Three weeks had passed and still no one had seen or heard a peep from A.J. Fryerson. Something was amiss and the good folks of the Valley were starting to wonder what had happened to the town complainer.
Jessie, waitress at the Hoffbrau, taped a black and white photo of A.J. from a 1995 edition of the Hometown News on the side of a milk carton, resembling the photos of missing children found on cartons from the local dairy. She placed it next to the register, which initiated comments from most customers as she rang up their orders.
"I knew this was bound to happen someday," quipped Marvin Walsh. "A.J. just never knows when to keep quiet."
It was funny hearing Walsh, possibly the town’s third biggest loudmouth, behind Raymond Cooper and A.J. Fryerson, call someone else out for talking too much.
"I’ll bet it was Chief Dibble," Marvin said to anyone within earshot. "He can be one mean fellow."
Maxine Miller, writer of "Rumor Has It" each week in the Hometown News, was all ears. She scribbled copious notes of everything she heard.
When Marvin realized Maxine was in the room, he quickly changed his temperament. "Of course, I was just joking about the Chief. He’s a fine law officer and he will get to the bottom of this."
For once, Walsh wished he had kept his big mouth shut.
"I think it was Buford Levitt," mumbled Earl Goodman, Valley postman and respected citizen. As the only "federal official" in the Valley, Earl’s opinion carried a lot of weight. "You saw what A.J. wrote about him three weeks ago."
The general consensus in the room was, as offended as he surely had to have been, Buford didn’t have a violent bone in his body. It had to be someone else.
At that moment, Iris Long entered the diner for her morning coffee. Iris wasn’t wrong very often, but if she thought she was going to have a quiet moment to begin her morning, she had miscalculated the sudden interest in A.J.
"You’re the reporter," shouted Elbert Lee Jones. "What do you think has happened to A.J.?"
Sipping her coffee, then placing the cup on the table in front of her, Iris responded. "I don’t know. None of us knows. Perhaps he took a vacation."
"I saw his silver Taurus in front of his house when I delivered his mail yesterday," shouted Goodman. "How could he take a vacation without his car?"
Jessie spoke up, which was unusual for her. "Has he been getting his mail?"
"As a federal official, I am under oath to keep matters related to an individual’s mail secret," Earl spoke proudly. "However, I can say that I’ve been getting a good workout trying to stuff mail into full boxes lately."
Earl sat up on his stool, quite proud of himself for so deftly keeping his promise.
"Has anyone been in his house?" asked Jessie. "Do we know for sure he’s not in there?"
Iris spoke up. "Chief Dibble has called a press conference for 10 this morning. I will be there and will report all the pertinent information in tomorrow’s paper."
The veteran newspaper editor knew something wasn’t right. While she publicly stated A.J. could be on a trip or have another reason for his absence, she had known A.J. Fryerson for too long to think he would slip off silently.
As she rubbed her cup, she wondered if she should tell her fellow diners about the recent letter from A.J. she didn’t print. She quickly realized this was not the time.
That seemed to settle the room for the moment as Long seemed to again focus on her coffee. Coffee, however, was the last thing on her mind at the moment.