Reeve Stockwell looked like a powdered donut. He had brushed as much of the cement from his clothes as possible, but he was still well coated.
Ada MacKenzie stood at the customer service desk, silver hair sticking out at every odd angle, with her leopard boots in her hand.
"Ms. MacKenzie, where is your granddaughter?" Stockwell asked.
"Kitty quit," Quincy said. "Just walked out. I gotta tell you, it doesn't really surprise me. She's probably out there in the parking lot, shooting our customers. If anyone in this building was gonna go totally postal, I think it would be Kitty. I mean, come on, carrying on endlessly over the loss of a pen. Was that woman dropped on her head as a baby?"
"Quincy, we appreciate your brilliant psychological assessment of our Kitty. While I agree her mental state troubles me, this may not be the time," Stockwell said, pointing at Ada, who stood gawking at Quincy with her mouth open.
"I am so sorry, Ma'am," Quincy said, rising from her post at the operator's desk, and sidling up to Ada, who was still staring at her.
"Is your hair periwinkle, dear?" Ada asked.
That's all she got out of this? Stockwell thought.
"It's turqoise," Quincy said, and Ada clapped enthusiastically.
"How do you think that would look on me?" Ada asked. "I was considering some pink, but that blue is just lovely."
"Thanks. My girl Nadine does a heck of a job, and you can smoke in her shop. You're not supposed to, and I imagine your hair could go up like Michael Jackson's, but we're super careful," Quincy rattled on, and Stockwell began looking for something with which he might kill himself.
"I'm off the Lucky Strikes," Ada said. "Golly jeepers, do I miss 'em. Nothing like a Lucky Strike after a few hours with a handsome fella," Ada said, and Stockwell made a sign of the cross.
Lord give me strength, Stockwell prayed.
"Would someone go get Kitty?" Stockwell demanded.
"If I can take the cart," Ada offered.
"NO!" several voices said in unison.
"I'll go!" Stockwell roared. "Please keep Ms. MacKenzie here, Quincy," Stockwell said.
He stormed away, toward the double doors that wooshed open when he approached. The wind outside kicked up, and Stockwell left a cloud in his wake, like the beloved character, Pig Pen, from the Peanuts family.
"Kitty!" Stockwell yelled.
He found Kitty sitting on the picnic table. She seemed to be in deep conversation with the pen she held in her hand.
"What are you doing?" Stockwell asked. He was tempted to sit, but didn't want to leave a pile of cement dust behind.
"I am just trying to sort it all out," Kitty said, without looking up.
"By talking with Melvin?"
"Kitty, why do you talk to Melvin?"
"He's a good listener," Kitty explained.
"Do you realize it makes you seem totally bat shit?" Stockwell asked gently.
"I do, but have you met the woman on the cart? I was born bat shit," Kitty said.
"Touche," Stockwell said, finally taking a seat beside her. "What am I going to do with you, Kitty?"
"You could recommend me for Witness Protection," Kitty said.
"I don't think you qualify for Witness Protection," Stockwell said.
"You can't imagine the things I've seen," Kitty said.
Stockwell could, and he hoped she didn't go into detail. He couldn't imagine living with Ada, or with Helen, who was lost someplace in the confines of Tommy's lamp shade department. He wanted to help Kitty, but he had no idea how.
"Come back inside," Stockwell suggested.
"To do what?" Kitty asked.
"You could work."
"And why would I want to do that?" Kitty asked.
Kitty was back. He could see the gleam in her eye.
"On one condition," Kitty said.
"What's that?" Stockwell asked.
"You ban my mother and grandmother from Tommy's forever, like until the apocalypse."
"I can't do that," Stockwell said.
"You could put them on the Partners in Paint list."
"I can't do that," Stockwell repeated.
"I had to ask."
"I understand," Stockwell said.
He stood, and brushed the cement dust from the picnic table's bench. Kitty rose, too. The two approached Tommy's doors. Stockwell was still shedding a dusty cloud, and Kitty whispered to Melvin.
Ada and Quincy were sharing a Marlboro, at the enormous Tommy ash tray, outside the front door.
"You're not supposed to smoke, Gran!" Kitty reprimanded.
"I was desperate," Ada whined. "It's giving me quite a buzz."
"She's terrific," Quincy said.
"You want her?" Kitty mumbled.
"Put that out, Quincy. You can't be smoking here. You know the rules," Stockwell said.
Quincy sulked. "I was simply servicing our customers in the way they required. She was just desperate for a puff."
"That's fine, but please just put the cigarette out."
Quincy did. Ada pouted. "I wanted just one more drag," she whined.
"Where is my mother?" Kitty asked. "You guys need to go home," she very nearly begged.
"She's bringing the car around," Ada said.
"Thank you, Lord!" Kitty whispered.
Kitty and Quincy helped load Ada into the behemoth Buick. Quincy waved enthusiastically, and went inside. Kitty watched until the car disappeared from site. She whispered to Melvin.
"One of these days, I am going to smother them in their sleep."
Melvin remained silent.
Reeve Stockwell stormed toward the Shop Vac display. He found the associate he sought. Chewie, whose real name was known only to Human Resources, was sitting at the desk fiddling with an Ipad.
"Chewie, I could use your help," Stockwell said.
"In what way, boss?" Chewie said, setting the device aside.
"I'd like you to Shop Vac this mess off my clothes," Stockwell requested.
"Seriously?" Chewie asked.
"Yes. Could we take the floor model back to Receiving?"
"Don't see why not," Chewie said, trying not to laugh.
"Dude, can I get some help over here?"
Both men turned to see a young customer, who'd obviously arrived at Tommy's by way of some time machine. He was a sixties throw back, if ever there was one, and the young man (at least the voice sounded male) looked like Cousin It from the Adam's Family.
"You in there somewhere, sir?" Chewie asked, and Stockwell groaned.
"Be kind," Stockwell whispered.
"In what way may I be of assistance?" Chewie asked.
"Dude, what happened to you? Somebody get designs on turning you into a pastry?" the customer asked Stockwell.
"Cement dust," Stockwell said. "Is there something we could help you with?"
"I'm looking for a particular kind of light bulb," the customer said.
"I can help you," Chewie offered. "What's it for?"
"My plants," the customer said, and Chewie smiled.
"What kind of plants?" Chewie asked.
"For my weed, man," the customer explained.
"Seriously?" Stockwell asked.
"It's just for me. Helps me relax, dude," the customer explained.
Stockwell was a tad bit worried. If the "dude" relaxed any more, he was afraid the guy might die right there in front of them.
"That's illegal," Stockwell said.
"Shouldn't be," the customer said. "People think weed is so dangerous. We're not endangering anyone. We're all at home on the couch, eating Cheese Jax and playing video games. Where's the danger in that?"
"You make a good argument," Stockwell said.
"No kidding," Chewie agreed. "Sir, I don't mean to alarm you, but there's a cop over there."
"You think he might know anything about light bulbs?" the customer asked.
"I really couldn't say," Chewie replied.
"Perhaps I'll go ask him," the customer said. "Thanks, gentlemen. Peace be with you."
"Lord give me strength," Stockwell said.
"Man, you couldn't make this shit up," Chewie said. "I'm gonna keep an eye on him, and see if the cop needs any help. Give me a few minutes and I'll meet you out back."
"Sounds good," Stockwell said. "I could use a few minutes to try to clear my head."
Stockwell made his way to the Receiving Bay. Sonny was at lunch, the stock folks were gone for the day, and the entire area was quiet. It was Reeve Stockwell's favorite place in Tommy's. If he hit it at just the right moment, he could enjoy the silence and perhaps grab something from his secret stash. The tool box was exactly where he'd left it, and Stockwell slipped the little silver key from his key chain, into the box's lock, and opened the treasure chest. The full package of Oreo cookies stared up at him.
"Who's your daddy?" Stockwell said to the cookies, knowing it made him about as crazy as Kitty. At the moment, he just didn't care. He just needed one, or two, or however many it took to quiet the chaos in his head. His entire staff was nuts. He just wanted to do his job. He wanted to sell tools, and light bulbs to crazy men with bad hair, and manage the areas of the store under his supervision.
He didn't want his staff bringing their crazy relatives in to tear the place up.
He didn't want to deal with a loony toon who talked to a pen.
He didn't want to step in bird shit every time he went to talk to Nichole Deans about her kitchen sales.
He didn't want to lock up his old car every day, and walk past Slick's Mercedes.
He just wanted things to be normal, if only for a day.
He popped the first cookie into his mouth, and felt the grainy chocolate between his teeth. He knew he shouldn't eat it. He knew. His wife told him, his doctor told him, and Kitty told him all the time, but she talked to a pen! You couldn't put any weight on something suggested by a woman who confided in a pen!
Stockwell ate a second.
Half of a fourth. He ate the fourth cookie like he had as a boy, opening up the two halves, and licking the creamy center. The bottom of the cookie slid from his fingers and rolled across the floor.
"Shit!" Stockwell whispered.
He couldn't leave it. It would draw every critter known to man.
Already filthy, Stockwell crawled on his belly, beneath the lowest rack in the bay, and searched for the cookie.
His fingers brushed a box, a box where there shouldn't be a box. He grabbed it with both hands and shimmied out from beneath the racks.
"What the hell is this?" Stockwell said.
The box was nondescript, and void of anything that might identify it. Across the top was written: 4 of 127. DO NOT DROP!
"What the hell?" Stockwell repeated.
He opened the box. He couldn't believe what he found inside. He knew he wasn't supposed to have found it.
Who did it belong to?
Why was it in Tommy's Receiving Bay?
Suddenly, Kitty's suggestion of Witness Protection sounded like a pretty good idea.