by Ray Dangel
Ned Fenton paused outside the back entrance of Sarah's Diner, glanced left and right to see if anyone was watching, then stepped inside.
He stood in the dark storeroom a few moments to splash on fresh after-shave lotion, took a deep breath and opened the swinging doors wide enough to see that Sarah had no customers at the moment.
"Hi, Sarah. Got a present for ya." He handed her a bulky grocery sack. "Careful. They're precious and they break."
His sweetheart sniffed his after-shave. "Hmmmm. This one's much nicer than the last one you courted me with."
"The smell lasts a long time. You really like it, huh?"
"I do. However, I'm staying single. Try again, Romeo," she said, laughing and giving him a quick peck on the cheek.
"Count on it."
Sarah peered into the sack. "What on earth? Are these real? I've never seen eggs this . . ." Her own words stunned her and she placed a hand over her mouth in shock.
"Ned, are these from the Dino Farm?"
"Genuine hadrosaur eggs. The salvation of your ailing diner."
She sounded confused. "How . . . what do you mean? How did you get these? Are you suggesting I put them on the menu? Ned, that's crazy."
"Why not? You worried about making people sick? The lab analyzed these eggs thoroughly and there's nothing in them to hurt your customers. As far as I know, nobody has tried eating them, but I'll be a guinea pig. If they're tasty I can bring more."
Sarah plopped onto a counter seat and stared at him. "Does Barry know you took these eggs? You said he's doing genetic experiments to see if he can re-create other extinct creatures. Wouldn't he want every egg these creatures lay?"
Ned took her hand gently. "You're right, Sarah. But the 15 hadros at the Farm each lay an egg every other day. I'm counting on Barry's lab team not missing a few." He chuckled. "If you call these eggs Sarah's Special Scramble and put a high price on 'em I'll bet you'll fill this diner and nobody will wonder where the eggs came from."
"Barry would miss them and we'd get in big trouble."
"Sarah, this can save your diner. These eggs weigh more than half a pound apiece. If you add a little hadrosaur egg to a batch of regular chicken eggs it'll stretch out your food costs. I'd only have to bring you one or two a week. I believe I could pull it off."
"Look, Ned, I know the kitchen is falling apart and the place needs a new roof -- neither of which I can afford. But even if these eggs could get the $12,000 to remodel I think I'd rather go out of business than do something dishonest. Taking those eggs is stealing."
"Well, I hadn't thought of it that way. I guess you're right. But it's only a couple of eggs a week until you can fix up the Diner. It's not like robbing a bank or something."
"This is crazy. Thanks for trying to help, Ned, but it's too weird even if it weren't theft. You don't own those creatures. You're only the tour guide at Dino Farm. I know, Barry is your son and he runs the Farm, but you shouldn't take eggs without his permission."
Ned's eyes were tender as he hugged her. "You know I love you. Marry me, Sarah. I earn enough to support us and you could still keep the diner as sort of a hobby. It wouldn't matter if it wasn't profitable."
Sarah stiffened and pulled back. "It would matter to me. This diner isn't a hobby. It's my life. I'll succeed or fail here and then we can discuss marriage."
Ned was silent a few moments. "I'm sorry. Bringing the eggs without asking you first was a mistake. But now that they've been out of the incubator a while they're no good for the experiments. If you won't try cooking them I'll just toss them into the trash."
She looked a long time into his eyes, then a smile crept across her face, followed by a nervous laugh. "Ned Fenton, you could talk the shell off a turtle if it sat still long enough. I'd hate to just waste those eggs. Let's do it. God help us if we're found out."
"You could apply to run the cafeteria in prison." Ned wasn't fast enough to dodge the wadded napkin Sarah tossed at him.
"Watch your mouth. This isn't a done deal," she warned.
Later, after the Diner had closed with only two more customers, Sarah broke open one dinosaur egg and stirred half a teaspoonful in with three chicken eggs. She dropped the sticky glob onto the grill and shoved it around in a sizzling pile.
"They're about the same color as chicken eggs, but that nutty smell should appeal to your customers," Ned predicted. His first taste of Sarah's Special Scramble brought a grin to his face. He offered her a forkful.
Looking as if she'd been asked to eat an earthworm, Sarah accepted a tiny bite. Then her eyes lit up and she opened her mouth for more. "I don't believe it. I'm eating the egg of a prehistoric animal and I love it."
The next day Sarah coaxed a regular customer to try the new Special Scramble -- not mentioning that it was anything other than the usual chicken eggs. He ordered a second portion, praising it and promising to tell everyone to try some.
Word got around, and by evening Sarah had used up every bit of the two dinosaur eggs. When Ned came by after work she had lost all reservations about the eggs. "Can you get more, Ned? Customers are crazy about them."
Ned promised to deliver as many as he could sneak out without alarming Barry or the Farm's other scientists. Sarah rewarded him with a lingering, warm kiss.
"Does this mean you'll marry me?" he coaxed.
She waggled an index finger at him. "Don't be hasty. We might get caught right off."
Barry Fenton gradually realized that the Farm's Lab wasn't getting as many eggs as he thought it should, based on past production records. He mentioned it to his wife Pauline, who politely urged him to recheck the records for a mistake in arithmetic.
"You'd be surprised how many times a column of numbers can get added wrong and cause trouble," she said lightly. "Happens to me all the time at the grocery."
Barry realized he'd get no more help from her and dropped the matter. The apparent discrepancy was troubling. Still, there was no reason to suspect foul play, so he simply continued his research routine and watched more closely to see how it went.
As time passed with no resolution of the egg mystery, Barry's temper grew short. He spent more and more time on the job and less with his family. This experiment was key to his career, and he didn't like unexplained surprises.
Pauline was puzzled, then hurt, then angered by the gap growing between Barry and her. One day she challenged him on it.
Her question was brief: "Barry, are you avoiding me? Is there another woman?"
His reply was equally brief: "Of course not. The egg mystery takes up all my time. It's driving me crazy."
>From then on their marriage degenerated rapidly. Pauline spent a lot of time on the phone with her mother, who urged her to leave Barry.
Barry ate his meals at the Farm or the Lab and slept there on a couch in his office.
When Pauline finally got up nerve to ask him if he was gone permanently, he sounded haggard but more civil than he had been in weeks.
"I'll be back, Pauline, but I'm determined to solve the egg mystery first."
"Have you learned anything?"
"The dinosaurs' nutrition schedule is fine. Their exercise times haven't been altered. Their weight is stable, and the Farm's climate control is flawless. There's no reason for them laying only half as many eggs as before. But frankly, Pauline, I just have no time for you in my life right now. Please don't bother me again until we get this resolved."
Sarah's diners continued to order more Special Scramble every day. Ned's egg shuttle kept up, but it was a hassle. The menu item was so popular that Sarah couldn't handle all the cooking, serving, and dishwashing.
As she often did, she consulted Ned. "Every night I go home and just fall into bed. I don't know how much longer I can do this."
Ned watched his sweetheart wringing her hands. He had never seen her do that before.
"I didn't anticipate this," he told her. "Success is a nice problem to have. I guess you'll just have to hire a helper."
"Sarah, I started this whole egg thing and I won't let you down just when the diner's making money," he declared. "You may forgive me but I'd never forgive myself for setting you up for a fall." He promised to think of something.
On his way out, he turned and asked, "Say, what would you think of hiring Pauline to do the serving and you could handle the kitchen? Her kids are teens now and running off with their friends. With Barry at work all day Pauline feels like she's in prison. She's dying for something to do. Shall I ask her, or will you?"
Pauline leaped at the chance to be with others instead of sitting around the house alone all day, doing nothing.
Sarah thanked Ned profusely for coming up with his everybody-wins plan. She invited Pauline and Ned to a home-cooked lasagna dinner. When Ned showed up with yet another new after-shave she gave him a long, slow kiss -- and again declined to marry him.
The first two days with Pauline as waitress went smoothly. Sarah coached her on how to carry several full plates at a time, and how to keep the orders straight by chair and table numbers. Pauline learned quickly and well.
The third day, only minutes after Pauline came to work, she spotted a huge discarded shell through the order window. She dashed into the kitchen, grabbed the shell out of the garbage barrel and charged over to Sarah with it. "Sarah, this is a hadrosaur egg from the Farm. What's it doing here, for god's sake?" she demanded.
Sarah was aghast over not taking into account that Pauline had visited the Farm many times and surely would recognize a dino eggshell where it had no business being -- in the Diner's garbage barrel. "I . . .," Sarah began, caught off guard by Pauline's question.
"Sarah, you're feeding hadrosaur eggs to your customers! How could you? This egg problem's been driving Barry crazy. Our marriage is on the rocks because of you!"
"Pauline, I'm so sorry. I should have known it wouldn't work. I'll go to Barry and tell him the whole story. I was just trying to save my business, and things got out of hand."
The women argued more over the eggs until suddenly Pauline ran off in tears, leaving Sarah also sobbing.
Sarah telephoned Ned, who quit early to come over and comfort her. "It was great while it lasted," he said. Then, "Sarah, it was my idea. I'll tell Barry I talked you into it."
The two sat consoling each other for a while until the phone rang. Sarah was astonished to hear Pauline say, "I've thought the whole ridiculous thing over and I'd like to come to work in the Diner if you'll let me. I'm not totally comfortable with that but the Lab still will get some eggs, and Barry has been a monster to me lately. I won't tell him."
Sarah agreed immediately, and Ned received several warm "you did well" kisses.
"Are you ready to marry me now?"
"You just keep those eggs coming."
The Diner's business boomed again. Pauline kept the plates filled and Sarah cooked Special Scramble constantly. Breakfast was served all day, and word kept spreading that Sarah made the world's best eggs. Customers returned and brought their friends.
Not long after that Ned got a worried phone call from Sarah. "It looks like the Law of Unintended Consequences is at work," she explained. "Pauline helped me get ahead for a while, but now I find them lined up on the sidewalk outside the front door when I come to open. Ned, I've had to start turning down some. I don't have enough dino eggs."
Ned expressed dismay at how fast the demand was growing but he promised to bring more eggs.
Two days later a uniformed guard showed up in the main barn where the hadrosaurs laid their eggs. He was armed, and it was obvious he meant business. With the guard on duty, Ned was unable to filch even one egg.
Sarah was deeply disappointed when he arrived empty-handed at the diner. "Is this the end of it, Ned? These last three weeks I've taken in nearly $12,000 above what I paid for supplies. That's easily enough to fix this place up and save it."
"We're not out of the game yet. Let me give it a good think."
Customers the next day found the Diner dark, and a crude sign in the front window: "Stove broken. Closed 24 hours for repairs." There was a lot of grumbling but the excuse was accepted.
Just before the "repair period" was up, Ned telephoned Sarah and asked her to meet him at the diner. He showed up with two of the precious dinosaur eggs.
"You're grinning so wide your teeth would fall out if they weren't attached," Sarah declared. "Tell me how you got these. I can't stand the suspense."
"I went out to the laying barn before starting my tour shift today. Hadrosaurs have an amazingly efficient sense of smell. It seems to be concentrated in that crown on their head. Well, those hadros at the Farm love my latest after-shave lotion!"
There was a pause. Then Sarah laughed out loud. "You planning to court one of them with lotion like you do me, Ned?"
"Very funny. Ho, ho. Seriously, the animals always ignored the other lotions I've used, but the store had a new kind and I got some. Those hadros sallied up to me and fell in love. They nuzzled me and made those little grunts that mean they're happy. While the guard was in the bathroom I trotted out behind the barn and two of them followed me like dogs. Darned if they didn't each lay an egg, they were so turned on by my after-shave. It must act like a pheromone to them. Now I get eggs just by turning the other cheek!"
Sarah frowned at the pun and leaned over to sniff Ned's clean-shaven neck. "Those animals know a good smell, all right." She kissed his neck, then glanced up mischievously and said, "Save this one for the wedding." Seeing Ned's mouth opening, she added, "Not yet, but you're close."
For two weeks Ned supplied eggs at little risk. Then the easy success led to him not locking the Farm gate securely one night.
The next day Ned arrived to find Barry distraught and angry. "How could three hadros escape?" he was asking the guard. "We're lucky the whole bunch didn't follow them."
Barry spotted Ned and demanded, "What do you know about this, Dad? Three animals walked right out of here last night, for pete's sake."
Ned's chin dropped at that news but Barry didn't challenge him when he said he knew nothing about the escape.
"I'm going to the lab to get a search team. The sooner we look, the better chance we'll have of finding them," Barry told the guard and Ned. "At 50 feet long and weighing four tons, they should be easy enough to track. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Barry was half right. The tracks were easy to follow near the Farm. However, when the escapees wandered across an outcropping of bedrock, the trail vanished.
Hours later the search party returned empty-handed. "We never picked them up again after they reached the bedrock," Barry moaned to Ned.
"Can't you and your scientists just clone some more hadrosaurs like you did this original batch?" Ned suggested.
"You don't understand, Dad. I could cover the loss of a few eggs, but dropping three hadros out of the 15 we have here would make a huge dent in the lineage study. The Foundation would investigate and cancel its funding of Dino Farm. I'd have to fall back on exhibiting the dinos like a circus at $5 a ticket."
Ned was wracked by his need to tell Barry he had been taking the eggs. But he realized that wouldn't bring back the missing animals, so he remained silent.
Without Special Scramble on the menu, Sarah watched her profits melt away as fast as they had sprung up. When Ned said he could see no way to fix things, he asked if she was still interested in marrying him.
"At the moment I can't see how that's possible. I'm so upset that everything has collapsed. Maybe later I'll work around to it, but I need a while to think this situation out. I guess maybe we shouldn't see each other for a while, Ned."
Ned left, consumed by sadness. He decided he had to confess to Barry. It wouldn't bring the hadrosaurs back, but he'd clear the black hole out of his mind caused by knowing he had betrayed his son.
On the way to Barry's office, Ned was struck by an inspiration. He hurried home, called Sarah to tell her his plan, then headed for the last place the three dinosaurs had left tracks.
Ned searched all night. Like Barry's team, he found no sign of the escaped animals. He returned exhausted in the morning and telephoned Sarah to give her the bad news. There was no answer at her home, and on a hunch he called the Diner.
"Hello," came Sarah's dispirited voice."
"Hi, Sarah. I didn't find them. Did you get any more sleep last night than I did?"
"No. Ned, what can we do now? It's all coming apart." Her voice broke and Ned knew the tears were forming in her eyes.
"Sarah, stay there. I'm coming over. We can talk about . . ."
"Ned, be quiet a minute! I hear something."
"What? Sarah, what's wrong?"
"The dinosaurs! They're right outside, making those grunting sounds. Oh! Ned, they're pushing against the back door like they want to come in. Get over here fast. I'm going out the front way."
Ned heard crashing sounds over the phone Sarah dropped in her haste to get to safety. Suddenly he knew why the animals had found their way to the Diner. Ned had left a spare bottle of his latest after-shave in the storeroom to freshen up when he went there. The hadrosaurs had sniffed their way to the Diner and thought he was inside.
He knew the huge animals would have no trouble reaching the lotion with one swipe of a tail or one stomp of a gigantic foot. Ned hurried over to the Diner. When he arrived, his suspicions were confirmed. The diner had been flattened by the three animals in their quest for the after-shave.
"Ned, I'm over here," Sarah called. She was sitting calmly under a tree in the Diner parking lot, well away from the animals milling around in the building wreckage.
Ned sat down next to her. "Thank heaven you got out in time," he said, holding her closely. "Sarah, I love you. The Diner's gone. That means I can stop swiping eggs. My lotion will coax the hadros to lay enough extra to make up for all the ones I snitched. Barry's mystery will disappear and he can get back with Pauline. You proved you could succeed at running a business. I'll get a raise for learning how the lotion affects the animals. Now will you marry me, Sarah?"
She put her face near his and said the words he had waited so long to hear.
"Yes, Ned, now I'll marry you." After they kissed a long time Sarah added, "On one condition. Never wear this after-shave again. First, you don't need it now that I'm yours. Second, we don't want dinosaurs crashing into our home to nuzzle you."
"Agreed on both counts," Ned said with a grin. "But I admit it's nice to know I'm irresistible -- to dinosaurs and diner cooks."
Story copyright © 1999 by Ray Dangel <firstname.lastname@example.org>