If you pass the broiling city of Phoenix, climb into the high desert mountains, and nestle in a quaint town, you will find a little diamond in the rough. Sitting amidst a populous of hippies and health junkies rests a rebellious diner.
This one of a kind establishment openly defied the pressure of its small town culture. Actively promoting heartburn and carbohydrate filled deaths as they lathered their food in offensively unhealthy ingredients.
Though the name on the sign reads Clodoveo's Diner and Bar, this outlawed, yet beloved place had been affectionately named the Dove. Many speculate the name change was caused by a power failure back in the seventies, where the only letters still lit spelled out Dove. The regulars were the only ones who knew the truth. They were too lazy, and considered the diner's true name to be a mouthful.
I had the status of being a regular at the Dove. But my reasoning for entering it that day had nothing to do with its legendary food. I entered the building strictly for a business transaction. A dreaded business transaction.
I left the frostbitten world behind me, as I stepped into the loving arms of the Dove's warm air. Teeth chattering, I moved closer to the dangerously open griddle, hoping to thaw out before my meeting with the Editor. My numb hands were a great incentive to not flunk my mission. Without the Editor's compliance, I'd have no paycheck. And with no paycheck, I'd have no way to afford the much needed heat in my house.
Clodoveo, the mastermind and chef of the Dove, stood behind the giant hot plate. He flipped around an experimental dish. One that would no doubt send over half the restaurant home screaming in digestional pain. But it would be completely worth it. I say that from experience.
“Sunny m'boy, what will it be for you?” Clodoveo thundered in his rich Russian accent. Considering he lived in this small, very American town his entire life, no one is quite sure where he got his accent. It is a mystery, I suspect, that will never be solved.
“No food for me this time. I’m here for the Editor.”
“She hasn't finished her coffee.”
“My house is dipping into the twenties, I'm willing to risk it.”
“Her fries are untouched.”
“I slept in my parka last night.”
Sympathetic to my pain of being a private investigator in a small, sleepy town, Clodoveo skipped the mug and gave me the entire pot of coffee. He nodded to the Editor's dark corner and sent me on my way with a familiar warning. “She's over there. Be careful.”
Snagging an empty mug, I left the sizzling griddle behind me, bearing enough coffee to caffeinate the whole room.
Due to the health nut ways of today's youth and those in charge of the menus at most diners, the older generations were naturally inclined to migrate to the Dove. They sought solace in Clodoveo's all day beer special, and the unhealthy food served with a proud smile, which was absolutely void of any remorse or shame.
I picked my way through the diner, past walkers and wheelchairs. I carefully avoided the tangle of oxygen tubes littering the greasy floor. I'm sure the combination violated several health codes. No one seemed to notice though. Or if they had, along with the rest of the customers, they didn't care.
Tucked away from the chattering crowd, in a dark corner, sat the Editor, her head buried in several books and dusty manuscripts. Her fingers reached out aimlessly for her plate of cold fries. She overshot by a few feet, as she grasped fruitlessly at the thick, smoky air. Eventually, she gave up, not willing to raise her head from her work for even a second.
I picked a really bad day to come to her begging for help. My mission was already doomed. And I hadn't even started.
The Editor was an anomaly. Twenty years old and she was already breaking every stereotype in sight at an impressive rate. Quite like the Dove, she adamantly refused to conform to her restricted cultural surroundings.
For example, unlike others in her season of life, she willingly and proudly set both feet into the Dove on a daily basis. All while she unflinchingly consumed their unholy and unnatural deep fried foods.
The Editor was known for being the eyes and ears of the town. Think of her as the town's personal Sherlock Holmes and John Watson wrapped up in a petite, blond package. Her ability to observe and remember every detail around her was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Which is one of the many reasons I was coming to seek her counsel. I hoped and fervently prayed her amazing intellect and memory had caught and trapped the information I needed for my case.
Amidst her life-saving advice and helpful hints, the Editor had only one drawback. Her code of conduct. To avoid being called a gossip, she refused to deal out the tellings of the town without tangible proof backing up her every word.
As twenty years her senior, I should be proud of the next generation's unfailing integrity. But as I was also sure my much needed information was well guarded by her ruthless and unflinching code, and with my previously cold, long, sleepless night still haunting me, those warm fuzzy feelings were rather difficult to muster.
The Editor had finally dragged her head away from the dusty and slightly moldy books. She now sat with fingers drumming on her laptop, spewing out words at an unearthly pace. Her red-rimmed glasses slipped to the edge of her nose, threatening to fall off. They defied all laws of gravity and remained safely on her face.
Recognizing and understanding her fierce, intense gaze piercing the screen with determined concentration, I decided it was best not to poke the dragon. I softly set the coffee pot on the water-worn table, shrugged off my snow-caked jacket, and slid into the booth across from her, waiting for her to finish her thoughts.
I took the time to relish the warm, thick air. It smelled of stale ale and day old nachos. A curious outsider might find these odors repulsive. But to the faithful regulars, it is only one of the many things which make the Dove home.
Billy Joel's voice cut through the low rumble of the chattering people. He sang out from the outdated and slightly broken jukebox. The rusty machine had the tendency to play songs on repeat for hours on end, much to the annoyance of those who still possessed over half their hearing. The other half hadn't noticed Piano Man playing on a continual loop since breakfast.
The Editor finally glanced up from her laptop, acknowledging my presence. Her fingers hovered thoughtfully over the keys as she eyed me up. I refilled her mug and handed her a fresh cup of coffee. She pushed the laptop off to the side without hesitation and snagged the hot beverage. Her eagerness for the caffeinated drink did not bode well for my damned mission.
“Sun Cho, you can't seem to stay away from my corner.” She took a sip of her coffee, grimacing at the bitter after flavor. “How many times have you come to me for this case?”
“Around ten, but it's all for the greater good, I promise. And the first time doesn't count, I came on Jimmy's behalf.”
“Mr. Baggins needs to stop avoiding me. We live in a small town, it gets awkward really fast.”
“He is my business partner, I could just deduct the money he owes you from his paycheck if you want.”
“No, he lost at Sunday poker. I don't care if it's ten dollars, he must face me like a man and pay up.”
In complete agreement with the Editor, I filled my mug of liquid adrenaline. The steam curled up, engulfing my face as I drank deeply, ignoring the scalding heat rolling down my throat. The cobwebs in my mind were pushed aside. The consistent yawn threatening to break free died down, leaving me alert and ready to fight for my case.
“How is it working with the police department again?” the Editor asked, politely making small talk even though we both knew why I was really there. “Is the Captain treating you well this time?”
“You'd think after twenty years of working with me off and on, they wouldn't hate private investigators anymore.”
“Shame. Besides getting paid to snoop about other people's personal business, you are actually a decent, upstanding man.”
“Everything we do is completely legal,” I protested. She raised a questioning eyebrow. “Alright, most of it’s legal.”
Our conversation was interrupted. A roar of approval ran from the crowded room behind us. Clodoveo turned on the bowling alley. Yet another one of his failed inventions to draw in the younger generations. After he realized the idea had crashed and burned, the single bowling lane was only used for special occasions. Or by request of a Thomas Stonewall Jackson, son of two serious history buffs.
I didn't mind the interruption though. Along with the Editor's useless chatter, it helped me stall for time as I tried to think of how to worm my way past her code. Panic set in as I came up with nothing and she turned her attention back to me.
I was doomed.
“I take it you didn't come all this way to complain about your work environment,” the Editor observed, “I don't have much time. I have a meeting with the South African President in a half hour. What do you have for me?”
In all the years I'd known her, I never could tell if those outrageous claims of hers were attempts at sarcasm, or if she really did meet presidents and royalty on a weekly basis.
“I need the name and number of a sociopath.”
“What makes him a sociopath?”
“He embezzled money and framed his coworker for the entire thing. If that's not incentive enough for you, he also murdered five people in the past ten years.”
“My interest is piqued.” She pulled her laptop back and began typing again. “Killed five people, continue please.”
With her fingers flying over the keyboard and her rapid interest in the case, my confidence returned, giving me high hopes for a warm and toasty house. I really didn't want to sleep in my parka again. Despite its wool warmth, it was rather uncomfortable and itchy. Not an experience I wanted to relive.
“The technicians have cyber footprints, proving the existence of the man's crimes. We have all the evidence to lock him away for several lifetimes. The only problem, we have no name. Not even a face. Or one of those horrid eyewitness sketches of a face. Without it, our case goes as cold as my house.”
“And this is where I come in?”
She continued typing while I said a short, but heartfelt prayer, begging the good Lord for a successful mission for once. And a fat paycheck for a warm house.
“Please tell the Captain to stop changing the police server's password,” the Editor said, “it's hard to do my job when he keeps locking me out.”
“I'll pass the message on. Do you have anything for me?”
“I have a name and face right here that seems to match your man's profile.”
The Editor read the flickering blue screen. She paused, slipping her ruby glasses off, folding them jerkily before putting them on the scratched table. I waited, albeit rather impatiently, for her verdict. Worst-case scenario I'd camp out at Jimmy's for the rest of the month. Or at least until I got another paycheck.
“Unfortunately, divulging the name of your suspect goes against my code. Looks like you're going to have to figure out who he is by yourself.”
“You realize you are dooming me to a month in an icebox, right?”
“Get a job conducive to your small town environment, and you might not have that problem.”
“You're one to talk, you're the town Editor. Not exactly a great business endeavor in a community where the most heinous crime is littering.”
“I have an appointment with the President of South Africa. What's your point?”
Not wanting to overstay my welcome or interrupt her alleged meeting with the South African President, I got to my feet, preparing myself for the cold outdoors. For once in my life, I wished I had moved to Phoenix. The moment of temporary insanity lasted for only a second before I came to my senses. I'd rather freeze to death than boil alive.
The Editor adjusted the laptop screen, frowning at the small print without her glasses. I've always had good vision, which is a miracle, considering every last member of my family had glasses or contacts. So, when she shifted the screen, my eyes caught the name of the suspect she withheld from me.
I have faced many frightening things in my lifetime. I was once held hostage by the mob. I sat in a rigged car with only two seconds to detonation. And somehow, in my mid-twenties, I found myself in a North Korean prison. None of that could have prepared me for this moment in time. The name I read instilled a fear I have never felt before.
“You alright, Sun?”
“Huh?” I quickly cleared my head, not wanting her to know I saw the name. “I'm fine. Didn't get enough caffeine today, that's all.”
I bent down and kissed her forehead. I understood why she refused to give me the name of the suspect. And the rigid code was not to blame this time. I shrugged on my heavy coat and fastened it with fumbling fingers.
My deceiving smile fell as I left the Editor in her dark corner. I trampled over the greasy floor again, past the oxygen tanks and walkers. The sound of bowling pins crashing together racked my ears as my world came tumbling down around me.
The name pounded repeatedly in my mind, mocking my stupidity, my foolish gullibility, making me question over twenty years of friendship. The name was Jimmy Baggins.