The Teacoff Dumbwaiter Mystery, Chap. 1

This first chapter first appeared in a weekly coffee share article
published on Jan. 25, 2020 at this link.


Teancoff Dumbwaiter Mystery, Chap. 1
By: Gary A. Wilson

I arrived early for my meeting with Tamara as I really needed a large cup of tea this cold morning.  There were few customers yet but the cafe was warm, bright and cheerful as it always is.  the air was already full of the rich fragrances of different coffees brewing. Everyone I saw looked like they needed a wake-up drink as badly as I did.

Tamara came up behind me as her store manager, Gina, handed over my drink, “Hey you.  You awake or should I give you a few moments for the haze to clear?”

“Thanks Gina.

“Hi-ya Lady. No, I’ll be fine.  What’s on your mind?”

“Walk with me.  Here, now turn around and look at the shop layout. I like the entrance at the far end and the fireplace – book shelf wall to the right with the couches and coffee tables.  It’s been popular with my customers.

“The service counter wall to the left is also fine and behind us is the small fireplace room.  All this is also fine, but right about where we’re standing, I’d like to put a spiral staircase that leads up to . . .” and she paused to point up to the unfinished mezzanine floor above the service counter, “there.

Promo photo from San Francisco’s Sightglass Coffee

I already took some quick measurements and there’s enough space for 25-30 seats.

“The previous owner left lots of stuff and I have no idea what it all is, but most of everything else he left was junk so I could just throw it all out, refresh the area with some new comfy seating.”

“Tamara, how did you get up there?  I don’t see a way up.”

“There’s a ceiling door next to pantry mop closet.  The realtor had told me about it, but until this idea occurred to me, I had not been up there. I need more seating and I visited a coffee shop while visiting my family in Dallas last month.  That place has a wonderful upstairs seating mezzanine area not unlike what I could do with my unused loft.”

By now Tamara was getting into her contagious enthusiasm mode and turned to me with a growing fire in her eyes. “So — you want to go up and check it out with me?”

I’ve always enjoyed thinking out loud with Tamara, so up we went in pursuit of her miniature adventure.  It was dusty, so we moved carefully to avoid stirring things up because any dust clouds would travel over the ledge and down into the dining area.

She was right.  Most of what we found were old expired supplies without any value.  There were several old fixtures and tools that might have some value as ‘stuff-on-the-wall art’.  The floor space was wide with a good solid floor. If refinished it would look both rustic and attractive.

“I’d need a new railing,” she pointed out as we looked over the ancient ply-wood half-high wall down to the dining area below, “but don’t you love how the ceiling slopes down from this level to be high enough for all the ventilation and lighting for the ground level but is at our eye level from here? With a few fake gears and pipes, this whole ceiling could become full steam punk themed.

“But the seating up here, I’m thinking, should be a more quiet area for my students and writers.

I had to agree with her, this was looking to be a fun idea, so I switched my thoughts to look for potential problems.  “It’s too dark, but you could easily install new lighting or maybe a few sky lights.  There is some kind of counter against the wall opposite the ledge.  It looks pretty trashed and you’d have to tear it out and redo the wall I think. You know, I think your servers might get tired of a tight little spiral staircase.  We should talk it through.”

She nodded and answered, “My carpenter could take care of all the remolding stuff.”

Looking around the dusty and cluttered room I noticed something. “Tamara, what’s that big cabinet just past the door we came up through?”

“Don’t know.  Want to check it out?”

We walked over and I tried to pull open the cabinet door that sat at waist level, but it was stuck fast.

“Got your Leatherman handy,” she asked?

“Yes.  Where’s yours?”

“In my purse down in the office of course.”

“Right.  Very handy.”

I unfolded my knife blade and worked the corners of the doors to isolate the jammed areas.  “It’s just the bottom that is stuck.”  I ran the blade along the edge and could feel some kind of ancient gunk break free.

The door now opened with angry creeks from both hinges.  The inside was a large empty cabinet with no shelves.

“Cool!”  She said. “This would work fine for any number of service items.”

“Hold on.  What’s this,” I said, reaching just out of her line of sight to a small rusty panel that looked out of place.  When I touched it, it moved so I tried to see if it was glued or what.  When I tried to pull on it, it creaked but easily yielded to swing open revealing a pair of control buttons and a single light bulb which was dusty but still functioning with a dull green glow.

“This is interesting.  What do you think it is Gary?”

“Whatever it is, it is still powered.” I leaned in and pulled out my phone to use the light to see if there was any writing around the controls, but as soon as I put any weight on the inside of the cabinet, the whole inside area shifted away from me. Startled, I quickly stepped back.  “What the…?”

“What was that?” Tamara asked.

I quickly examined the outsides of the cabinet again and found a spot to dust off and uncovered a similar panel on the outside of the cabinet.  Opened up, it too contained one dull green light and two similar buttons.

I looked inside the cabinet again but did not find anything beyond that one panel and the fact that the whole inside shook as if it were loose or suspended from above.

“Okay.” Tamara said. I vote we push one of the buttons.”

“Do you have any idea what it will do?”

“Nope.  Do you?”

“Maybe.  If I’m right, you might really like it.”

“What?  What do you think it does?”

“A loose suspended box inside of a cabinet with both inside and outside controls of some kind.  It’s really old but I think it can only be one thing.

“And how long are you going to keep me in suspense?”

“I was hoping for just a bit longer but you’re sounding restless so I think it is. . .”

“I’m going to tear it out of you if you hold out on me for any longer. . .”

dumb waiter“Okay spoiled sport!  I think it’s a dumbwaiter.

“A dumbwaiter?  Like an elevator between floors for stuff rather than people.  Cool. Let’s try it.”

“We don’t know if it still works.  Do you even know where it comes out?”

“It would have to be in the pantry, but there’s no similar door in the pantry.  Let’s try it and see.”

“It’s your building.  If you want to try it without checking it out fir. . .”

“Gary, what could go wrong?  It either works or it groans and doesn’t work.  What button do you think does what?”

“The red button most likely means ‘Stop’, so the green one should mean ‘Go’.  You only have two floors so the box should just go back and forth.  It could be very useful.”

Tamara is not one to sit and contemplate mysteries from very long, so I was not surprised when she nudged past me to push the green button.  We immediately heard a very distressed motor wind up and groan when it tried to move the box.  Something was stuck, so I quickly reached in and pressed the red button which caused a strange cracking sound followed by a silenced motor relaxing and the box dropping a couple of inches.

“Oooo, I think you’re right.  This is a dumbwaiter.  I also think you stopped it as it was starting to work.”

“Maybe.  Try again.”

“Glad you agree.”  She reached in again and pressed the green button and the motor came back to life, shook the box, and whatever was stopping it before broke free and the box began to drop while emitting screeching pleas for WD-40.

We watched as the box slowly dropped followed by the cables and pulleys all dropping down the shaft below.  I turned on my phone light again to see pulleys and cables and wheel guides, all crusty, dusty and rusty, loudly complaining, but working.

“Tamara!  Is everything okay up there?”  It was Gina, yelling from below.  “It sounds like you’re tearing out a wall.”

Tamara answered that all was well and that we were just testing something and did not expect the noise.  “Worry not, it should stop in a few seconds.”

The motor ground on.  We both watched as the box dropped further and further .  “I can’t wait to find where it stops.” she said.  “It must be walled up downstairs.  I’ll have to install a new door to access it but I already love the idea.”

But seconds, turned into minutes and the motor kept groaning, dropping the box ever lower as bearing complained for fresh oil.

“Gina!  Can you step into the pantry and tell me if you hear anything in the walls?” Tamara called out.

“Will do.” came her answer.

The motor seemed to be getting quieter as it ran, and ran, and ran. . .

Tamara and I looked at each other, both of us beginning to understand what must be happening.  The cables were still moving. The box was dropping lower and lower.  We could barely see it now.

Gina finally called back. “I heard something behind the sink for a few seconds, but now the sound is fainter and coming from below the floor.  What is it?”

Suddenly, the motor stopped and the green button light came on.  The box was far out of sight.

Tamara and I looked at each other.  “Stay here.  Don’t push the button again.” I returned to my car and pulled out the 75 foot rope I always keep with my tool bag and a tape measure.  When I came back, I tied a weight around one end and lowered it down the shaft until the weight tapped the top of the box.  I marked the rope and pulled it back up to measure how deep it went.  I then had Tamara hold up her hands and wrapped the rope around her hands to make a large coiled loop.  Finally, I measured the circumference of one loop and multiplied the length by the number of loops.

“Tamara,” I said, not sure I believed what I was about to say. “Whatever is down there is about 60 feet deep.  The dining floor below cannot be more than 10 feet down so your dumbwaiter, which apparently has only have two stops, is stopping about 5 stories below your dining area.  What the heck could be so far down?”

dumbwaiter shaft
Image from: in: “Rescuing Two Cats from Dumbwaiter Shaft”