Wednesday, June 16, late morning
Isobel Santini stood off to one side of the cash register at the Five-and-Diner, tapping her toes while she waited for the soup order she’d called in forty-five minutes earlier. Peak lunch rush shouldn’t have been for another half an hour; what was taking them so long? At least the delay kept her out of the office a little bit longer — Gerri Hess, the executive editor and publisher of the college press and thus Isobel’s boss, had been on a tear lately. If you defined lately as “since she got back from her last vacation.”
A few extra minutes was good; more than that, not so much. As managing editor of River Corners College Press, Isobel had plenty to do under normal circumstances, and these were not normal. Not only was Gerri being demanding, but also Isobel’s assistant was out sick and Isobel had a date this evening, which meant that she wanted to leave early today. Hence the take-out order — she had planned to work through lunch at her desk. She still would, but she wasn’t saving any time by doing it.
A nasal voice from one of the nearby tables caught Isobel’s attention. She didn’t have to peer through the plastic plants to identify the speaker — Sadie McKenzie, well known for her opinions on everything having to do with Saint Theresa’s parish, second only to Sue Holstein, the mayor’s wife, in her interfering ways.
“–and then he told me I was wrong about the doctrine!”
The measured tones of Father Paul answered her. “He was correct, Sadie. As long as he’s not trying to re-marry in the Church, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Sadie’s voice rose. “Of course not. You’ve already done enough, haven’t you? If you hadn’t gotten involved, we’d still be married in the eyes of the law, not just the eyes of God!”
Isobel glanced around, looking for somewhere to move so she could avoid listening to this conversation. The divorce of Kyle and Sadie McKenzie—and subsequent marriage of Kyle McKenzie to his secretary, Rita Black—had been both acrimonious and very public. Isobel had already heard quite enough details. Unfortunately, the diner wasn’t large enough to escape anyone bent on creating a scene, so she stayed where she was.
Father Paul’s voice stayed calm and level. “I did nothing I should not have done.”
“You told him to divorce me!”
“Do you really believe I would betray my faith and my vows like that?”
“He went to you for counseling, then came back and told me he wanted a divorce. What else am I supposed to believe?” Her voice dropped again, but it was still loud enough to carry. “You’re a damned hypocrite, and you ought to be defrocked.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.” A chair scraped. “I met with you because I hoped to ease some of your pain, but if you’re not willing to let go of it, there’s nothing I can do. I need to get back to work now.”
No takeaway bag had miraculously appeared to allow Isobel to effect an escape. The priest, clad as ever in black with a Roman collar, passed the plants Isobel stood near and stopped at the register to pay his bill, Isobel nodded politely at him and did her best to look as though she hadn’t heard the entire conversation. With his hair going silver at the temples, he looked very much a benevolent priest. He probably wasn’t fooled by Isobel’s pretense—he never had been—but he gave her a half-smile and return nod.
Now, would her lunch be ready before she had to face Sadie?
Another chair scraped, and Isobel’s heart sank. No way out of this. Instead of seeing Sadie, however, she heard another voice, pitched low—“Sue’s been worried about you, Sadie. Is there anything we can do?”
“Sure–make sure Father Paul has nothing to do with the festival!”
The mention of Sue and the invocation of the upcoming festival—Summerfest, jointly sponsored by the town of River Corners and River Corners College—identified Sadie’s new companion as none other than His Honor Richard Holstein, mayor of River Corners. Isobel had known Richard all her life (part and parcel of growing up in a small town), and her only complaint about him was his execrable taste in women. Isobel didn’t have much use for his wife Sue.
“You know I can’t do that. The chaplain at the college always does the opening prayer.”
“Can’t you–I don’t know–say something about separation of church and state, and say that we’re not going to have prayers this year? That man is insufferable.”
A burst of laughter from further back in the diner covered up the next few words, and then the bell between the kitchen and the front rang. “Order up!”
Isobel looked over hopefully, but two plates with burgers and fries sat waiting to be taken to a table. She slumped against the cash register, resigned to listening to more of Sadie’s whinging.
“–can’t change tradition,” Richard was saying.
“Why not?” Sadie replied. “We do it all the time. We didn’t have Santa at the Christmas pageant, did we?”
Silence descended on the diner, and Isobel winced. “Santa” had been a murder victim the previous year, so the lack hadn’t been a willful departure from tradition. Sadie was just lucky the widow—Isobel’s best friend—wasn’t here.
The next voice wasn’t one Isobel knew. “If you’re finished with your meal, could you perhaps continue your discussion elsewhere?”
“You have open tables. You don’t need this one.” Sadie’s voice was vicious. “Or are you trying for an even lower tip?”
The speaker must be Sadie’s waitress, then. She tried again. “You’re making our other customers uncomfortable.”
“Did any of them care when my husband made me uncomfortable by dumping me for another woman? Do any of them care about the hypocrisy openly practiced—”
Richard cut her off, but his voice was low enough that most of the diner’s customers probably couldn’t make out his words. Isobel, thanks to her location, could. “Sadie, if you keep this up, the only friends you’re going to have in town are Sue and me. Maybe you should consider trying a fresh start somewhere else?”
“I’ve already lost my husband, and you want me to lose my home and my job as well?” Sadie’s voice rose again. “You’re just afraid being associated with me is going to hurt your chances for re-election, and you want to get rid of me.”
She had a point. Richard had already begun his re-election campaign, and for a change he wasn’t running unopposed. He didn’t need anything that would drag his name into the mud.
Of course, that meant that he wasn’t very likely to accede to Sadie’s requests. If he tried to interfere with the college’s contributions to the festival, he’d be starting another round of town-gown disputes. Then there would be the local people who firmly wanted things to stay the same (such as Isobel’s Momma and Aunt Rosa—who would both be scandalized by the lack of an opening prayer). Richard couldn’t take the chance that they’d be miffed enough to vote against him.
Sadie didn’t seem to get that, though. “If you really want to get rid of me, want me to go away, do what I’m asking—get him away from the festival. After Summerfest’s over, I’ll move away and you won’t have to worry about me torpedoing your chances.”
“I can’t, Sadie. You know that.”
“Then don’t be surprised if I do something myself.” Her chair scraped backward. “Say hello to Sue for me. I don’t think I’ll be seeing her again.”
Hurriedly, Isobel stepped away from the cash register to give Sadie room to pay her bill. Although Sadie was older than Isobel, she didn’t look it. Since her divorce, she’d gotten her hair cut and colored, gone in for Botox injections, and hired a personal trainer—as if any of that would get Kyle back. Still, Isobel admitted that Sadie looked amazing with the chic asymmetric cut to her blue-black hair and her tailored pants—casual enough to work in the florist shop, but sharp enough for evening wear.
Sadie gave Isobel a sidelong glance, but quickly focused on the red-headed waitress who had started cleaning the counter. “A little service here, please?”
The waitress stiffened, but she continued what she was doing. Isobel’s lips twitched; the waitress clearly hadn’t appreciated the comment about an even lower tip. Had Sadie left one at all?
The manager–a frazzled looking man with curly red hair, quite obviously the waitress’s father–looked out from the pass-through to the kitchen. “Kari, you have a customer.”
The waitress straightened up, but she took her time putting away the cleaning rag she’d been using. The manager didn’t reprimand her.
“How was your visit today. Was everything to your satisfaction.” The words were wooden, delivered—Isobel was certain—because the waitress was required to ask, not because she cared.
Sadie snorted; she understood exactly what the waitress meant. Instead of answering, she pushed money across the counter and stood there, tapping her fingers impatiently while the waitress counted it to be sure it was all there. Finally, the waitress pushed some buttons, counted the money into the drawer, closed the drawer, and tore off the receipt. She handed it to Sadie with a mechanical smile. “Thank you. Have a nice day.”
Isobel noticed that the waitress didn’t say, “Come again.”
The door jangled as Sadie passed out. The waitress glanced at Isobel. “You can grab a table or a seat at the counter.”
Isobel shook her head. “I’m waiting on a take-out order. I called it in about an hour ago.”
“An hour! You would’ve eaten faster if you had sat down. Let me check on that for you.”
Isobel smiled gratefully. She hadn’t been here the whole hour, but she did want to get back to work soon if possible.
Three minutes later, the waitress handed her a to-go bag. “The cook put it in a container and then got distracted. No charge,” she added as Isobel pulled out her wallet. “Not after that long a wait.”
“At least let me give you a tip.”
The waitress smiled broadly. “Customers like you are a pleasure to have.”
Instead of people like Sadie. Isobel didn’t blame the waitress one bit, but she did need to get back to her desk and start dealing with her own recalcitrant people, from vendors to her boss.
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