An Interesting First Date
January was a dead time in Munsterville. Figuratively speaking, of course. Once the chaos of the holidays had subsided, the capitalistic boom of Christmas and the drunken celebration of the new year passing in a colorful blur, folks settled in for the lull before the blip that was Valentine’s Day and then the eventual spring thaw or Easter, whichever came first. The last three weeks of January, the 70,000 odd citizens of the industrial city went about their daily lives like ants accustomed to freezing windchills, perpetually slushy streets, random slick spots, and a blanket of snow that had covered the ground for so long that grass was only a memory.
In other words, it was boring, and no one was immune to it.
Christabelle Calder definitely wasn’t. As a private investigator, those three weeks in January never failed to be the worst of her employment. The post-holiday haze that faded into a return to normalcy typically left her with little to do until just before Valentine’s Day, when suddenly everyone thought their significant other was unfaithful. She was lucky to land a job during these weeks and that’s what she told herself over and over after her late breakfast meeting with her newest clients, a couple by the name of Windom, who were convinced that their neighbors were running a drug den. They wanted Christabelle to get proof they could go to the cops with because they didn’t want to look nosy or crazy. That’s why they had to meet at a diner instead of at their house; they didn’t want to their neighbors to know that they suspected anything. Which was perfectly understandable. What wasn’t understandable was that the couple both called in late to work to have this meeting with her and both wore dark sunglasses and constantly looked around the diner like they were expecting to be outed as spies or something. Christabelle took the job because she needed the job, both for the money and for the entertainment.
When the Windoms finished giving her all of the details (more than Christabelle could ever want or need) and left, Christabelle finished her pancake breakfast in leisure and then drove out to their neighborhood to check out the digs. It was an upscale neighborhood, not quite as ritzy as the communities out by Lake Munster and the golf course, but money enough to have a swath of McMansions running along neatly plowed streets, not a sign of slush or of a pothole. No doubt expertly manicured lawns and maintained flowerbeds lurked under the inches of snow. At a glance, she very much doubted these neighbors were drug dealers, but if they were, it’d be a nice twist. If they weren’t, well, she couldn’t wait to find out what they really did. In Munsterville, it could be anything.
Driving back to her own lower middle class, slightly unkempt neighborhood, Christabelle pulled into her driveway to find her own neighbor, Pam Bendixen, waiting on her doorstep. The woman was bundled up against the winter wind, pacing on the small slab of concrete to keep warm, her blonde hair peeking out from underneath her cap, the puffy coat she wore adding to her already curvy figure. Christabelle shook her head. The woman had the tenacity of a small dog.
“Where have you been?” Pam exclaimed as Christabelle got out of her car. She bounced in place on the doorstep. “It’s almost noon.”
“I had to meet a client,” Christabelle said, tromping through the yard along the path she’d made to the front door from repeated trips and a laziness that prevented her from using her shoveled walks. Pam scooched over on the stoop so Christabelle had room and stood right behind her as she unlocked the door.
“You’re going to be late,” Pam said.
Christabelle opened her front door and Pam followed right behind her, giving her no chance to brush her off.
“I’m not supposed to meet her until one,” Christabelle said. She took off her coat and hung it up on the rack next to the door. Pam did likewise but left her scarf and beanie on.
“Yes, but you’ll want to freshen up, maybe change your clothes.”
Christabelle stopped in the middle of the living room and looked down at her outfit: jeans, boots, and a blue and green flannel shirt.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“You can’t meet Rena wearing that.”
Christabelle looked at Pam, confused. “Why not?”
“It’s a lunch date, Christabelle,” Pam said, exasperated. “You need to put some effort into it.”
“I’ll show up and be my charming self,” Christabelle said.
“You’d be more charming in a different shirt.”
Christabelle sighed. “I was working this morning. If I can meet a client wearing this, then I can meet Rena wearing this. And if I’m not mistaken, you said that she’s working today, too, that’s why this is a lunch date.”
“Rena is a librarian,” Pam said. “She’ll already be looking nice. It’s part of their dress code.”
“It’s not my fault private investigators have a different dress code.”
“Ugh!” Pam threw up her hands. Christabelle couldn’t hide her smirk.
Ever since Pam had decided to set Christabelle up on a blind date with her friend Rena Neri, Pam had been insistent, pestering, and all around bothersome about playing matchmaker. Christabelle had successfully put off meeting the woman until after the holidays, but when Pam threatened to make a Valentine’s Day mission out of it, Christabelle relented. She decided that if Pam wasn’t going to give up, then the least Christabelle could do for herself was minimize her embarrassment. No doubt any idea Pam would have cooked up for Valentine’s Day would have been a humiliating ordeal, even if that wasn’t her intention.
“Pam, I feel like it’s important to present myself exactly as I am,” Christabelle said. “The women I date need to know exactly what they’re getting into up front. I’m a private investigator. I keep weird hours. I sometimes do less than admirable things. And I’m usually in jeans and whatever clean shirt I can find. It’s who I am.”
“Yes, I know that. And I appreciate that. But,” Pam made a helpless gesture, “can’t you at least be you in a slightly dressier shirt?”
Pam looked at her with pleading eyes. It was pitiful and hit Christabelle in the stupid soft spot usually reserved for animals and Girl Scouts selling cookies. Christabelle sighed.
“Yeah, I suppose.”
Pam grinned broadly, bouncing a little on her feet. Anyone else might think she was the one going on the date. Or had money on its success.
“Okay. I’ll wait right here while you change.”
Christabelle was going to argue, but she knew it wouldn’t do her any good. Instead, she retreated to her bedroom. Opening the closet, she looked inside for something that might get Pam off her back. Christabelle wasn’t one for fashion. Considering her figure was to the boyish side, most clothes that she did like ended up looking wrong on her, hanging where they should have hugged. As a result, she stuck to the simplest jeans, shorts, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and flannels, resorting to power suits or slacks with a nice blouse when she absolutely had to be dressy. Christabelle liked make-up better. She noticed that Pam didn’t make any comments about that. Since her meeting with a client was early this morning, Christabelle opted for a quick, neutral face, but she was just as inclined to go for bright lipstick and wildly-colored eye shadow. She liked to be creative and sometimes that meant adding a little extra flare. The pink stripes in her blonde hair could vouch for that.
Digging through her closet, Christabelle finally settled on a red v-neck sweater. It was nice, but not too nice for a lunch. It looked casual enough that it wouldn’t look like she was trying, but it would also fit Pam’s requirement to look like she was making an effort.
Or at least she hoped it would. She was in no mood to put on a fashion show and Pam could be quite difficult to please sometimes.
Christabelle quickly changed into the sweater and regarded herself in the mirror. Her make-up was still intact and the ponytail she’d pulled her hair into this morning was still in good shape, the escaped pieces looking casual and artfully messy instead of looking like her hair rebelling, which was what it was actually doing. She left the bedroom feeling pretty good about herself.
“Okay, what do you think?” Christabelle asked as she walked back into the living room.
Pam regarded her critically and then looked at her watch.
“Well, it’ll have to do,” she said. “You’re going to be late.”
“You really need to take me shopping with you one day,” Pam said.
“I think I disappoint you enough as it is,” Christabelle said.
“Oh, nonsense.” Pam grabbed Christabelle’s coat from the rack and handed it to her. “Here. You better get going.”
“Pam, I’m not meeting her until one.”
“And with the lunchtime traffic it will take you twenty minutes to get across town and that will get you there,” Pam checked her watch again, “about twenty minutes early. Which is good.”
“I’m not sitting in the parking lot of Dillman’s for twenty minutes like a weirdo.”
“Why not?” Pam asked, grabbing her coat from the rack and putting it on. “Isn’t that what you do for a living?”
“Ha ha. I’m getting paid then.”
“You’ll be getting paid for this, too,” Pam said. “You’ll be starting a wonderful new relationship today.”
Christabelle didn’t argue; that really would make her late. It would also be pointless because Pam wasn’t backing down from this. She was certain that Christabelle and Rena would make the perfect couple and she wasn’t about to change her mind. Christabelle wondered how Drew dealt with his wife when she got an idea in her head.
But then she remembered that Drew was very much the same way. Arguments in that house (if those two ever did argue) had to have been epic.
Christabelle followed Pam out of the house, locking the door behind herself. As Pam trudged across Christabelle’s and Mr. Santos’s yards to her own house, Christabelle obediently got in her car. Pam stood on her stoop and watched as she pulled out of her driveway. She didn’t go inside until after Christabelle started down the street. If Christabelle had any idea of circling the block and coming back home (which she did), that put an end to it. Pam would be back at her house before she shut off the car.
Dillman’s was a popular lunch counter in Munsterville. It started in the ‘50s as a real lunch counter with no indoor option, only a walk-up window. It became a popular place for workers and high school students (they had open campus back then) to grab a quick burger and a lemonade, both signatures of the counter, their recipes highly guarded secrets. After a fire in the ‘70s, Old Man Dillman, then very old, decided to add an indoor seating area that featured a counter with stools and a line of booths against the wall, though the walk-up window remained the more popular option.
Christabelle wasn’t surprised to find the small lot still nearly full and the line for the walk-up window stretching down the shoveled sidewalk. The dead of winter had no effect on Dillman’s. She found a spot and parked, noting that, as she had told Pam, she had about twenty minutes to wait until she met her…date. It had been a while since she’d had one, keeping busy through work and hanging out with friends. After her divorce, Christabelle hadn’t been too inclined to hop back into the social scene. The divorce was rough; healing took a while. A long while. When she finally felt like she was ready, she realized that she didn’t know what the hell she was doing anymore.
Of course, that didn’t deter Pam. She decided that all Christabelle needed was a push and then she shoved.
Christabelle watched the door as she waited, looking for Rena Neri. Pam had showed Christabelle a picture of her date and she had no doubt that she’d recognize her. Christabelle’s gift with faces aside, Rena was a beautiful woman with a face hard to forget. Christabelle at least had to hand it to Pam for attempting to matchmake her with a lovely looking woman.
A couple of minutes before one, with no Rena in sight, Christabelle got out of her car and started walking to the front door. She was tired of waiting and ruminating. If Rena was late, she could find Christabelle inside. And if Rena no-showed, she’d still get lunch.
A little roller skate of a car pulled into the lot, cruising slowly between Christabelle and the front door. Just the glimpse through the driver’s side window was enough to tell her that her date had arrived. She made her way to the door to wait while Rena parked.
Christabelle watched as Rena Neri got out of her car and hustled across the parking lot, her long coat hanging open and flapping in the wind. She looked taller than Christabelle and she was definitely curvier, her hips filling out her black slacks and her bosom stretching the blue and cream striped shirt she wore. A bold gold necklace bounced with every step.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Rena said as she met Christabelle at the door. Her beautiful smile was only rivaled by her gorgeous dark eyes. Her black hair was swept up in a bun, putting her gold hoop earrings on full display. “Sorry I’m late. Somebody just had to check out twenty books before I left, and my other clerk was running late.” She held out her hand to Christabelle. “I’m Rena Neri.”
“Christabelle Calder.” Rena’s hand was cold, but soft. Christabelle was starting to wish that she’d taken some of Pam’s advice and put a little more effort into her appearance. Rena was stunning and Christabelle couldn’t compete with an old shoe. “Aren’t you cold?”
“You’d think that,” Rena said with a little laugh. “But my anxiety has me sweating. Shall we go in?”
Christabelle stumbled under the influence of Rena’s beaming smile, but still managed to get the door and hold it open for Rena. The diner was fairly crowded, but the two of them managed to find a couple of stools together at the counter. In seconds, menus were tossed in front of them by a waitress who was busy but didn’t look stressed. She’d probably been doing this for twenty years; busy was the norm for her. The menus were a single sheet of laminated paper with the offerings on only one side. Christabelle didn’t even bother to look at it; Rena, however, looked it over carefully.
“What are you getting?” Rena asked.
“My usual. A burger and a lemonade.”
Christabelle looked at her curiously. “Haven’t you ever been to Dillman’s?”
Rena glanced at Christabelle, blushing as she shook her head.
Christabelle could only stare at her date for a moment. She’d never known anyone from Munsterville who hadn’t been to Dillman’s. Even vegans showed up for the lemonade.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” she finally said.
“No,” Rena said, sounding like she was admitting a most horrible truth. “I moved here about three years ago. I grew up in Chicago, actually.”
“I’m still baffled,” Christabelle said with a laugh, shaking her head. “First that someone from Chicago would move to Munsterville and second that you’ve been here three years and still haven’t been to Dillman’s. The people you know here have done you a disservice.”
“Oh, people have been telling me to come here since I first got here,” Rena said. “I kept putting it off and forgetting about it.”
“Well, you’re going to find out how badly you’ve cheated yourself these past three years,” Christabelle said. “You like burgers?”
Christabelle took the menu from her and Rena gave her a curious look. The waitress working the counter came back their way and Christabelle ordered for both of them, a burger and a lemonade apiece.
“Trust me,” Christabelle said to Rena’s inquiring look. “I’m not normally this forward about food, but if you want the traditional Dillman’s experience, this is how you do it.”
“I’ll trust you on that.”
The two of them chatted as they waited for their food, Rena explaining that it was a lack of librarian jobs around Chicago that led her to Munsterville (“I go where the work is”) and Christabelle explaining that her natural nosiness led her to being a private investigator.
“It’s pretty boring work, really,” she said. “I don’t get shot at nearly as much as the TV shows would have you believe. I’ve also never been tangled up in any spy stuff or complicated drug running plots.”
Rena giggled and then went serious.
“Wait. What do you mean you haven’t been shot at nearly as much?”
Christabelle laughed. “Only about once a year and usually by some guy I’m busting for cheating who’s such a lousy shot that he couldn’t hit the side of the world. I’ve never come close to actually being shot. It’s a little scary having a few rounds go over your head, though.”
“You know,” Rena said after a second, “I used to think that being a librarian could be a little dull. I’m going to remember that nobody is shooting at me while I’m shelving books the next time I wish for a little excitement.”
“Hey, it’s Murderville. Anything can happen.”
The man sitting on the other side of Rena cleared off his stool just as the waitress brought them their food and the two women dug in. Christabelle ate at Dillman’s at least once a week, usually using the window instead of sitting inside. Her odd hours and late nights made her less of a cook and more of a takeout guru. Dillman’s was a quick and tasty burger to grab on the run.
“You’re right,” Rena said after sampling her burger and lemonade. “I regret waiting this long to come here. I’m going to have to work overtime to make up for it.”
Christabelle chuckled. “Told ya.”
An older gentleman came in and sat on the stool a couple of places down from Rena. It was hard not to notice him. He looked like he hadn’t slept in years, his face haggard, the circles under his eyes permanent. If he told Christabelle that he was pushing eighty, she’d believe it. Going by the yellow newspaper he placed carefully on the counter when he sat down, he might have been around ninety. But he wasn’t. He was only around sixty, if Christabelle remembered right.
Rena looked quizzically at Christabelle as he ordered nothing more than a coffee.
“You know him?” Rena asked Christabelle in a low voice.
“Yeah,” Christabelle said. “Well, I know of him. It’s Jerry Cooley.”
“That newspaper must be fifty years old, if it’s a day,” Rena said. “Why does he carry it around?”
Christabelle sighed. Anyone who ever ate inside Dillman’s knew Jerry Cooley’s story because he told it to anyone who’d listen. Since Christabelle usually used the window, she only had the basic gist of it, which she relayed to Rena.
“His sister went missing years ago. He carries that newspaper around as a conversation starter, trying to keep her memory alive, hoping to get new information.”
“Well, what happened?” Rena asked, clearly intrigued.
Christabelle could only shrug. “She disappeared from a park or something. Never seen again.”
“That’s it?” Rena asked, disappointed.
Again, Christabelle shrugged. “It’s all I know. You’d have to ask him.”
Before Christabelle knew what was happening, Rena nodded, turned, leaned over to Jerry Cooley, and tapped him gently on the arm.
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