A mere five minutes after the Tool Town meeting was declared a wrap, and the gauntlet had been laid down, and sixty Tool Towners left the meeting room with visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads, Daisy Cates had wedged herself into the tiny closet nestled in the back corner of the tool department.
The closet wasn't designed to hold a Tool Towner. It was basically a design flaw. An office had been planned for the area, but a bunch of drunken contractors got their inches and feet flip flopped, and suddenly, there was a closet where no such closet was needed.
Thirty seconds passed before Daisy realized her plan wasn't working as intended. She couldn't reach her cell phone. It wasn't that she couldn't reach her cell phone, it was more that she couldn't move. Somehow, by an act of God, Daisy managed to extract herself from the tiny space, find her cell phone, and wedge herself into the space a second time. She was glad she'd passed on the second donut. If she hadn't, she wouldn't have fit.
Things often work better the second time around, and Daisy had planned well. Her right hand clutched the cell phone, and it was held inches from her face. She dialed a number she'd only had in the phone for a day, and a familiar voice answered.
"H.D. Diggers, let's play in the dirt! How can I help you?"
"Hannah?" Daisy whispered. She wasn't sure why she was whispering. Some unfortunate Tool Towner was cutting blinds half a store away, and the sound was deafening.
"Hannah?" Daisy yelled.
"Crazy Daisy, what the heck is up?" Hannah Bandana replied.
"I need to see you," Daisy said.
"Why? Someone else bury something else outside that insane asylum you work in?" Hannah asked.
"No. Something else is going on in here. Something illegal. Mitchell just offered a year's salary to whomever might solve this mystery."
"No shit?" Hannah asked, sounding interested.
"Serious as a hail storm on a poker run," Daisy said.
"So, what's the deal?" Hannah asked.
"I'm not sure. I'm going to find out everything I can. If I can get that money, I can get out of here. I can get that camper I've been eying, and hit the open road," Daisy said, sounding dreamy.
"You've been planning this?" Hannah asked. "This escape?"
"I'm growing more existential by the minute. I've been questioning the meaning of my life," Daisy said, feeling an old connection to Hannah that had been rekindled.
"Me, too. I'm not necessarily digging the way things turned out," Hannah said, chuckling at herself.
The pun wasn't lost on Daisy, but she didn't pause to give in to the humor. "I'm flipping pages on the calendar faster than I ever did, and these little lines on this face of mine are starting to look like a map, a map of all the places I've been, like a roadway of my life."
"You been hitting the weed or something?" Hannah asked.
This time Daisy did chuckle. "No. Hitting the Jim Beam, but no more than usual. Just becoming a deep thinker. I find myself picking up a nut or a bolt, and wondering what I could put together with it, and then I find myself thinking about how things are assembled, and then I start thinking about how life is assembled, how thoughts connect, and how we make our lives into something meaningful."
"You get this from a pile of nuts and bolts?" Hannah asked.
"Yeah," Daisy said. She was beginning to wheeze. The closet was fairly air tight, and Daisy started wondering if she was running out of oxygen.
"And you're not hitting the weed? Not licking a bunch of postage stamps or anything?" Hannah asked, and Daisy smiled.
Suddenly serious, Daisy breathed deeply. The air was stagnant, and stale, and she knew she was running out of time. "Look. I need this money. I need your help, Hannah. Remember years back when we solved the mystery of Rhonda, Ride my Honda. Everyone knew she was up to no good, running around on Big Nose Pete. You and I, we were a couple of Nancy Drews, bugging her phone and setting up surveillance, and what not. We need to do that again. I need you, Hannah. There's a reason you showed up in my life again, and there's a reason it's now. You want to help me or not?"
"I'm going," Hannah barked.
"Okay, bye bye, then," Daisy said.
"Wait! Don't hang up. I'm going with you. I'll help you solve this thing. There's this fella forty miles from here, wants to buy the whole digging business. Let's solve this thing and get you your cash. I'll sell my digging business, and we'll hit the road. I'm going with you," Hannah declared.
"Let's meet up at that crappy place where Toothless Louise works. Can you make it tonight about 7:00?" Hannah asked.
"I'll be there," Daisy replied.
"I gotta go. My diggin' line's ringing," Hannah said. And she hung up.
Mags Davidson couldn't believe her eyes. There, in lane ten, on the front line of Tommy's Tool Town, stood JJ Patricks. Mags darn near killed herself trying to get to her friend.
"What the hell, JJ? What happened to you? I was sure you were dead. I was sure I was next!" Mags babbled. Her eyes welled up, and the tears spilled over.
"I shouldn't have disappeared like I did. I'm sorry," JJ said. A tear slid down JJ's face, and Mags hugged her tightly.
"What happened? Where did you go?" Mags asked.
"My mother died," JJ said, hating herself, as she did every time her mother died.
JJ had spent many years under cover, and counting today, her mother had died ninety-two times. Her mother, who was alive and well in a retirement condominium complex in Tampa Bay, understood.
"It wasn't as a result of that unfortunate Statue of Liberty accident, was it?" Mags asked.
Sometimes the lies got convoluted. Sometimes the stories blended together. JJ couldn't remember a Statue of Liberty incident.
"No," JJ said, avoiding the question entirely. "She was run over in the parking lot at a Piggly Wiggly."
JJ forced herself not to laugh. She loved the Piggy Wiggly death lie. She used it often.
"I certainly hope you're going to sue," Mags said, pouring on the sympathy. The entire ploy was working exactly as it always did. Once the sympathy started, the details weren't all that important. Mags would forget that JJ virtually vanished during a tornado warning. Everyone always did.
"I'm sorry. Will there be a funeral?" Mags asked. "I'd like to be there for you."
"Cremation," JJ lied. It was a good thing her mother liked the heat. She'd been cremated forty-four times. "I'm actually looking for Mr. Stockwell. I'd like to apologize for my absence."
"He's in his office. We just wrapped up a meeting. He looks a little rough. I'm not sure he's feeling well," Mags said. "I can call him and let him know you're here," Mags offered.
"No need. I'd rather just surprise him," JJ said, with an enormous smile.
Reeve Stockwell was shoveling in a fritter like someone who'd just gotten voted off the Survivor Island, when he heard a timid rap on his office door. He figured it was Kitty. He shoved the rest of the fritter into his mouth, and crossed the tiny office.
He opened the door without hesitating, and a very pissed off JJ Patricks stood in the doorway, hands on her slight hips.
Stockwell swallowed so fast he almost choked, and before he could speak, JJ slipped under his arm, and slammed the door.
Reeve Stockwell chased the fritter with a quarter bottle of Mountain Dew, and before he could cap it, his hands started to shake. It might have been the sugar, but it was more likely the five-foot, hormone-filled, very angry FBI agent who was staring him down.
"Would you like a chair?" Stockwell asked.
"No. I'd like to know why there are sixteen messages from an Officer Lowell on my cell phone."
"Oh, that," Stockwell said.
"Oh, that? That's your answer?" JJ asked. She stood over his desk, with both hands planted on his sticky desk calendar.
"I can explain," Stockwell said.
"I highly doubt that. You are the worst CI I have ever had. You practically blew everything in the first few hours. How could you do that?" JJ asked.
"You know what your saving grace is, Stockwell?"
Reeve Stockwell didn't speak. He merely shook his head.
"Lowell was laughing in most of the messages. He's going to drop the charges," JJ said.
"He is?" Stockwell asked in a squeak.
"Yes. And for whatever reason, I am prepared to give you another chance. I know I am going to regret this, but I am going to keep you on," JJ said.
"Why?" Stockwell asked, although he was enormously relieved.
"Because you are such a freakin' wing nut that no one would ever suspect you of anything."
"Thank you," Stockwell said, although he couldn't imagine why he said it.
"This time, there are conditions. More than the first round," JJ said.
"And they are?" Stockwell asked.
"Lay off the sugar. You shake like a heroin addict, and frankly, I get a lot more mileage out of a CI who's still alive. Two, and this one is big, get a partner. Find someone you trust, and I want to meet him or her. You need a chaperon, someone who will step in right before you do something as ridiculously stupid as being arrested while carrying an unlicensed firearm, and while wearing some idiotic underpants you say you got from your kid at Christmas."
"Lowell told you that?" Stockwell asked. He could feel the heat in his face.
"Message three. He had to say it about six times. He was laughing so hard he couldn't speak."
"I'm glad he found me so entertaining," Stockwell said, his tone sharp.
JJ pulled out a chair and sat across the desk. She wore a very serious looking expression.
"Reeve Stockwell, look at me. You are smarter than you appear. I can tell. You have the most unused potential of any man I've ever met. That said, you got more than a spoonful of the idiot gene, and it happens. You're like an absent minded professor. There is a third condition. Every time you're faced with making a decision, especially one that might earn me another sixteen messages, I want you to count to ten. I want you to pause long enough to decide if it's wise. Ask yourself a serious of questions. 'Is it going to get me arrested? Is it going to get me killed? Is it going to cause JJ more trouble?' If you're not sure, call me. I don't care what time of day or night it is. Call me. And get yourself a partner. Do it today."
"I will. I have a question of my own," Stockwell said.
"What's a CI?" Stockwell asked.
"A confidential informant. Someone who feeds information to law enforcement."
"Oh," Stockwell said, sounding said.
"This upsets you?" JJ asked.
"I would have felt better if I was a real agent."
Stockwell looked struck.
"Don't laugh at me," Stockwell whined.
"You're adorable, Mr. Stockwell."
"I thought you didn't like men."
"I like men just fine. I just didn't want to marry one, and besides, you're adorable like a puppy learning to walk. Your truly dip shit qualities are endearing."
"Thanks. I think," Stockwell said.
"I gotta go. It's going to take me some time to delete my message. Incidentally, there's one more thing we need to talk about."
"Let's get our stories straight. If anyone asks you what happened to me, tell them my mother died."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Stockwell said.
"Case and point," JJ said with a sigh.