One of those mysterious lulls that occur among large groups of people descended on the restaurant. Seconds later it was bludgeoned by a voice that boomed, “Ezra Prosper! You in here?”
A massive woman wearing a rusty black coat of indeterminate age and origin lumbered between the tables and quivered to a stop at Ezra’s booth. She gave a determined sniffle and dabbed a dainty pocket-handkerchief to one eye. Ezra Prosper cast a frantic glance to heaven before cowering in his seat. Heaven chose not to respond, and the man remained trapped.
“Bernice. Good to see you. How are you doing?” He covered his food with the napkin. Claudia couldn’t blame him. The fragile hankie didn’t appear up to the job of damming the woman’s overflowing eyes and nose.
Bernice’s face collapsed into lines of misery. “My little Jezebel is missing. The Schnauzer with the ratty ear. You need to find her. She was wearing the jacket I knit her, but in this cold nothing will help. What’ll I do if something happened to her? I’ve had more grieving than one woman can bear!”
Claudia didn’t scoot back quickly enough and Bernice sideswiped her knees before jolting back through the dining area. People shifted their chairs slightly, uneasily, to make way for her prodigious frame. As she passed Ruby she slowed and lowered one shoulder. The little waitress paused only the briefest of seconds before reaching up with a quick pat. Bernice gave a final sob and pushed out the door into the cold.
Claudia watched from the corner of her eye as the man crumbled his napkin in disgust. Blossom herself, who had held the door for Bernice, followed her jaw to Ezra’s table. She stood over him wagging her three chins and poking at his half-finished dinner.
“I hate to waste good food, but that woman churns my stomach too. Next time you come in tell them the meal is on the house. Add a salad for pity’s sake. Your arteries have got to be clogged worse than a Chicago traffic jam. You need whole grains, lean meats and raw vegetables. That’s all I eat.”
He grinned up at her. “I know you do. By the truckload."
Claudia winced and waited for the woman’s reaction. Blossom just chuckled.
“More of me to love, Ezra Prosper,” she told him and ruffled his hair before heading back to the kitchen.
Ezra laughed, smoothed the mussed hair, and rose to leave. He examined his scarf, shrugged into his coat, shuffled his feet, and jingled his keys on the way to Claudia’s table. The shuffle slowed and Claudia, unable to ignore him, looked up.
He beamed and stuck out his hand. She took it, noticing he had nothing particularly noticeable about him. Average height and weight, early or maybe mid-thirties, receding brown hair, hazel eyes crinkled at the corners, regular features. Nice teeth. Claudia’s mother told her not to judge a man by his appearance, but considered good teeth the mark of exceptional character. He wore jeans, a thick wool coat, and a plain gold wedding band. Claudia hoped that meant he wasn’t going to flirt.
“Not sure you’ve been welcomed properly to town. I’m Ezra Prosper, Justice of the Peace.”
His tone was pleasant, and if he was trying to pick her up he had chosen an unconventional opening line. Just in case, Claudia chose to take control of the conversation.
“Thank you. Do justices of the peace usually search for lost dogs?”
“I guess you couldn’t help hearing. Bernice is six foot tall, and half of that is lungs and windpipe. I’m also dogcatcher. It’s sort of a hereditary position. I’m a third generation Prosper dogcatcher. We don’t have a Humane Society up here so I search out missing animals, check out possible abuse, eliminate rabid raccoons, encourage spaying...” He trailed off. “Which is why Bernice always calls on me when a dog is lost. Unfortunately, they aren’t that difficult to find.”
Intrigued, she couldn’t keep from asking, “Why unfortunate?”
“It’s an unusual story, but not one you want to hear over dessert.” Ezra paused, and for a moment seemed fascinated by her half-eaten torte. Claudia began to wonder if she should offer him the rest when he asked, “What brings you to our neck of the woods?”
“Now that,” she told him, “is not a story to tell over dessert.”