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Two years later
"It's official." Henry Coleman slammed his Al's Diner reservations book down on the counter. "Oakdale, Illinois, is the most fertile place on earth."
"Only if you are not married," Vienna Hyatt replied blithely. She flitted between the diner's dozen tables, sliding colorfully laminated menus onto every place setting in preparation for their usual dinner rush. In her distinctive Swedish-mangled English, she added, "I have been studying this interesting verity for many months now. I believe I have discovered the secret to Oakdale's baby boom. It only comes into effect if you are single. Very few married people here produce children. Have you also noticed this oddity?"
"Hmmm..." Henry opened the reservations book and ran his finger down the list of private kids' parties Al's Diner had hosted over the past few months. "Sage Snyder... Parker Snyder... Daniel Hughes... Liberty Ciccone... Nope, not a legitimate kid in the bunch."
Vienna had to reach across Henry, who was sitting at the counter, to file away her remaining menus. She didn't have to do it in such a way that first her breasts, then her hips, and, finally, the ends of her flowing ebony hair swished provocatively across his lap, but what fun would it have been otherwise?
"Am I supposed to be listening to anything you say while you do that?" Henry asked. Henry was an average-looking thirtysomething man of above-average height and below-average earning potential. He had ordinary brown hair, jug ears, chipmunk cheeks, and a smile that stretched from sideburn to sideburn. His girlfriend, on the other hand, boasted a face Plato would have described as "the golden proportion" a nose nolonger than the distance between the eyes, a small jaw, large eyes, and defined cheekbones. It was one that contained what modern-day scientists call "proportional physical symmetry." Not to mention one that men responded to by first staring, then stuttering, then attempting a strangled grunt, and finally blushing and running away in terror. As a result, Henry very rarely managed to actually listen to what Vienna was saying.
He tried his best, he really did. He loved Vienna so much that he even found her sometimes-incomprehensible accent charming. He genuinely wanted to hear what she had to say. But looking at her frequently proved too distracting. And, in this particular instance, her practically lying across his lap didn't help.
She turned around, resting the edge of her equally perfectly proportioned and symmetrical rear end against his thighs. That didn't help much either.
"And you know what other interesting fact I have also noticed?" Vienna asked as she kissed Henry on the forehead. She kissed the bridge of his nose. She kissed his eyelid and his ear and the very tender square of flesh where jawbone meets neck. He definitely liked the direction this was heading in.
"You and I, Henry. We are single."
"You betcha. Single, footloose, fancy-free, fit as a fiddle and ready for..." Henry was trying to figure out a way to suavely maneuver himself and Vienna onto the counter without violating the Health Department's regulations against, well, having sex on counters, when Vienna's words finally penetrated his lust-addled brain.
"Hey! What's the big idea?" he exclaimed.
Vienna plopped awkwardly down on the counter. Henry did her one better in the slapstick department and actually slipped, hitting the floor with an ego-crushing thump. But he was up in seconds, eager to demonstrate that he had figured out what Vienna was up to.
"You're talking about us two Oakdale-dwelling single people having a baby. I thought we'd settled that."
"You settled it by buying me a puppy."
"Exactly. Pepper was for you to practice on. How did you like the helpless neediness, the constant 'accidents,' the all-night whining for your undivided attention?"
"That was you."
"Exactly." Henry had been shooting for droll. He'd have settled for amusing. Vienna did not look amused. He changed tactics to remind her, "You aren't even sure if you really want a baby. You're just reacting to the avalanche of babies all around us. It's peer pressure, that's what it is. A passing fancy. Like that entire first quarter of your life when you thought gorgeous locales, fabulous jewels, glittering parties, nonstop champagne, and strapping, wealthy men were the key to making you happy. Before you realized it was, in fact, a modest, heavily mortgaged diner in the charming American Midwest, complete with a debonair, though perhaps a touch less than strapping and a whole lot less than wealthy, chap."
"So you are saying that our love is also what you call a passing fancy?"
"No! What passing? No passing! Interception!"
Vienna stomped her foot. "You are trying to confuse me with your baseballing terms."
"What? Baseball? No, it's never mind. Forget about my baseballing terms. You and I are the real thing. We're long-term."
"As in marriage?"
"As in long-term investments. Special. Fixed. Secured. A careful accumulation of only the most valuable properties to be nurtured and pampered throughout the course of a lifetime to insure ultimate, maximum payoff."
Henry figured he was safe focusing on money, Vienna's second favorite topic, as a way to keep them off her first favorite topic marriage. Over the past year, Vienna had taken to channeling her frustrations over their lack of wedded bliss by doggedly trying to push all their friends into the bonds of matrimony. Which was fine with Henry. He liked to think of said friends as helpfully taking the bullet actually meant for him.
"If you do not take better care of those investments," Vienna said with a pout, "you might soon find yourself out on your precious, special, secured assets."
Henry wondered if that was a deliberate joke or an English-mangling malapropism. It was so hard to tell with Vienna, but either way, Henry had a feeling he was getting his assets handed to him in a sling.
"Admit it," he challenged. "You're not so sure about this parenthood thing yourself. You love our life the way it is. A baby would change everything."
Henry smiled. According to his favorite writer, nineteenth-century Irish wit Oscar Wilde, "She who hesitates is won." Would the man who also said that "one's real life is often the life which one does not lead" steer Henry down the wrong path?
"So it's settled," Henry barreled on, afraid to discover that what he discerned to be Vienna's hesitation was merely her pausing to refill her lungs so that she might unleash a torrent of fresh persuasion in his direction. "I don't want to hear another word about children," he said firmly.
The bell over the diner's front door jingled merrily. Probably just as well that they'd been forced to put their amorous activities on hold, Henry thought. One never knew when the Health Department might unexpectedly drop by.
Lucinda Walsh entered the diner in all of her dowager, stiff-haired, well-heeled glory. She wore a floor-length fox fur and made a point of carefully lifting the hem so that it just brushed the middle of her knee-high, black suede boots, and not the diner's recently swept, but obviously not very well, plebeian floor. At sixty-plus years old, Lucinda carried herself with the expected self-confidence of a woman who'd made her money the old-fashioned way she'd married it. Then she'd waited for her elderly husband to die so she could drive his multimillion-dollar company to even greater, billion-dollar heights.
Lucinda looked critically from Henry to Vienna and back again. She said, "I need to speak with you about children."
"Craig Montgomery is a rotting, oozing pustule on the flesh of society," Lucinda announced.
"Guess we won't be naming a sandwich after him then," Henry muttered.
Thanks to Lucinda's colorful description, Henry felt a bit queasy as he handed her a menu. She, however, slid grandly into the nearest booth, accepted the menu, and skimmed it briefly before archly raising an eyebrow. "No wine list?"
"Our sommelier is in the Republic of Armenia this week for the annual master conference. Naturally," Vienna replied without missing a beat.
Lucinda raised her eyes to peer challengingly at Vienna. The younger woman met her gaze calmly and held it for a long beat. With the hint of a smile, Lucinda returned her menu to Vienna. "Naturally," she agreed.
"You were saying something about Craig Montgomery oozing and rotting," Henry prompted, less interested in what Lucinda ultimately had to say than he was in moving the conversation along before more customers arrived. Henry suspected that Lucinda's choice of words wouldn't precisely complement their special of the day.
"And those are his good qualities," Lucinda snarled.
"Agreed. But Craig hasn't bothered anyone in Oakdale since he went on the run for bombing Paul Ryan's car."
"Disagreed!" Lucinda bellowed. She did have a most remarkable bellow. Not unlike a mountain lion protecting her cubs. While performing a speech by Lady Macbeth. For the hard of hearing.
"She disagrees," Henry translated helpfully for Vienna's benefit. English wasn't her first language, after all. Vienna nodded, either mesmerized or petrified.
"Craig is still tormenting a great many people in Oakdale, due to his relentless hunt for my poor granddaughter Lucy," Lucinda said. "His machinations with Johnny and the attempt to turn Paul into charcoal briquettes was only the most recent in his long, long, long list of criminal acts. Honestly, I don't know what my daughter, Sierra, ever saw in that man. Or what I ever did, for that matter."
Vienna blanched. "You and your daughter's husband "
"Don't be vulgar, dear. It was before he was my daughter's husband."
Seeing that Lucinda didn't want to linger on the subject of her long-ago romance with Craig and that she was also less than pleased with Vienna's implied question, Henry hurried to redirect the conversation away from Lucinda's checkered past and back to Craig's. "Craig and Paul were also once in love with the same woman," he explained. "Meg Snyder loved Paul but she married Craig, then got pregnant by Paul and lost the baby. Then she dumped them both."
"Are you quite finished?" Lucinda wanted to know.
"Yes," Vienna answered for him.
"Thank goodness." Lucinda cleared her throat. "Lucy ran off with Johnny to protect him from Craig's brand of parenting. If anyone knows about its toxic effects, it would be my brilliant girl. She was named after me, you know. Lucy gave up her life for Johnny even after I begged her not to in order to save him from growing up as a perpetual pawn between Craig and Paul. It was no minor sacrifice. She had a promising medical career, a fellow who cared for her, a grandmother who would have given her no less than the moon if she had asked. For goodness' sake: Tell me what the point is of having children, of reproducing your bloodlines, if those same ungrateful offspring refuse to take advantage of your life experience to make their own road in life a little easier? Tell me!"
Henry and Vienna exchanged stymied looks and shrugged.
"Lucy was supposed to keep in contact with me!" Lucinda raged. "I insisted she do so! I could have helped her, I could have smoothed her way. Instead, she cut herself off from all of us, including Sierra, her mother. We don't even know where to reach the child to let her know that Craig is on her trail!"
"You haven't heard from Lucy?" Vienna asked.
"Not in months. It's as if a large hole opened up in the earth and swallowed my granddaughter whole, then stuck its tongue out to taunt me for good measure." Lucinda peered directly into Henry's eyes and proclaimed, "I want you to find Lucy for me."
"Me?" Henry yelped, sounding like a monkey protesting the theft of his last banana. While drinking a martini. "Why me?"
"Because the FBI informed me that my granddaughter's disappearance is an international matter, the CIA told me it was a family matter, and the Jokedale Police Department can't even get a lock on Craig Montgomery's whereabouts, despite his being at the top of their most wanted list. I guess that's what happens when the fugitive's sister is the chief of police. Margo keeps claiming she has a lead on Craig, but when it comes to closing the deal, he mysteriously escapes her clutches. I am tired of government-funded incompetence. I've decided to take matters into my own hands. To that end, I seem to recall that before you dedicated your life to playing Chef Boyardee alongside your Swiss Miss "
"I am Swedish."
"And your people make a spectacular meatball, darling, don't interrupt Henry, were you not the proprietor of a detective agency?"
"Well, yes, the Early Bird Detective Agency. But that was years ago."
"Splendid. Then it shouldn't be too difficult for you to transition from Early Bird Culinary Specials back to your previous line of work. You are familiar with all the players in this sordid family drama. Courtesy of your fiasco of a marriage to his sister, Katie, you and Craig were even relations for a short time, were you not?" Lucinda reached into her purse. "Will you take the job? Ascertain Lucy's and Johnny's whereabouts and relay them to me? Only to me and no one else, is that clear? Paul Ryan would love to unearth where Lucy is hiding. His obsession with regaining Johnny is still running neck and neck with Craig's. Well, tough. He can hire his own minions."
"I'm sorry, Lucinda." Henry feigned a contrite expression. "We're very, very busy these days. The pepperkakor season is almost upon us again and "
"Who or what, pray tell, is a pepperkakor?" Lucinda demanded.
"A pepperkakor is a ginger cookie," Vienna explained, thrilled to finally be contributing to the discussion. "We serve them here at Al's. They are a huge favorite in Sweden, especially during the Christmas holiday season."
"It's also my little pet name for Vienna," Henry waxed poetic. "Because she's sweet and spicy and, well, Swedish."
"Enough." Lucinda held up her hand, palm up. "I've lost interest." She took out a medium-sized manila envelope and tossed it on the table between them. "I'll pay you fifty thousand, plus all expenses. Here is ten thousand in cash up front to get you started. You will receive the remainder when you locate Lucy and Johnny."
"We will do it," Vienna said.
Lucinda beamed. "I knew you were good for more than just cuckoo clocks."
"That is the Swiss. I am Swedish," Vienna called after her. But Lucinda was already up and walking out the door.
"What are you thinking?" Henry asked Vienna the minute La Walsh was out of earshot.
"Well, at this very moment, I am thinking about how I will redecorate the diner for fifty thousand dollars. Plus maybe a padded expense or two," Vienna explained gleefully.
"This is ridiculous. We don't know anything about locating missing persons. Especially a missing person who really, really doesn't want to be found."
"But you ran a detective agency!"
"Ran it straight into the ground."
"This is not a problem. We will learn on the job, just like we learned how to run a diner."
"Speaking of which, who do you think is going to run our baby sorry, bad choice of words... who do you think is going to run our fully mature bundle of... no, that's not it, either... Who's going to watch the diner while we go gallivanting around the globe looking for Lucinda's errant young?"
"It is not a problem. We will close up shop for a few days. Finding Lucy and Johnny should not take more than a week or two of our time. It might even be good for business."
"How do you figure that?"
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder, does it not?"
"That's for romance, not restaurants. And furthermore, who's going to take care of our puppy, Pepper? You know, Vienna, when you assume responsibility for a small, defenseless, drooling life-form, you can't simply pick up on a whim and jet off to glamorous spots unknown. Something to think about, huh?"
"Emma Snyder has offered to let Pepper stay at her farm anytime we like. She says the grandchildren adore playing with him, and Pepper loves running about in the fresh air." Vienna placed her index finger on Henry's nose and traced a line down to the spot between his collarbones. He tried to kiss her finger when it flicked across his lips, but Vienna was too quick. "Or would you rather that we forget about traveling and instead stay where we are so we can continue our earlier conversation?"
Henry put on his enthusiastic face and brightly asked, "So if you were Lucy Montgomery, where do you think you'd go?"
Vienna smiled. Henry could tell she was plotting something. But experience had taught him never to ask what.
Copyright © 2009 by Procter & Gamble Productions, Inc.