The first hour under the unforgiving lights of Tommy's Tool Town passed without incident. Reeve Stockwell was grateful. He'd spent the better part of a half hour locked behind closed doors, mopping his brow and willing his hands to stop shaking.
He had to stop the insanity. If he didn't, he'd be a diabetic by five o'clock. "No more fritters," he whispered, as he walked the exterior of the building, checking each entrance for stray trash, cigarette butts, and chewing gum.
A fire engine screamed by.
Maybe the bakery's on fire, he thought, wishing no ill will on the baker or his family. The total loss of the pastry provider's digs might be Stockwell's only hope.
He checked his watch. 6:55. Almost time to gather the troops for the morning's festivities. Sales were down and morale was low. Tommy's was the best show in town. What was the problem?
No one had better priced tools. No one had more convenient shopping hours, better shopping options, or more brightly colored garb. Tommy's was simply the best. What the hell was going on?
Stockwell had to figure it out. If he didn't, someone else might. Someone might steal Stockwell's thunder. Someone like Kitty Richardson, or Penelope Ross. Someone like Miles Longworth or Slick Mitchell, the original Tommy's grandson. "Ugh," grated Stockwell, under his breath. "Anyone but Mitchell. Don't let it be Mitchell."
Stockwell pulled his mobile phone from his back pocket, and looked at it thoughtfully. He could have been an FBI agent. Once, he'd wanted to. The FBI had come to his university, in Stockwell's junior year. He could have applied. He could have applied to the FBI, and instead he'd applied at Tommy's. He looked at his phone again. It could have been a badge, or a gun, but it wasn't. It was a phone, and not a very good one. Stockwell could have been catching bad guys. Instead, he was catching low-level offenders with drill bits stuffed in their boxers, and herding neon-wearing associates like a bunch of cats.
"Son of a.....," Stockwell muttered, not finishing the phrase. He looked at the phone again, hit the green button that brought the archaic looking technological disaster to life, and paged over Tool Town's paging system. "Fellow Tommy Tool Towners, please gather at Customer Service for the morning meeting."
His voice sounded garbled, foreign, even to himself, and he could picture the minions making fun. It didn't matter, he made the same page every day. They knew what he was saying, and they always came running, staring him down, waiting for words of wisdom.
Maybe today was the day he'd say them.
Kitty Richardson was the first to arrive, looking amazingly put together for someone who'd risen two hours prior to the crack of dawn.
Someone didn't get the memo about garish jewelry, Reeve Stockwell thought, catching sight of his right-hand-gal. Deep down he didn't care, but now that Tommy's was a chain, now that Tommy's was on every street corner, of every town in America, he didn't have much to say about policy. If it were up to him, he'd have let Kitty Richardson wear a tiara. And, if he let her, he knew Kitty would.
"Morning, Kitty," Reeve Stockwell said, with a jerky wave.
"Lay off the sugar," Kitty chided, and Stockwell felt his face get warm.
I'll bet she knows. I'll bet she knows I talked to the damn fritter.
Kitty knew more than he thought. Kitty knew more than anyone thought.
All the regular cronies were present. Penelope Ross stared him down, sneaking M&M's out of the right pocket of her cargo shorts when she thought no one was looking. Mags Davidson gave him the stink-eye, probably because he'd written her up for dropping the S-Bomb in plumbing. Stockwell supposed it was the right department for the S-Bomb, but nonetheless, it wasn't appropriate, no matter who dropped a toilet on your foot.
Joan, "JJ" Patricks, in an enormous black hoodie, in hood-up position, shuffled toward the group like the grim reaper herself.
What the hell is she doing here?" Stockwell wondered. JJ normally worked nights. What kink in the technological universe drove her out of her coffin at 4:00 AM?
"What's JJ doing here?" Stockwell asked Mags Davidson, who still regarded him with the stink-eye.
Maybe it's a medical problem, Stockwell thought. Maybe the eye is always like that.
"She switched with someone. She has plans tonight."
"Gotcha," Stockwell replied, not even taking a mental stab at what the night outings of the notorious JJ might consist of. He didn't want to know. He had a feeling it had something to do with vampires.
Dewie Roberts strolled over, an hour late as always, looking rumpled, unshaven, and in need of another forty-two minutes with the Sexual Harassment video. Stockwell had gotten another complaint. There was always one more complaint.
Three of the old-timers huddled together, probably because they were aging fast, and their circulation was bad, but he loved them. He loved them more than anyone. They were the parents he never had, but that was another story, for another day, another lifetime. He'd need a dozen fritters to touch that one with a ten-foot pole.
Ten-foot poles are in aisle 32, Stockwell thought. His next thought was, I am in serious need of a vacation.
He took a visual role call. The gang was all here. He had fifteen minutes to pitch something productive to his staff, and forty-five to pray it worked.
Slick Mitchell was due in at eight.