Mick Daniels opened his eyes, and for a moment he had no idea where he was. Shards of sunlight crept through ugly draperies, and a moldy smell assaulted his senses.
"Mornin', sunshine," Larry Dale said with a chuckle. "Bad news, boss. We overslept."
"Seriously?" Daniels said, sitting up and stretching. "How could that happen? Do you think we were drugged?"
"By whom and with what?" Larry Dale asked.
"Good point," Daniels replied. "So, start my day with a bang, Dale. What time is it?"
"Almost noon," Larry Dale said, sounding as surprised as Daniels.
"We were gonna be on the road by eight. This is not good," Daniels said.
"I beg to differ, sunshine," Larry Dale replied.
"Stop calling me that," Daniels retorted, as he stood and tried to brush the wrinkles from his suit. "So, how is this good, Pollyanna?" Daniels said, firing back at Dale.
"We blitz 'em. You say they don't know we're coming, but maybe they do. Somehow they always know we're coming. By rising late, and therefore arriving late, we catch them off guard. If they somehow found out we were coming, by now they figure the information was wrong. Let's get cleaned up, get some chow, get on the road, and pounce on them in the middle of the day, when they've really got the rhythm of how things work in that cluster.....," Dale said, not finishing the word, and therefore avoiding the need to use profanity.
"I like how you think, Dale."
"Thanks, boss. It's been working out well for me."
"All right. I need a fresh suit and I need to brush my teeth, and I am NOT going into that bathroom. So, let's find someplace to stop with a bathroom that looks like it's been cleaned at least once since Y2K," McDaniels exclaimed.
"And let's get some donuts," Larry Dale said. "Nothing like donuts and coffee on the road. And, I wish we could get our hands one some Twizzlers. There isn't anything like Twizzlers for road snacks. I always said so."
"Dale, you are an odd fellow."
"That's a compliment?" Daniels asked.
"It is to me. The only thing more frightening than a night at the Three Fellows Inn is the idea of being typical, normal...... Boring."
Larry Dale was about to have a banner day. Some day, in the future, when he was old and gray, he would remember the day he spent at the original Tommy's, original tool store. He'd remember the day as being anything but "normal",
Mags Davidson stood at Tommy's entry doors. She took a timid step and the doors opened with a familiar "whoosh."
Could she go inside?
She did. She kept her eyes forward and barely spoke to the people who greeted her. How could she talk to any of them? Somebody killed JJ and at least three people were in on it, and at least one was a woman. Maybe it was Daisy Cates. She always seemed one angry customer away from totally losing it, and didn't menopausal women sometimes crack? Daisy always said, "the older I get, the more I want to kill people," so maybe Daisy finally lost it, killed someone, killed JJ.
"Oh, JJ," Mags whispered, as a tear slid from beneath her Target sunglasses.
Why would anyone kill JJ? Why JJ? JJ wasn't a threat to anyone, was she? How much did Mags really know about JJ?
"Only what she told me," Mags whispered, as she passed Alejandro, who was helping a customer with a pink walker, pick out just the right pumpkin.
"Can't find the rest of the pumpkins," Alejandro said to Mags. "Nobody can. Hope they turn up soon. These things are just flyin' out of here," he added, and Mags ignored him.
Did you kill JJ? Did you, Alejandro? Did you hide behind your sweet, quirky, ginger nature, and give JJ forty whacks with an axe you got out of aisle 66? Should it be 666, you evil ginger, you killer, you snot ass, you!
Mags thoughts were wild, and she momentarily steadied herself against a freezer. Maybe JJ was stuffed into one of the freezers or refrigerators. She opened the one she leaned against. No JJ.
But JJ wasn't in any of the freezers. JJ was in the ground behind Tommy's, wrapped in an ugly blanket or rug. JJ was dead, and Mags needed to find out why. If not, Mags would be the next one pushing up daisies.
Kitty Richardson arrived at Tommy's Tool Town two hours later, laden with an enormous pan of brownies, and the weirdest card ever. It was addressed to Reeve Stockwell from one Ada MacKenzie, and it said:
Thanks for last night.
Ada had been baking like a mad woman when Kitty ventured into the insanity wing of the Richardson residence, just past 10:00 AM.
"I'm making something for that lovely Mr. Stockwell," Ada had said, and Kitty, with deep black circles beneath her eyes, and the gait of someone who'd been on a three-day bender, couldn't help but smile.
Ada was a gem. A gem dressed in Winnie the Pooh pajamas, a Hawaiian inspired mumu, and yellow Chuck Taylors, but a gem nonetheless.
It was impossible not to love her.
Now, several hours later, Kitty balanced the brownies, the bizarre card, her purse, the largest Red Bull ever made, and her lunch pail, all the while clutching Melvin in her left hand like a security blanket.
Stockwell passed her in the lightbulb aisle.
"You look beat, Kitty," Reeve Stockwell said. Stockwell was rumpled and looked like he hadn't slept in a week, and Kitty, whose filtration system was seriously tweaked from the "week from hell," fired back.
"Ain't that the pot calling the kettle black," Kitty retorted.
Stockwell paled. "Truce?" he said softly. "Look. We're in this together. We may as well try to get back to being buddies."
Kitty smiled a weak and tired smile. "Truce," she said. "Here. To celebrate the truce, a gift from the weirdest, most lovable grandmother ever born."
"From Ada?" Stockwell asked, taking the huge pan.
"Yes. For last night, and don't let that sink in too deeply, and don't let it go to a visual," Kitty said, and Stockwell chuckled.
"Right," he said, pulling back the foil and gazing upon the brownies with a grateful expression. "I'll be in my office," Stockwell said.
"Do not eat them all," Kitty chastised.
"You know me so well," Stockwell said, turning on his heel, and heading in the direction of the front end. "I'll share them with Longworth. He isn't looking so hot today either."
"Good idea," Kitty said. "I'm gonna relieve Mags, who is in the back fighting with next week's schedule. We're short with JJ missing," Kitty said, as Stockwell walked away. "Thanks for your concern," she whispered.
Kitty found Mags Davidson in the back office, head down, pencil twitching wildly. "How bad it is?" Kitty asked.
"Bad," Mags said. "We don't have anyone to work Tuesday. No one. How can we run a front end with no one to run register on Tuesday?"
"We'll figure it out," Kitty said, and Mags turned her tear-stained face toward Kitty. "Don't cry, Mags. It's just a schedule. We'll figure it out. Let's take the folks with open availability and switch some of them to Tuesday, and we'll put the others in their spots. It's not that hard," Kitty said.
"I miss JJ," Mags whined. "I can't believe she's dead," Mags said without thinking.
"She's not dead," Kitty said, looking shocked.
"She is, too. I just know it," Mags said, not meeting Kitty's eyes.
"Do you know something I don't know?" Kitty asked, and Mags winced.
"No," Mags replied.
"You're lying," Kitty said.
"I just need to figure some things out, and then I'll tell you everything I know. For now, can you help me with this? Barbie is up front, and Penelope and Bernice are here, and Amber is on Customer Service. Today is looking good, but next week is gonna just about kill us," Mags said.
Truer words had never been spoken.
Forty-five minutes later, Reeve Stockwell sat at his desk, inside a room that had begun to spin wildly. He'd finally done it. He'd finally sent himself straight into a diabetic coma. "Sweet Jeepers," he slurred, trying to right himself against the arm of his chair. He slid to the floor. He'd eaten a good third of the brownies, minus the two he'd given selflessly to Miles Longworth, yet he had an appetite like a horse. He had to get something to satisfy his cravings.
He crawled to the door, used the doorknob to get himself to his feet, extracted his debit card from his back pocket, and made his way slowly to Bernice's register. He grabbed random snacks from the impulse shopping rack and threw them on the counter.
Bernice looked at him strangely.
"What?" he said, as four Bernices wavered before him.
Yup! He was dying.
Talk about bum luck. There's two thirds of a pan of brownies left, Stockwell thought.
"You all right, sir?" Bernice asked.
"I'm fine," Stockwell said, feeling as though he were losing control of his lips. He laughed. Stockwell wasn't sure what all the fuss was over. Dying was fun, and he giggled as he surrendered himself to death's outstretched arms. "Call Kitty, and my wife, and tell them I'm going to die. They should know. And tell Miles he's been a good friend, and tell Slick Mitchell he looks like a fairy in all those designer clothes, and tell him I scratched his Mercedes one day with a bottle cap. It was me. I was pissed that he had a Mercedes and I had a Chevette."
"Sir?" Bernice said, looking frightened.
"Just tell him, and call my Kitty and wife. Oh, and tell my wife not to bury me in that asinine Garanimals shirt, and if she does, I'll come back as a ghost and blow her scrapbooking shit all over the place. You got that, Bernice?" Stockwell rambled.
"Sure thing, sir," Bernice replied.
Stockwell staggered away and Bernice grabbed her phone. Kitty answered on the first ring.
"Something's wrong with Stockwell," Bernice practically shrieked.
"What?" Kitty asked.
"Well, he is rambling like a crazy man, he's staggering like a drunk, and he just bought twenty-six dollars worth of junk food."
"Good Lord," Kitty said, as a strange sound was heard overhead. "What in the world is that?"
"That's him," Bernice said, sounding panicked. "Now he's standing on the counter at Customer Service, singing into the paging system. And he's dancing."
"Sit tight, Bernice. I'm pretty sure this might be one of the first signs of the apocalypse."
"I thought you having a date was the first sign."
"You're right. Maybe they don't go in order," Kitty said.
"What do I do?" Bernice said.
"Don't do anything. I'm on my way," Kitty replied. And she hung up.