Ron shakes hands with Tom and offers his congratulations, while his wife stands by, looking at Lana who is hugging Emilie. Lana turns around and grins widely at Simon, who holds his hands up to stop her. I only hug my wife.  He sees Lana’s face lose its smile and he turns around and sees the police captain talking with Tom.  He looks back at Lana, and sees her pupils narrow as she stares at the police captain.  Hey, Simon says quickly.  Don’t ruin this.  Lana closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, and drops her head.  Suddenly Bettina has her arms around her, and hugs her from behind.  Simon sees Lana smile and he exhales in relief.

You sit up front, Lana.  Bettina tells her.  My place is by my fiance’s side.  Lana gets in the shotgun seat without saying a word.  What happened with Levi?  Tom asks.  I don’t want to talk about it, sir.  Lana replies.  Careful, daddy.  Lana’s retreating into politeness, Bettina teases, and if you press her she’ll retreat into silence.  Bettina takes off her seatbelt and reaches around Lana’s headrest and starts massaging her neck.  Did you know that my Simon was going to propose to me this Sunday?  Bettina asks.  No, Lana admits.  That was one for the ages, Simon, she says, smiling as her head lulls.  And those pictures of you, sir, were just so spot on. Tom grins proudly.  What really happened?  Bettina asks.  Simon was caddying for me when I played moonlight golf with Lana’s partner.  He asked me then.  Dare I ask who won?  Bettina says.  Rolf came in under par using vintage golf clubs.  None of my friends believed me when I told them that this was a moonlight game.  Now they all want to challenge him.  Is that what Ron wanted to talk about?  Bettina asks.  He and his wife came over to congratulate me on your engagement. What’s his wife’s name?  Simon asks.  Maud.

We have two more joining us, Tom tells the hostess at the Olive Garden.  They’re already here sir, she tells them.  Follow me please.  The hostess leads them up to a table where Ron and his wife are already seated. Bettina, I’m so happy for you, his wife says, getting up, and they exchange a hug.  Let me see it.  She holds up Bettina’s left hand, and looks over at Simon.  Oh my, I do declare, such exquisite taste.  You sir, have done very well.  You men sit together, she tells Tom and Simon.  Please introduce me to your friend, she tells Bettina.  Lana, this is Maud Howard.  She was very kind to me when I was dropped off at their house with the ransom note.  Thank you for being kind to my friend.  Lana murmurs with her head down.  Do let Lana sit next to me, dear, she tells Bettina.  It’s so nice to finally meet you, she enthuses as everyone takes their seats.  Lana leans over and whispers in her ear, I know what you did.

No one says anything as the waitress fills their waters.  Tom looks over at Maud and sees that her face has gone pale, and that Lana has her head down. Are you feeling alright dear? Should we go? Ron asks her.  Do carry on.  I’ll rejoin you in a few, and she leaves the table.

Have you heard from Toni lately? Simon quickly asks Bettina.  She’s doing very well.  Have they found out whether it’s going to be a boy or a girl?  Tom asks.  Simone Crae Levin is going to be her name, Bettina says smiling.  Isn’t that lovely?  Crae?  Tom asks. You know, how Yankees say a crawdaddy.  Simon laughs and Tom sees Lana smile. Get this, Toni told Mike that he doesn’t need to be there when the time comes, Bettina says snickering.  This is Mike we’re talking about; there is no way that he won’t be there by her side, Simon states emphatically.  How’s he doing in the polls?  Tom asks.  Rising, Simon responds.  He and Berto are knocking a lot of doors.  I think it’s a great narrative, Ron agrees.  I hope he wins.

The waitress comes back to the table.  Is everyone ready to order?  This is all on one, Ron announces.  Lana, why don’t you start us off?  Spaghetti with garlic breadsticks, please.  No parmesan cheese.  Soup or salad?  Neither, just extra napkins please.  The waitress laughs.  Anything to drink with that?  I’ll stick with water.  Bettina? Grilled chicken salad.  Just water please...  Maud comes back to the table and orders a potato salad.

So what did you think of the sermon today, Lana?  Tom asks after the waitress is gone. Pastor Larry is such a gifted teacher, Lana says emphatically.  Bettina nods. Is Esther relatable to a modern strong fiercely independent woman?  Simon asks. Is Xerxes relatable to a prominent man of 21st Century America?  Lana replies.  Yes. How so? Bettina asks.  He gave his queen everything she asked for, he says grinning at Bettina.  Everyone chuckles.  Now, Lana as Esther…his voice trails off.

Lana sighs.  We’d have to set aside the beauty pageant, Lana says with her head down and her Mona Lisa smile.  Everyone chuckles.  Well??? Bettina insists.  It’s in the Bible, so it is written for our instruction.  You’re ducking, Bettina observes.  Why?  Lana looks at her friend.  I think Esther is best read as an allegory about prayer.  Bettina looks over at her father in puzzlement.  I can see how you’d think that, Tom says nodding.  Coming before the throne of the king.  So she has to ask is your takeaway, Bettina announces.  It’s how she asks, Lana replies.  She pays her king reverence and makes supplication using the qualifiers, if it pleases you, and if I have found favor in your sight.

And the first two chapters?  Maud says.  Tie that into prayer for me.  If you are living contrary to the will of God, in disobedience, you cannot expect God to bless you.  Okay, that explains the deposed queen, Maud says, but Esther was taken, not gathered like the others.  She and Mordecai were living like Persians, not Jews, Lana responds.  So you think she brought it on herself, Maud comments.  Blame the victim.

Lana doesn’t say anything, and her head stays down.  Do you agree with Lana, Bettina? Maud asks.  I’d frame it differently, Bettina admits.  The Jews are God’s covenant people, and yet they were disobedient as a nation, with the consequent of being led away into captivity.  Bad things happen to good people because of corporate guilt.  But Providence overrules, just like Pastor Larry said.  Well, Lana? Maud asks.

Lana looks over at Maud.  Do you know how to play bridge?  Yes.  Do you? Lana nods.  My mentor liked to say that the hand we’re dealt represents determinism, and the way we play it represents free will.  How often do you play?  Maud asks after a pause.  I haven’t since he went to be with the Lord.

No one says anything.

So Lana as Esther, Simon entones, breaking the silence.

I concede to Bettina, Lana says quietly.  No you don’t. Tom announces.  I know you disagree with her; we’ve talked about this before.  Daddy!  Bettina says in surprise.  Simon sees Lana stare at Tom.  What do you want me to say?  What you really think, Tom replies.  What she said was true, but incomplete.  Complete it then.

Lana puts her head down.  You can say whatever you want, sweetie.  Bettina tells her, rubbing her back.  You’re not going to hurt my feelings.  I’d rather talk about it later, back at the apartment, Lana says.  I want to hear this, Simon protests.  So do I, Maud says.

Lana looks at Simon.  My understanding is that when believers act like heathens, they get punished here and now in this life.  But when heathens act like heathens, they get away with it more often than not, at least until they die.  Instead of Lana as Esther, let me try out Esther as Lana for you.

So Lana is at a nightclub, all dolled up, drinking with her friends, and she meets this guy, Xerxes.  And she just cannot believe that someone like him would be interested in someone like her.  And he completely sweeps her off her feet and they end up going back to his loft.  Please call me, she begs him the next morning.

Heathen Lana would probably land the guy.  He does call her back, and they move in together, and eventually get married.  And it’s us four, no more.  Then she dies in her sins and burns in hell.

Backslidden Lana is going to heaven when she dies because she believes in the Lord Jesus Christ and was baptized, but she is in for some serious chastening in the here and now, because she knew better.  She’d been told her whole life at home and church to keep herself pure and virgin for her husband and that drunkenness is a sin. But she’s watched so many rom-com’s and all her worldly friends are hooking up and seem to be having so much fun experimenting.

Well, Xerxes not only doesn’t call her back, but he’s given her cooties.  Everyone laughs at Lana’s turn of phrase.  And she vows never ever to do that again.  Men are such pigs.  Then a new guy shows up at work.  His name is Simon.  He’s lean and buff, and he is so funny.  She’s never laughed so much.  And he actually likes her goofy self.  She doesn’t have to pretend when she’s around him.  And come to find out he goes to Sardis, so she can introduce him to her parents there.

But then her cooties flare up, and her doctor tells her that she’s going to need to take medications for the rest of her life to keep them under control.  And she’s late, and the pee test comes back blue.  And she’s so overwhelmed and stressed out that she snaps at the wife of the boss and gets fired.

Fastforward, please.  Maud exclaims coldly.

Fine.  So she’s moved back in with her parents.  Her mother deliberately leaves the paper out for her to see, that Simon is now engaged to this darling blonde reporter that she used to see on TV.  And to top it all off, the next thing she knows, she’s covered in barf, from burping her bastard.  Enough, Lana.  Tom says sternly, you’ve made your point.

Simon shakes with repressed laughter.  Burping her bastard, he says in a high pitched voice and glances up at Bettina only to see her give him a warning look.  No one says anything until Ron finally speaks up.

So Esther is not relatable to righteous Lana.  I wouldn’t allow myself to be taken, sir.  Not even if you were blind?  Ron replies, meeting her gaze.  I have friends now.  Disparity of force would render them hostages for the despot, Ron notes.  I expect that you’re right, sir.  Lana admits.  So then what, Lana?  Death before dishonor?  Maud says with more than a touch of bitterness.  If I eat my gun, my friends die, and Bettina is probably next up on the carousel, and I want her to marry Simon.  Hmmmm….

How did Attila the Hun die, sir?  Lana asks Ron.  He shrugs.  In battle??? Simon guesses.  That’s how he wanted to die, Lana says, but no.  Why don’t you tell us, Maud replies.  It’s a classic closed room unsolved mystery. The despot married the beautiful Gothic princess Ildico and celebrated with his warlords well into the night. Then, with a merry heart full of wine, he and what would be his last wife retired to the royal chamber.  The next day, his guards became suspicious and called out to him.  No response. They broke down the door to the apartment, only to find their leader supine in bed, deceased.  His bride huddled nearby, trembling in fear.  The apparent cause of death - a nosebleed that filled his lungs, suffocating him.  It was written off as an excess of wine, and became a cautionary tale for future husbands.  Lana gives Simon a look with narrowed eyes.  Everyone chuckles.  What happened to her?  Simon asks. She is said never to have spoken again.  And she disappeared from history and into legend.  So what do you think happened?  Maud asks Lana.  I think she gave him so much pleasure that he, well - died.  Everyone bursts out laughing.

So a date, what are you thinking?  Maud asks Bettina.  Remember what Lana’s mother told us?  Bettina asks Simon.  A short engagement makes for a long marriage, Simon tells the table.  Sam’s getting married the 1st of November, so how about the 1st weekend of December?  Bettina asks, looking over at Simon, who nods his approval.  Your cousins will still be in school, her father notes.  This isn’t just about you, Bettina.  Family needs to gather around.  The Saturday before Christmas then, Bettina announces.  At Sardis? Her father asks.  No, that’s way too big.  I want Pastor Larry to marry us though, Simon states.  Bettina nods her assent.  Please tell me that you’ll come, Bettina requests, looking at Ron and Maud in turn.  Of course, his wife says.

When are you going to get married, Lana?  Maud asks.  She holds up a hand as she finishes chewing.  No drunk Persian lechers have come calling yet, she replies, and everyone bursts out laughing again.  I thought you had a church date today, Maud continues, undeterred.  What happened to Levi?  Protestors and a camera crew outside the church spooked him.  He stopped walking.  I didn’t.  Protestors??? Bettina asks.  Jewish.  Did they insult you?  Simon asks.  No.  Levi wouldn’t have stood for that; he’s a good man.  What happened?  Bettina asks.  They just pleaded with him.  I think they were actors, Lana admits.  Bettina gives her a puzzled look. They were just a little too good to be true, Lana insists.  The camera crew was a giveaway.

So what are you going to do now?  Maud asks.  Practice my smile in a mirror, Lana replies quickly.  Everyone laughs.  You’re funny.  I didn’t expect that, Maud admits. Well?  I’m going to ask a certain police captain to write a letter to the licensing board recommending that my PI license gets reinstated.  I can do one better than that, Lana.  Ron says.  I already told the mayor that I’m committed to doing security for Senator Johns, Lana replies.  He actually pays me to spend time traveling around the country with my best friend.  Can you top that?  Ron raises his hands off the table in surrender.  After he gets Secret Service then?  Then I’m going to be on bridesmaid duties.

How do you want it to play out, Lana?  All I want, sir, is an honorable discharge, along with my old badge as a keepsake.  Preferably by mail.  I don’t want a ceremony or cameras.  An apology would be appropriate though, Bettina adds. Stay out of this, Bettina.  Tom cautions her.  The mayor wants you back.  You can write your own ticket.  Lana considers this.  I want you in a squad car, sir - patrolling the mean streets with a rookie, imparting all your wisdom, teaching her how to be a good cop.  Ron and his wife exchange a glance.

Write her the letter she wants, Ron.  Maud tells him.  Do you have a card?  He asks Lana.  She digs in her purse and pulls one out of her cellphone case, and hands it to him.  He examines it.  LRA.  Lana Radley.  Security specialist.  What does LRA stand for?  Lana, Rolf, and Associates.  How much do you charge?  My fee schedule is included in my five page work agreement, she states, looking back at him.  He grunts.

Which do you like better, being a security specialist or a private investigator?  Tom asks.  PI, Lana admits.  Tell me about your partner, Maud says.  Lana shakes her head no.  He and Lana are very private people, Bettina says.  How do you do a backflip on stage with a guitar?  Tom asks Simon.  Rolf’s an extreme athlete; he runs ultramarathons.

He doesn’t own a car, Tom tells Ron.  Someone always picks him up and brings him to where he wants to go.  What do your parents think about him?  Maud tries again.  Lana holds up her hand while she chews her spaghetti.  Her parents just love Jax, Bettina confesses.  Will you help me finish this?  Lana asks Bettina.  Bettina nods and hands Lana her empty salad plate.  Lana scoops a bunch on it, and sets a piece of garlic bread along with it.  Thank you, Lana tells her.

I think Rolf would do anything for you, Tom says, smiling at Lana.  Lana looks at him.  And I think Lana would do anything for Rolf, Simon adds.  Lana looks at him.  Her mother keeps trying to get Lana to bring him over for dinner, but she won’t, Bettina says smiling.  Lana looks at Bettina.  If you want to get Rolf to show up for something, you go through Lana, Simon says, grinning back at Bettina.  

Lana looks back at Simon and sighs deeply.  Simon, I love you.  And I am delighted that you’re going to marry my best friend.  I love Rolf too – make of it what you will.  She looks over at Ron.  Sir, I have an answer for you to take to the mayor.  If you want me back on the force, Rolf gets a badge too. We’re partners#