Little Bites: Duck Donuts opens in Upper St. Clair, Free Primanti’s, Ballpark night at Eleven
The blower rang. It was Munch's secretary, Effie, on the line. "There's a girl out here who wants to see you." A slight pause. "She's a knockout."
Munch clipped the end off of a Montecristo Robusto, lit it, and swiveled the chair toward the office door, phone still at the ear. You didn't need to be a private dick to know what comes next: "Send 'er in," Munch said.
Her name was Miss Wonderly. She was tall and pliantly slender, legs long, lips like cranberry sauce, skin the color of an under-cooked turkey, hair like caramelized yams. There was an appetite in her eyes.
Lucky for her, Munch had food on the brain.
"I'm not from around here," Miss Wonderly murmured softly.
"You don't say?" Munch rocked forward in the chair. "Now what can I do for you, Miss Wonderly?"
"I'm hungry," she said.
"I can see that," Munch said. "How does that concern Munch?"
"Do you always refer to yourself in the third person? How very interesting, in a psychotic way."
"One of my many charms. Stick around and I'll show the rest of them."
"Eww. Anyway. I'm in town for the night. I was hoping you could solve a little mystery for me," she purred.
It was a lovely purr, a purr that could make a man write bad checks. Munch's checking account was overdrawn as it was. That's why our hero gets nervous around things that purr -- women, cats, the Toyota Prius. Presently, our Epicurean Examiner broke into a flop sweat, forehead glistening, thighs congealing like two sumo wrestlers slathered in teriyaki, slapping against each other under a hot August sun.
Pull it together, Munch.
"I'm not a private dick, ma'am," Munch said. "I'm a restaurant critic. Ostensibly."
"I know that. It's a food mystery," she said. "Where can I get a decent Italian lunch buffet in this town?
Munch said, "I've got just the place."
With Munch driving, the two of them navigated Pittsburgh's back streets and shadows. "Where are you taking me?" Miss Wonderly asked.
"Shortcut," Munch growled, sounding not unlike Christian Bale in "The Dark Knight."
"This neighborhood looks like trouble," Miss Wonderly said.
"Trouble is my business."
"Are we in a demilitarized zone?"
"I eat demilitarized zones for breakfast."
"I think we just passed a homeless encampment."
"Homeless Encampment is my middle name."
"I have two middle names, Miss Wonderly. Like George Herbert Walker Bush."
The scenery improved. Soon, the pair arrived at Lombardozzi's in Bloomfield, and was seated at the U-shaped bar. A lunch buffet at Lombardozzi's means chicken, meatballs, sausage, pasta, appetizers, salad, soup and dessert, for $7 or so. The same lunch buffet cost $5.25 -- back in 1986. This is as good a bargain you can find in a cold, hard world where bargains are going out of style.
Oscar Wilde once said, "Each man kills the thing he loves." Munch and Miss Wonderly loved the fettuccine plate, so they killed it fast. On the matter of sausages, it has long been Munch's philosophy that there are no bad sausages, only some that are better than others; this Italian sausage was better than others. The chocolate cake was luscious and sloppy, like a backseat kiss on prom night. Munch skipped the salad, because salad is what real food eats in order to become a steak later in life.
Miss Wonderly eyed the decor -- the maroon-and-cream color scheme; the brown, industrial exterior; the wall paintings that surely haven't changed since Elvis was with us and Reagan was a cowboy. "This place has the atmosphere of a bomb shelter," she said.
"I never trust a place with atmosphere," Munch said. "Atmosphere is for restaurants with lousy food and for people with nothing to talk about."
On the way back to Munch's office, they talked about nothing. Exiting the car, Miss Wonderly hesitated at the door.
"Thanks for the lunch," she said, smiling with the kind of mischief that launches ships and starts wars. "You have time for a little nightcap?"
Munch gazed deep into her eyes, brown and sweet, like a pair of cinnamon buns from Kretchmar's. Not the iced ones, but the ones with the pecans. Eyes like those are the reason grown men do pushups.
"Sorry, Miss Wonderly. I've a deadline to meet. The newspaper is a cruel taskmaster."
She sighed sadly. "Not as cruel as you, Munch."
"In this line of work, you can't afford to be nice," Munch said. "Farewell, my lovely."
She slipped out of the lamppost light and into the late afternoon dimness, but never said goodbye. To say goodbye is to die a little. Munch never saw her again.
With great thanks to Raymond Chandler, Kinky Friedman, and "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett. Contact me at email@example.com, or look for Munch on Facebook.