion of her work as well as learning of Laura Karnstein’s support. Annette had collaborated on several papers with Laura so she respected her judgements on media work and promising students. They spoke more about Penny’s plans in Vienna so the discovery that the Schiffers were going to the Mozart concert this evening was a delight to everyone except the Schiffer daughters.

‘You can’t go without us!’ The girls were dismayed that their parents would be spending the evening with Kaley Jenkins.

‘You girls said you didn’t want to waste your time on ‘boring old Mozart’ and that you had a Coven Binge you had planned before the new season began.’ The fatherly teasing brought shrieks from his daughters.

‘Quite right, Gustl, the girls should be encouraged to explore their interests instead of following lockstep with their parents. You should enjoy your TV show without regrets, my darlings.’

Penny chuckled at the game of family brinkmanship and suggested having dinner together before the opera. The Schiffers were glad to agree. Gustav was eager to talk more with Penny about her physics work. Annette chided them both with a plea to not turn the evening into a symposium on cosmology and quantum mechanics. She did hope that Missy would be coming. Penny was reluctant to speak for her friend, especially since she didn’t want to get in the way of any plans she might have already made with Helen. She felt for the sisters since they were frustrated to miss going to the opera, tonight. She suggested an early dinner and let the girls decide the restaurant. They wanted to go to Veggiezz, a vegan restaurant near the opera house. Penny had seen the restaurant with its airy décor, plain woodwork interior and unpretentious atmosphere after she’d left the opera house. It was a great idea since it was right next door to the opera and they could eat and easily go back to their hotels to change for the performance after they ate.

‘You do like vegan food, don’t you? We know you’re not vegan like the witches on the show but…’ The girls were transparent in wanting to pick someplace Penny would like.

‘That will be fine.’ Penny figured they wouldn’t want to know what she was up to in Texas last summer. She had no idea about Missy or Helen’s feelings on the cuisine but she guessed from Missy and her family’s eating habits, getting her Texan friend there might be like trying to get a vampire to go to a church. She settled on a time to meet at the restaurant and wished the Schiffers a happy day out.

She waved to Maria and Teresa one more time and then contemplated the statue of Archduke Charles. She recalled her trip here with Sheldon. That evening dancing had moved her. She recalled her musings in the Karnstein library in the light of day here with the Schiffers and the bustle of this modern city around her. She was grateful for the world Sheldon had opened up for her but ever since her dreams in Karnstein she kept pondering her independence.

It was a strange thing to think about because no one would have called her dependent on anyone these days. Penny would never have considered the question before coming to Austria. She strolled over to the statue of Prince Eugene while she contemplated. This place was where her relationship with Sheldon had taken on a new level but it wasn’t where that relationship had started. It had started while she was building the collector’s room. She still felt overwhelmed from Sheldon noticing how adept she was with the construction and encouraging her talent. That was something few people ever did, not even Kurt.

She had loved any chance to do things with her father when she was growing up but her mother was always telling her she shouldn’t be playing with tools, shouldn’t be out hunting, shouldn’t be trying to get herself killed in rodeos. She wouldn’t have cared about that if her dad had ever stood up for her but it was always listen to your mother. She always had to sideline or hide what she wanted but what she really wanted was her dad’s appreciation and there wasn’t much appreciation from him for anything girly. She supposed that had made Kurt so special at that prom. He had listened to her. Penny chuckled since Carmilla had said the same thing about her past. Rushing into that marriage had been impulsive and inevitable. Kurt had listened to her, supported her acting, and encouraged it. He had also used it as a cover to cheat but it wasn’t the cheating that hurt so much. If they’d never married, she’d have forgotten the cheating long ago. It was the broken vows that galled her.

‘Maybe, Missy was right. I fell in love with someone who couldn’t betray me.’

Having thought of her friend, she called Missy to tell her about dinner with the Schiffers. Missy and Helen were fine with missing the restaurant. Penny had been right on their reactions to the cuisine there. Also, it would be easier for them coming back from Bavaria to meet up with Penny at the hotel where they could change from clothes made for touring ranches to their new clothes Penny had bought. They were eager to give the new outfits a try. The Texan was curious to meet Annette. She agreed with Penny about what a lucky coincidence it was.

Penny went back to contemplating her growing reliance on Sheldon after she said goodbye to Missy. Her dream the other night at Karnstein had unsettled her complaisance about the time she’d been spending with her spectral friend. She downloaded an audio tour of the palace but in her mind a running comparison of the opulent but hurried reality of the tourist filled landmark kept tally with the romantic glamour of Sheldon’s version. She was amazed by how much she hadn’t seen on her spectral wanderings. The Sisi Museum thrilled Penny. The gowns of the fabled empress were the stuff of fairytale. It didn’t surprise her that Sheldon had never ventured there. The grand gallery where she’d waltzed at the winter ball was every bit as beautiful in the light of day as it had been in her dream trips here.

She paused the audio tour and switched to her music list to pull up the Strauss waltzes that she wanted to hear while she gazed on this magnificent gallery. She swayed gently to the opening notes of the Blood Waltz. The music swept her mind back to that night. The ceiling’s murals recalled Bernadette’s reception and the first dances. Bernie and Howard had been transported by joy to another world, especially Howard. Debbie wept for happiness at Howard’s smile. One she hadn’t seen the like of since before Sheldon had died. Penny had danced with Carl Parda but seeing Elizabeth struggling with some cameras had diverted her from the dance floor. Elizabeth’s assistant hadn’t shown up so Penny had offered to help the new studio intern.

Their camaraderie had grown quickly that night. Elizabeth was still getting used to meeting actors from the shows at the studio so Penny’s help had her fumbling at first. Elizabeth’s fascination at the studio was for the directors and cinematographers so explaining the camera work to Penny broke the ice between them. Penny chuckled at the recollection of Bernie’s snit when she found Penny dressed down to help with the photography. Talking with Elizabeth had felt like her prom night with Kurt. She would have spent the night with Elizabeth but she’d held back just like she’d told Missy. She had cared that Sheldon was there. She hadn’t thought about it like she’d have been cheating, not at the time, but now she shook her head in consternation. She’d never dwelt on the why before until she’d talked to Missy about Helen. She had gotten caught up in ‘the grieving widow’ routine. The press and her fans ate it up. She laughed at the ridiculousness of it often enough but she had taken advantage of it when it suited her. It let her make a safe romance of her time with Sheldon.

Penny switched the music from Strauss to ‘Can’t Fight the Moonlight’. The first notes made her gasp from the roiling emotions that welled up in her. The song didn’t belong here. The gallery felt too much like Sheldon and this song didn’t belong with him like it did with Helen. She’d admired Helen from the first time they’d met. Rodeo competitions had defined them since they went to different schools and the competitions were their only place to meet. They’d always looked for each other like Snoopy and The Red Baron until that day in North Platte. Penny had never realized how deeply that day had cut into her heart. She’d avoided getting attached to anyone when she started dating. Make out and be done with it had been her way until she met Kurt.

She had kept gnawing at Kurt’s getting away with hurting her for years. She realized the reasons why were older than she had thought. She’d avoided serious feelings for anyone she’d gone out with before him. A couple of dates at most and be done with it had earned her a reputation in school. She hadn’t cared. She wondered how much of that was because of how much that fight with Helen had hurt. She’d seldom thought of that fight after that summer, had put it out of her mind until the séance. She had to ask if putting it out of her mind had been so she didn’t have to deal with how much the idea Helen had cheated against her had hurt.

‘Are you alright, miss?’ Penny shook herself out of her reverie and felt how wet her face was from tears.

‘Oh, yes. I was listening to my music and admiring everything here. It’s overwhelming all of this at once.’ Penny felt the ragged notes in her voice. The woman seemed satisfied with the answer by her smile but the polite glance away to the ceiling with Penny spoke of her awareness that the answer wasn’t the whole truth.

‘Yes, it can be, although I prefer the Schönbrunn Palace. I love the gardens. It is also airier since it was the summer palace.’

‘My friends and I plan to visit there after they get back from Bavaria this afternoon.’ Penny wiped her face with a tissue the woman offered her and smiled with some dismay for what else to say.

‘Excuse me for asking, but aren’t you Penny Queen?’

‘Yes, I am. Are you a fan of The Coven, miss…?’

‘Oh, I’m Elsa Reh, an assistant curator here. Yes, I do watch the show, but I love your theater work much more. I saw you on stage many times when I was studying at UCLA. I loved your performance as Martha in Camus’s Cross Purposes. It was chilling how you played her revealing the way she’d murdered her brother to his wife like she was recalling things from a ’to do’ list. The indifferent way you told Maria to turn her heart into stone to survive in the real world still haunts me.’ The young woman flushed with embarrassment recognizing how she was forgetting herself in her admiration for Penny’s work.

‘Thank you, I love Camus’s plays. No one ever brings up my theater work anymore, thank you.’ Penny felt thrilled by this coincidence. She lingered with Elsa over talk of theater and of the Hofburg. Elsa had a lot of helpful hints for Penny about what to do in Vienna that tourists seldom found. Penny was so happy with talking to Elsa that she decided to set up her return visit to Vienna for the winter celebrations at the Hofburg with Elsa’s help. She thanked Elsa again after they had finished reserving tickets for the winter ball. She wanted to see more of the palace so before she could start ruminating she switched back to the audio tour choosing the German language version. Concentrating on that would give her some peace from doing any more armchair psychoanalyzing her past.

+++

Penny went to a nearby sausage shop, the Hofburgstüberl, after she was done sightseeing. It was in a small passageway that she never would have noticed without Elsa’s directions. The white vaulted roof made the tunnel bright and inviting in spite of the steady stream of tourists visiting the shops along the tunnel. The cozy shop had three small tables outside and just as few within but it was quiet in the early afternoon after lunchtime. Penny ordered a waldviertler, a smoked sausage and a Kaiser roll along with a cappuccino. She didn’t mind the idea of the vegan restaurant but she wasn’t going to kid herself about craving something meat related if Veggiez cuisine was all she had with the Schiffers. She sat in the corner with her order and admired the white wood trimming that accentuated the soft pale turquoise of the walls. There were pictures of the neighborhood around the Hofburg from the nineteenth century up to today. It was a micro-history of the palace surrounding a painting of ‘der alte Herr’ Emperor Franz Joseph I. Penny was charmed by the ambience. She closed her eyes and breathed in the aroma of the steaming sausages while she enjoyed they hum of people wandering outside the shop and occasionally coming in for an order to go. Sheldon would be appalled by the informal traffic so close to food being prepared. He would never have let her enjoy this place in peace.

Penny felt the kismet of the conversation she had in the Hofburg with Elsa once again. ‘Cross Purposes’ had been one of her first forays into Absurdist Theater. She had relished the bleak nihilism of the world that the characters struggled through. It stirred her psychic beliefs to have the part of Martha brought up on the heels of her thoughts about relationships in school. She had turned her heart to stone in many ways after Helen so she wouldn’t get hurt like that again. Kurt had gotten through her stone walls. Her anger wasn’t simply the cheating or old memories of Helen. It had also been anger at herself for having trusted Kurt. Was she making sure no one else could get through by making Sheldon her ersatz boyfriend? She didn’t have to trust Sheldon not to hurt her by cheating. He was dead, after all. She munched her roll and sausages meditatively.

‘Bernie’s right to be worried about you, Slugger. You are a mess.’ Penny frowned at her reflection in her phone. She pondered the pictures of the palace neighborhood. It had seen a thousand changes over the century pictured in images on the wall. She had felt a lot of changes in her life since she had moved into Los Robles.

‘Those changes aren’t going to stop, like it or not.’ She picked up her phone and paused. She made up her mind to take charge of that change. Elizabeth was in charge of the studio’s cast updates on The Coven. She was also handling Penny’s social messaging about the vacation. She had made Penny’s vacations over the years a much easier get away than she could thank the publicist for. Elizabeth had a wonderful sense for how much to put online that Penny had come to trust her implicitly with her social messaging persona.

“To LizEye:
In Vienna at last. Will send pics and comments for next vacay update, tomorrow.
Will be back in Pasadena next week, Thursday.
How about dinner on Friday?
QueenP”

Penny sent the message and put the phone down next to the now empty plate. She took a breath, picked up her coffee, and stared at the screen while she sipped her drink.

+++

Missy and Helen got back to the Sacher at 4pm which gave them plenty of free time before Mozart at 8. They went up to the suite to see if Penny was back from her sightseeing but she had yet to come back. They tossed their travel bags down near the door after which Helen opened the balcony window to enjoy the view outside. Missy joined her to take in the sight with her.

‘Do you think Penny ought to have gotten back yet?’

‘No, there’s a lot to see out there. We’ve gotten used to exploring on our own over the last month. I expect she’s alright but I want to give her a ring to let her know we’re back.’

‘While you do that, I want to take a shower after all that traveling, today.’ Helen went back inside to get her bag.

‘That sounds like a fine idea. I want to take a look at the clothes Penny got for us at that Sisi Salon.’ Missy curled up on the couch to call Penny.

‘Don’t you go digging into those new clothes without me?’ Helen dropped down on the couch with a rueful glare at the grinning Texan.

‘I wouldn’t think of it. I’m waiting to see what you look like in your new things.’ Missy raised an eyebrow with a smirk and then kissed Helen.

‘You could help me get ready in the shower. It would speed things up, you know.’

‘It don’t sound to me like showering’s going to go any faster that way. Go get ready.’ Missy gave Helen a friendly shove.

‘Bored with me already, what a character you are.’ Helen shook her head and chuckled dryly. She took Missy’s hand and feather kissed her fingers.

‘Get along with you while I call Penny. I’ll be along, afterward.’ Missy gave her girlfriend a kiss and then a gentle push off the couch toward the shower. She got her phone out of her jacket while she watched Helen sauntering down the hall to the bathroom. She hoped Penny was having just as good a time.

‘Missy, how’s it going with Helen’s job search?’

‘She’s ready to choose one of the offers but she wants to talk some things over with her riding team before she agrees. She’s part of some shows coming up and she wants to work out the timing with the job she wants if she can. Where are you?’

‘I’m still at the Hofburg. It’s wonderful here. I’m sneaking some sausages at a little café before dinner with the Schiffers.

‘Texas sends its condolences.’ They shared a wry chuckle over their mutual feelings about the cuisine. ‘Is the whole family vegan?’

‘I think it’s just the daughters. I had a vegan phase for a week back when I was fourteen. Helen put an end to that at the barbecue pit when we were competing in the Sutherland Junior Queen Rodeo. I wanted to do something with the Schiffer girls because they are fans of the show. They didn’t want to go to the opera with their parents until we ran into each other at the Heldenplatz.’

‘When you say it like that, I wonder if we should go since Annette is at University of Music and Performing Arts like you said. I would really like to get in there.’

‘No, we’ll be meeting them at the opera and probably coffee or drinks afterwards. We’ll have plenty of time to talk, then. This whole meeting was pure luck so they won’t be expecting you of the blue.’

‘I guess you’re right. Besides, we want to try out the clothes you got us this morning. I was even thinking of looking at that clothes shop you got them from before we have dinner.’

‘That sounds like fun. The Sisi Salon is about a five minute walk from the hotel on Annagasse. There’s a couple of nice Italian restaurants next to the Sisi. The Trattoria La No looks charming and it is right nearby.’

‘I could do with some Italian food to go with The Marriage of Figaro’. I’ll ask Helen if she likes Italian. Do you want to meet here before the opera?’

‘Yeah, I’ll change into the dress I got for the opera after dinner and we can all go together, say leave around 7:30?’ The friends agreed to meet at the hotel and said goodbye.

+++

Penny checked the time to make sure she wasn’t running late to get to dinner with the Schiffers. She twitched in surprise when her phone rang before she could put it down. She pulled a wry smirk since Sheldon was calling. She hoped this wouldn’t be a repeat of their last conversation. She was glad Missy wouldn’t have to hear it in case it was.

‘Hey, Sheldon, how’s the times in Specter-heim?’

‘Hello, Penny. I was hoping you were in a better state to discuss your meeting with Prof. Bauschinger. It’s been a month with hardly a word about such an important subject but I suppose the bacchanalia hangovers have inhibited that.’

‘Oh, Vienna has been fantastic. What? Oh, we wanted to move on from Graz after a rough morning there the other day.’ Penny bit her tongue before she let her lingering annoyance from that call get any more fuel.

‘What does travel from Graz to Vienna have to do with Prof. Bauschinger?’

Penny shook her head with a sigh at the confusion in Sheldon’s voice. She brought her tray over to the counter and ordered a bottle of the Wieselburger Schwarzer beer. She checked the time once more while she went back to the table with her beer. She didn’t have the time for a row with her socially maladjusted ghost-friend so she took a deep slug of her drink before starting. The rich taste calmed her down. She hated wasting good beer on arguments. She shouldn’t have thought an apology for the other day was going to come out of nowhere, not from Sheldon, not after six years of living with him.

‘The meeting went great but I don’t have time to get into details. We’re going to the opera and I need to get showered and changed for the evening.’

‘What is so special about opera after you’ve been able to confer with one of the finest physicists on Earth?’

‘Going to the opera is the kind of thing you do when you’re on vacation in Vienna, Sheldon. If you’re so anxious to find out about what I’ve been up to after meeting Prof. Bauschinger, you can take a look in my cloud folder. I’ve been uploading some proposals I whipped up while we were in the Rhineland. Look for the folder ‘Super Asymmetry’, everything’s in there.’

‘I am glad you haven’t turned the entire trip over to female hedonism. Missy is a terrible influence where hormones are concerned.’

‘I suppose I should turn any free time over to nerd memorabilia like just hop over to Boston and take pictures of Leonard Nimoy’s birthplace?’ Penny took a deeper drink of her beer and grimaced at the half empty bottle. She was thankful Missy didn’t have to hear that kind talk again.

‘You could have taken a local train that runs to Boston in less than an hour. A train which stops at North Station, just a few minutes’ walk from Leonard Nimoy’s place of birth. You could have made the trip with little effort and been able to appreciate the life and origins of a cultural icon.’

‘Sheldon, I was in the middle of filming my show. I couldn’t just-‘ A polite cough from the table next to her cut off Penny’s building tirade. She squeaked out an embarrassed wheeze and blushed to her toes.

‘Guy trouble with Sheldon, miss? Don’t let it distress you too much. My husband had me going that loud this morning.’ The woman half of the elderly Asian couple at the next table introduced themselves as tourists from South Korea.

‘I apologized for that mistake.’ The husband grumbled with a chuckle.

‘You can go on apologizing with some new earrings for the opera, tonight.’

Penny laughed and relaxed after causing a scene in her ire at Sheldon’s obtuseness. She apologized to the couple again and then turned her attention back to her ghost.

‘Sheldon, sweetie, let’s not argue about our interests. I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate you wanting me to see Captain Kirk’s hometown.’

‘Mr. Spock, Penny, Leonard Nimoy played Mr. Spock. Captain Kirk was played by William Shatner whose hometown is Montreal, Canada.’

‘Thanks, sweetie.’ Penny downed another sizeable gulp of her beer. She grinned and rolled her eyes at the knowing grins from the elderly couple. It helped remind her to keep the conversation on topic.

‘Like I was saying, my cloud folder has the outlines of the hypothesis I’ve been developing after meeting with Prof. Bauschinger. I just found out he brought up my ideas with Gustav Schiffer.’ Penny looked at her phone after a minute of silence from the other end to make sure it was still working.

‘Still there, Sheldon?’

‘Professor Gustav Schiffer at the CERN Institute? Bauschinger discussed your ideas with him?’

‘Yeah, I just met Herr Schiffer a couple of hours ago here at the Hofburg. He is on vacation with his family. He sounded pretty impressed.’

‘Penny, wemustdiscussthis-… no, youhavetofindhim… no, weshould-‘

‘Calm down, Moonpie. I’m having dinner with him and his family in a little over a half hour. I really have to go, Talk to you later, sweetie.’

‘What? Dinner? Penny!’

‘That will fix you.’ She hung up with a loud cackle. She finished her beer and said goodbye to the Korean couple wishing them a good time at the opera telling them she was going tonight, as well.

Penny hurried back to the Sacher to drop off her souvenirs. She found a note from her suite mates saying hello and reiterating their pre-opera plans. She jumped in the shower with a shower cap since there wasn’t time to deal with her hair, anymore. She was grateful everything was so close so she didn’t have to be in a complete tizzy. She dressed quickly but a text came to her phone that gave her stomach a different kind of flip.

“To QueenP,
Look forward to Vienna pics, dreamed of going there.
Love Fri. dinner w/you, definitely need it.
LizEye”

+++

Penny had fun at the Veggiez dinner. She was surprised at the quality of the food. The Schiffers made the meal all the more enjoyable. Maria and Teresa were very knowledgeable about the show. They were interested in the world building for the series and how the magic system of the witches was formulated. They focused on explanations that were based in physics rather than mysticism. The influence of their father’s background became undeniable as the dinner went on. Penny wouldn’t be surprised if one or both daughters ended up physicists. She used Sheldon’s quantum mechanics theories to explain the magic which delighted Prof. Schiffer for their originality and also that his daughters followed the math and physics propositions with only a few needed explanations. It was a disappointment for everyone to break up the dinner when the time came to get ready for the opera.

‘Thanks for coming to dinner, Penny.’ Maria’s gratitude was echoed by her sister. Their parents were equally happy with the dinner.

‘We are staying at the Hotel Bristol on the other side of the opera house. I would like to continue our discussion about your theories, Miss Queen. We could have drinks after the opera and the girls could have another moment with you. I do wish the performance hadn’t been sold out but your mother and I will understand if you don’t want to interrupt your binge watching ‘The Coven’ to come downstairs.

‘Please, say yes!’ Teresa rolled her eyes at her father’s teasing and grabbed Penny’s hand and jumped in excitement. She dropped Penny’s hand just as quickly when it struck her how she was acting and blushed in embarrassment.

‘Of course, I’ll come. I’d be delighted.’ Penny took Teresa’s hand again with a smile. ‘I will have to ask my friends Missy and Helen if they would like to come. Missy is sure to since she wants to meet you, Annette. Helen might be too tired. She’s been awfully busy ever since riding in the Equestrian Festival in Aachen.’

‘You don’t mean Helen Geffin, do you?’ Teresa looked stunned when Penny said yes. ‘I can’t believe we’re missing out on an evening with Penny Queen and Helen Geffin. I’m dying!’

Penny navigated the round of questions enthusiastic questions from Teresa about Helen with short responses because time was pressing. Annette weighed in with motherly overruling to get the evening back on track. The party broke up to prepare for their evening in Vienna. Penny hurried back to the hotel to change for the performance. Missy and Helen were already in the middle of trying on their clothes and deciding how to fix themselves up. The chatter between the three over the clothes and makeup and this evening’s performance made Penny feel nostalgic for the clamor of backstage, a clamor sure to be happening in the building across the street. She wished she could be backstage at the opera house just to listen to the chaos of getting the last details set before the curtain rose.

+++

‘Penny, hello!’

‘Are you planning to gatecrash the performance?’ Penny waved to Maria and Teresa. She introduced her friends to the girls. Their parents were in the Opera Café and they hoped to meet Penny’s friends before the performance.

Everyone joined the elder Schiffers to share their anticipation for the evening. The daughters were delighted to meet Helen. Teresa was especially moved to learn that Missy had been instrumental in getting Helen to take up dressage so more questions began. Questions that were forestalled by Mozart.

‘You girls should go over to Gerstner’s Hofzuckerbäcker and get yourselves some treats for your binge of The Coven.’

‘Papa, it’s not really vegan.’ Maria tried to sound convinced but her sister broke ranks without hesitation and agreed heartily. The former imperial bakers still made some of the finest confections in Vienna. Veganism was no match for good Viennese chocolate.

‘While you’re at it, Kaley has eaten chocolates three times in the series up to now, and they happen to be three of my favorites. Let’s see if you can recall them and perhaps get them?’ Penny gave the girls some money and blessed them with her goddess prayer for their chocolate hunt. Everyone was glad to see the excitement of the challenge firing the smiles on the girls faces while they hurried back to the hotel to start their chocolate hunt.

+++

Everyone loved the opera. The party of new friends headed over to the Bristol Hotel. Their daughters were waiting in the lobby with the results of their quest.

‘That was the best binge watch ever.’ Teresa held shopping bags from Gerstner’s Hofzuckerbäcker, and from the Demel Hofzuckerbäcker.

‘We guessed the raspberry hearts right away. They were in the finale last season. The cats’ tongues were trickier since Kaley was just eating them. She didn’t say their name and the box was only shown once. The Punschkrapfen were the hardest because they were called rum cakes and what you were eating didn’t look like English rum cake at all. They looked like Punschkrapfen. Did we get that one right?’

‘Excellent, you got them all. I wondered if you’d guess the Punschkrapfen. The writers called them rum cakes because that’s what they’re called at the restaurant the writers got the name from. Bialik’s uses an English name for them. They make a great dessert but they aren’t as good as the ones over here.’ Penny rewarded the girls by letting them keep the chocolates. The girls thanked her and asked her to sign the Cat’s Tongues box.

The group all went to the Bristol Bar since it was late and the bar would be open for a couple more hours. They settled around a couple of tables with the chocolates and some Haselgrove Old Nut Port to go with the confections. Their feelings about the play were gone over first and then the conversation drifted into smaller chats. Missy and Annette talked a lot about developing material to apply for the university. Annette grew probing about Missy’s knowledge and was impressed with her familiarity with the business side of film production. It was an area the artistically inclined students often lacked enthusiasm for which could frequently hold back their careers after university. Teresa and Helen talked a lot about horses. She was enthralled to meet the champion horse rider. She was even more intrigued to find out her girlfriend, Missy, had been a key inspiration to her career. Penny and Gustav Schiffer fell into a long debate on physics that Maria followed remarkably well. Prof. Schiffer was proud to show off that his daughter had been accepted to MIT and would be going to Boston in just a few weeks. The professor’s intrigue with Penny’s ideas on M-Theory and gravity grew enthusiastic and baffled. She was proposing a radical reassessment of the entire theory.

‘Your ideas will outrage a lot of people in the physics community.’

‘Why, because they’re based on the research of Sheldon Cooper?’ Penny was surprised how much the arctic still lingered over Sheldon’s work in spite of the revelations about Leonard’s sabotage.

‘That is part of it but also your youth, occupation, and gender.’

‘Papa, how can you keep saying things like that?’ Maria’s countenance looked shocked at her father and turned with apologies to Penny.

‘It is a sad reality of the field, Maria. One, I am going to make you aware of if you are serious about continuing. It isn’t fair but you will find a lot of such bias the higher you ascend in the field. I am sure you have met your fair share of fools with retrograde views on women in the sciences unless your fame has dampened that and led them to insult your work as nothing other than that of a precocious actress.’

‘Sheldon can be a pill and I have met idiots who were just what your father described. It’s not like life fifty years ago but academic jealousy is a real thing and some of it can be sexist crap that can make you want to do something drastic.’ Penny used to visit Raj off campus more often than not while she was doing her M.A because she had loathed running into Barry Kripke. It had taken hauling him into President Siebert’s office with Micky and a few other press friends to get across to the idiot and the university how bad a sexual harassment charge would make him and university look. Even still, the university had barely done anything until Micky’s reports from women on campus started becoming a part of his writing about Penny’s work during the ‘The Coven’s off seasons.

‘That isn’t going to stop me.’

‘Nor should it, Maria. You have a brilliant mind for physics far superior to many freshmen I’ve taught. That’s what got you into MIT, not your name.’

The professor turned his attention back to Penny to continue their talk about her ideas. He was most desirous to stay informed about her work. He understood her reasons for collaborating with Raj and Howard so he followed up with questions about their work, as well. Penny could just imagine how stunned her friends would be to learn who would be following their progress with her theories.

The party broke up a little after 2am with promises to keep in touch. Phone numbers and contact details were exchanged. Teresa was especially keen to take dressage lessons from Helen in Passau. The Schiffer parents were glad to learn about Sol and Connor in Boston. Missy offered to introduce her to the two film students. They were settling into Bostonian life and Missy was sure they’d be happy to help Maria find her bearings in a new city. Annette was curious to learn more about the budding film makers so she hoped Missy would be able to introduce them all since she’d be going with Maria for the first few days in Boston. Penny would be staying in touch with the Schiffers, especially Gustav Schiffer. She intended Raj and Howard to be the practical end of the research. She and the professor knew she couldn’t stay current in the field while pursuing her film career but she could remain the theoretical muse for the team. Prof. Schiffer was dubious anyone would follow what Penny was striving for on that end but she had the insight a good theoretician needed. Penny and Gustav shared the same regret Maria wasn’t finished her M.A., at least, since she did seem to grasp what Penny was on to.

+++

Penny and her friends were a whirlwind cavorting through Vienna over the next few days before Helen had to rejoin her riding team for a show in France. The Schönbrunn Palace was a marvel to them. The Palmenhaus, the main greenhouse of the palace, was a fairytale forest. Penny and her friends were entranced by the tiers of flora arranged everywhere in the forest boughs of wrought iron and glass. The Museum of Art History enthralled Missy and Penny as did the Belvedere Palace with its Klimt collection. The real highlight for the women was the Spanish Riding School. They toured the school from the stables to the grand winter riding hall. They were thrilled to get the chance to meet Hannah Zeitlehofer, the first woman rider admitted to the school in its more than 450 year history. The chance encounter made watching her and the school’s formal performance that evening unforgettable to the horse loving travelers.

Penny and Missy did a long walking tour to Leopoldstadt where the Augarten stood out for both of them because of the dystopic look of the flack towers that had been built during the Second World War. The city had many reminders of that sad past but the ugly concrete giants that marred the baroque beauty of the surroundings disturbed Penny and Missy far more than either wanted to try and put into words. The bold graffiti saying ‘Never Again’ felt inadequate to the grim presence of the concrete behemoths. They were happy to escape from the Nazi era anti-aircraft fortresses but they cast a persistent shadow on their day. They finished their afternoon at the Austrian Folk History Museum where they looked forward to the Dotdotdot open air film festival. The museum recalled all the charm of Vienna but those towers stayed with them while they admired the beautiful side of Austria that they had enjoyed so far. They opted for a Spanish restaurant, Puerta del Sol before the movies began. It was close to the museum park with the movies and a welcome change which lessened their reflections on Austria’s less savory past.

‘Are you texting Elizabeth?’

‘Yeah, I am trying to describe what I felt about those towers but you have to see them here with everything else to get it.’

‘Bleak, I don’t think they need any more description than that.’

‘Yeah, I think you’re right.’ Penny sent off the latest pictures and descriptions for Elizabeth to put up on the show’s fan site about her vacation. She smiled at the floor to ceiling painting of a Spanish Flamenco dancer on the wall. The flow of the dress seemed to leap from the wall like the dance itself. It carried away any dark thoughts that lingered in her mind.

‘You’re going to have to do more than keep up a travelogue in a few days. I can’t believe I’m the one asking what you’re going to do with your life after how we started out from Pasadena.’ Missy stared at her travel mate with an expectant grin.

‘What do you mean? We’ve talked about my career.’ Penny poured them some more of the Borsao red wine from Spain that the bartender recommended to them.

‘Come on, you know what I mean, Sheldon and Elizabeth. I know you’ve been putting Sheldon off because he started messaging me.’ Missy took a sip from her refilled wineglass with a prayer that Penny would be able to handle her brother.

‘I’m not going to do anything about Sheldon. It’s me I have to do something about.’ Penny paused a second to gather her thoughts. A couple of musicians began setting up next to the wall painting of the dancer. Their tuning their instruments made her think about how she was going to need to re-tune her life when she got back to California. ‘I’ve been talking to Raj about taking over the work. He took some convincing but reading my material has intrigued him. Besides, Vienna has been telling me to get back to my career, and not just the acting. I want to direct, write, do all of it. I want to be more than an actor so the physics will have to make room for that.

‘I’m sure that will go over well with Sheldon.’ Missy asked the server for some more of the fresh olives to go with the wine. She couldn’t help thinking Penny was too close to Sheldon to see him for what an ass he could be.

‘Like a lead balloon,’ Penny rolled her eyes with resignation, ‘I have to get out of Los Robles whether I like it or not. Bernie has been telling me for years that it would be better for me. I’ve been asking myself ever since the séance at Maleva’s whether it really is time to get out of my shell, so to speak.’ She laughed at Missy’s gagging over the pun.

‘Is Elizabeth a part of this bettering yourself because I hope she is?’ Missy knew Penny depended on Elizabeth after this last month of travel in order to have this much free time from all the demands that came with being a celebrity. It was clear to her Penny thought a lot of the woman’s talents.

‘Yeah, she wants to get out of public relations so she can become a cinematographer. She’s been an assistant cinematographer on a bunch of our episodes as well as other series, too. I don’t think she’ll be staying at the studio after The Coven ends. I’ve been talking to the show runners about directing an episode this season. They sent me a script they want to see a proposal for in a couple of weeks. Elizabeth would be a huge help if she’d be my cinematographer.

‘Is work the only thing this is about with Elizabeth?’ You said back in Piber you were interested in her when you talked about meeting her for the first time.’

‘She’s been seeing someone for the last month, Charlene Wunsch. Besides, I’m not looking for a date.’

‘She’s been keeping you informed about who she’s dating while we’re here in Europe?’

‘No, I mean since before we left.’

‘Maybe, things have changed while we’ve been here. And, you asked her out to dinner right quick after you get back and she answered real quick, too.’

‘What are you driving at?’ Penny didn’t want to read too much into Elizabeth’s answer but she couldn’t help craving to hear Missy’s reading.

‘She said she’d love dinner with you, not just she’d love dinner.’

‘We’ve had dinner plenty of times. There’s nothing strange about that.’

‘Yes, but she said ‘with you’. Doesn’t that sound odd if she’s seeing someone? She said she could use the dinner. “I’d love dinner with you. I could use it.” That sounds to me like there could have been a break up and you came along at just the right moment.’ Missy leaned forward waiting for Penny’s rebuttal.

‘No, she’s not looking for a date.’

‘And you weren’t?’ Missy sat back taking her wine with a self-satisfied smirk.

‘She’s seeing someone. I’m not about to be some kind of homewrecker.’ Penny huffed with a twinge of guilt. She was having trouble keeping up the pretense with herself that the dinner invitation had just been work related. Why had she asked about dinner the day after flying back? Why had Elizabeth added how she’d dreamt of going to Vienna? Was it just because of the pictures or was there more to the message? She didn’t want to follow this fancy but…

‘Well, what if she’s not seeing Charlene anymore? There might be more to her saying she could use dinner with you than just to talk about work. You said she had been interested in you. That might not have changed as much as you think.’

‘You’re supposed to be talking me out of getting my hopes up.’ Penny sipped her wine pensively while she thought about Missy’s questions. They both turned their thoughts over to the opening notes of the guitarists playing a classical Spanish guitar piece, Romance Anonimo. The notes seemed to make the dancer painted on the wall come alive. Penny wondered if Elizabeth liked to dance.

+++

The final days in Vienna were filled with clubs and dancing, a trip down the Danube to Bratislava to add one more country to their tour. They enjoyed the day long tour to the Slovakian capitol so much they jokingly thought of following the Danube to the Black Sea and sailing to the Mediterranean and visiting Greece and Turkey but the real world beckoned. Penny did recall her Hofburg made plans for winter. She asked Missy to see if she and Helen might be able to join in. She left Missy calling Helen while she went down to talk to the concierge.

‘Good morning, Miss Queen, how can I help you, today?’

‘I wanted to see about booking our suit in advance before we leave, tomorrow. I’d like to come back here for the Christmas holiday season.’ Penny was surprised by the concierge’s look of regret without looking anything up.

‘I am afraid the suite floor is booked for the entire period from Christmas to New Year’s. There is an Austrian family who takes over the floor every year. We do have a few other rooms which may suit you or I can contact some of the other hotels nearby but I have to warn you that the popularity of the season can have the best rooms already booked even this far in advance.’ The concierge regretted the news he had to give Penny.

‘Every year, and the whole floor for the season? Would it be fair to say this family is very reclusive?’ Penny felt a tingle of familiarity.

‘Of course, I can’t divulge any confidences but that would describe them. They bring their own staff for most services and they use only a hand-picked few of the hotel staff during their stay, Albert and a few others the family trust Albert to select. He’s very discrete.’

‘Isn’t that curious? I’ll be in the Blue Bar if Missy comes looking for me.’ Penny chuckled her thanks to the concierge. She got out her phone on the way into the hotel lounge and called Laura Karnstein.

+++

‘Hey, are those any good?’ Missy found Penny in the bar with a near-finished champagne cocktail in front of her and playing Candy Crush.

‘These champagne cocktails are to die for. Order us a couple and we can bring them to the spa.’ Penny stretched her neck from playing the all too addictive game too long again. She wished she could bring the Hungarian masseuse home with her. Dorina worked pure magic.

‘I like the way you think, let me get them. It’s a shame we can’t bring Dorina home with us.’ Missy had the same devotion to the masseuse’s skills as Penny. She would miss the woman’s talent for finding and removing every iota of stress in her body.

‘I’ll say.’ Penny put her phone away and brought her now finished drink to the bar while Missy ordered their drinks.

‘I guess the folks here will be missing us. The concierge couldn’t jump fast enough when I got out of the elevator looking for you.’ Missy moaned in happiness at the cocktail’s flavor.

‘That and remember the photo albums of Laura and Carmilla’s Christmas trips to Vienna?’

‘They were staying here, weren’t they?’ Missy recalled the albums, especially the pictures of Carmilla and Laura dancing on a balcony. She realized the background neighborhood of the pictures was the Albertinaplatz in front of the hotel by night.

‘They stay here every year. I found out when I tried booking a suit for the holiday that a family of Austrian recluses rent the place every season. That sounded familiar and then I remembered the photo albums just before we left Karnstein so I called Laura to see if they’d mind if we barged in on them. I assume the extra-friendliness from the staff was because of Laura having called the hotel to clear our stay. That is if you and Helen want to come with me.’

‘It’s nice to have friends. I don’t know about Helen and me. She likes to spend the holidays with her family. I don’t mind coming but Meemaw isn’t likely to have too many more Christmases with us so I can’t make any promises.’

‘I didn’t think of Connie at all. I’m sorry Missy. I got carried away.’ Penny took Missy’s hand with a gentle squeeze.

‘No, it’s alright. I’d love to say yes, it’s just that between Meemaw and Helen I’m not sure. I also want to see about interning somewhere that will help my applying for universities here.’

Missy and Penny headed out with their cocktails to the spa while they reflected on their plans after they got back home. The concierge joined them for a moment to apologize to Penny about the confusion over the situation with the suite. Penny reassured him that she appreciated the hotel’s discretion every bit as much as the Karnsteins. She was in no rush to have ardent fans or worse stalker fans finding her.

+++

The travelers checked out the next day. They had Albert take care of mailing the Austrian souvenirs that they didn’t want to carry in their luggage on the plane. They had loved their time in Europe, especially Austria. They were eager to come back. The praise they showered the hotel staff with left no doubt of that for anyone.

They had spent so much time together that the flight back became a sad separation. They spent most of the flight holding hands not wanting to admit the goodbyes coming. Their time together ended in Detroit where Penny would transfer to Los Angeles while Missy would be going to Houston. The tearful goodbye was long and warm. Penny promised to visit in December to see Missy and the family before heading back to Europe. She wanted Connie to have a lot of Christmases ahead but Missy was right. That wasn’t something to count on.

Penny dozed fitfully until the warning came for passengers to get ready for landing. She checked her seatbelt, put the tray up, and finished putting her things away before the inevitable circling started before landing. She watched the night view of LA out the window after she was done packing up. It brought the familiar feeling of regret she felt whenever she took any long vacation. She knew she needed the time away but coming back always presented a mountain of work that wouldn’t have been half as high had she stayed in Pasadena. Financial advisors, lawyers, her agent, the showrunners for The Coven, not to mention interviews and appearances but none of that was likely to match dealing with Sheldon.

She reflected on the script for the season opener which would be filming in a few weeks. Kaley was warning the coven of the changes coming that she had felt in the elements. Changes that meant that they would have to move on just as the seasons do. Penny felt the same changes in the elements around her ever since she’d gotten to Vienna. She laughed to herself. She and Bernie had set down roots in Los Robles days before she’d left for Europe, yet here she was feeling it was time to move on.

She’d seen her past in Helen and the horse shows; her present and its duality with Bauschinger and Schiffer on one side and Evelyn and the Opera House on the other. Her future had already been written on the white boards before she left. It was time to cast off from Los Robles to be somewhere else and to keep becoming who she wanted to become. She made a note on her phone to see Maleva as soon as possible to get a Tarot reading done and a horoscope check.

‘I wonder how badly Sheldon will take all this.’ The flight crew announced the plane would be landing soon so she sent a text to Bernie before the signal came to turn off all electronics. She was glad Bernie was already at the airport to meet her. They did have a lot to talk about.