Reeve Stockwell wasn't having a particularly good day. By late afternoon, he'd already eaten three day's worth of the recommended amount of sugar, and he felt like he might have an ulcer. Slick Mitchell was on the prowl, looking seriously unnerved, and Miles Longworth was MIA. When Longworth's name showed up on Stockwell's phone, he answered the call immediately.
"Where the hell are you?" Stockwell barked.
"You need to work on your phone skills," Longworth retorted. "What if it was a customer?"
"Your name showed up on my cell," Stockwell said.
"Oh, so you only reserve that particular kind of phone etiquette for me?" Longworth asked.
"Only when you're missing."
"Someone reported me missing?" Miles Longworth asked.
"Well, you work here, and you're not here, and no one knew where you were, so yeah, I'd say you were missing," Stockwell said, as his guts began to spin.
"I'm downtown," Longworth said.
"What, just driving around?"
"Then, what?" Stockwell asked. He felt like he was playing a game of connect the dots.
"I think I saw JJ Patricks," Longworth said.
"Here we go again," Stockwell groaned.
"Did someone else see her, too?" Longworth asked.
Reeve Stockwell blew off the question. "Miles, where are you?"
"Downtown," Miles whispered.
"Any particular place downtown?"
Miles held his breath. "The police station."
Miles needed to think fast, something he wasn't particularly good at. He inhaled. Exhaled. Inhaled again. "I got a parking ticket?" Longworth said, phrasing it like a question.
"You're not sure if you got a parking ticket?"
"They haven't told me yet," Miles said.
"So, what? You were randomly arrested and you're not sure why, but you think it might be about a parking ticket?" Stockwell asked, feeling heat in his face.
"Something like that," Longworth whispered.
"Are you in jail?"
"Not really," Longworth said.
"You're not in a cell?"
Stockwell felt like he might hurl. He was so full of fritters, Snickers bars and Mountain Dew, he could probably fly if he tried. He had no patience left for the idiotic likes of Miles Longworth.
"Where are you in the police station?"
"So, they arrested you and left you sitting in the lobby? Couldn't you just leave if you wanted to?"
"I suppose," Miles said.
"You are an absolute dipshit!" Stockwell barked.
"Look it, Longworth, I have to be someplace at 7:00, someplace important. You need to get back here. You're scheduled to close."
"I may be a while yet," Longworth admitted, "but if I'm not back by 7:00, then I'm probably still here."
"Answering to some mysterious parking ticket?"
"Something like that," Miles Longworth said through a sigh.
"Just do what you have to do and get back here. You want a shot at a year's salary, right? You want that money as much as the next guy, right?"
"You have absolutely no idea," Miles Longworth said.
And he hung up.
Forty-five minutes later, Reeve Stockwell dragged himself to the break room to find something resembling a protein. With no other alternatives, and unable to leave the store due to Miles' absence, Stockwell had no choice but to trust his dietary needs to the "wheel of death." The "wheel of death," was Tommy's least favored vending option. It contained frozen, pre-packaged gunk, sold as food. Stockwell chose a barbeque beef, which he knew was probably not beef. The thing hit the bottom of the vending machine like a brick, and Stockwell pulled it free.
"The Lord is my Shepherd.....," he whispered. He couldn't remember the rest of the psalm, but he figured he'd at least given it a go.
He opened the corner of the wrap, as directed, and shoved the nightmare into the bowels of the microwave.
Kitty sat across the room scowling at him.
"What?" Stockwell asked.
"You shouldn't eat that," Kitty advised.
"Really?" Stockwell said sarcastically.
"Actually, go ahead. I hope you choke on it."
"What are you eating?" Stockwell asked.
Kitty pulled something that looked like noodles and caulking from a pink, plastic bowl with pink chopsticks.
"Tofu, Chinese noodles and veggies. Delicious and nutritious," Kitty bragged.
"I'd rather die," Stockwell said.
"And you might. Your barbeque arsenic burger is beeping," Kitty said, pointing with her chopsticks. "Been nice knowin' you."
"Shut up," Stockwell mumbled.
"Ouch," Kitty said, sounding hurt.
"I'm sorry, Kit," Stockwell said. "I'm having a rotten day."
"Eat some fiber," Kitty said.
"I'll take that under advisement," Stockwell replied, shoving the burger into a paper towel to conceal it.
Reeve Stockwell hadn't taken ten steps when his phone rang, and in retrospect, the phone call might have saved his life.
"Stockwell," he quipped into his phone.
"Mr. Stockwell, please come to Customer Service," Bernice said softly.
"Is something wrong?" Stockwell asked.
"Indeed," Bernice said, before hanging up.
"Great," Stockwell said.
He tossed the barbeque mess into Aaron Faulkner's trash can, and made a bee line for Bernice. She stood cadaver still at the return desk, with a very angry man towering over her at the counter.
"Is this him?" the man yelled.
"Yup," Bernice said, stepping aside, one small step at a time.
"I demand an explanation!" the man yelled.
"I'm right here, sir. No need to yell. An explanation for what?" Reeve Stockwell asked.
"I'm gonna tell you a story," the man said, lowering his voice.
"I like stories," Stockwell said.
"Good. Enjoy it, because when this story is over, I'm going to sue your ass," the man said.
"Great," Stockwell whispered.
"So, me and my old lady have been fighting. A lot. The last one was a doozer. She told me I was useless. She said a lot of nasty things, and a lot of bad words our church says we shouldn't use, and then when I asked her if there was anything I could do, she said "just shoot me."
The customer paused to breathe.
"Did you?" Stockwell asked.
"Did I what?"
"Did you shoot her?"
"Of course not! She's my Betty. I love her, and that's saying a lot. She's been having those hot flash things for about twenty years, and you'd think she was gonna burst into flames. She gets all red, and starts hollering up a storm about things I did forty years ago, and when she comes down, and her face returns to a pale white, she apologizes, and digs into the Ben and Jerry's."
"That's good stuff," Stockwell said, trying to be conversational.
"Shut your hole. This is my story," the customer said loudly.
"Right. Sorry. Go on, sir," Stockwell said.
"So, I leave the house, give her some time to calm down, and I come down here to Tommy's. I figure Betty's been gripin' about that upstairs bathroom for years. Sink leaks like the Titanic, and the faucet is uglier than sin on Sunday. I get all the stuff to fix the sink, and I buy Betty this beautiful faucet. I get two pints of Chubby Hubby, and drag all the stuff into the house, and Betty smiles. Looks like she's forgiven me. She gets herself all sugared up on the ice cream, and proceeds to open the faucet, and that's when she asked for a divorce."
"She didn't like the faucet?" Stockwell asked.
"You could say that," the customer said.
"Did you want a different style?" Stockwell asked.
"Open the box, Bernice," the customer said.
"I don't think I should," Bernice whispered. Her hands trembled, and Stockwell suddenly feared for his life. He knew, he just knew, there was something very bad inside the box.
"Open it," Stockwell said.
Inside the box was something that appeared to be a small assault rifle.
"Jesus," Stockwell whispered.
"Now do you see my predicament?" the customer asked. "Betty's last words were 'just shoot me,' and I come home with a gun in a Moen box."
"That is a problem," Stockwell mumbled.
"You being smart with me, son?" the customer asked.
"I'm going to call the cops now," the customer said.
"If you don't mind. I'd rather do it myself," Stockwell said. "Please wait here with Bernice. I assure you, I will get to the bottom of this."
Stockwell tucked the box under his arm, praying the gun wasn't loaded, and he wouldn't trip and shoot his own foot off before he could get to his office. He slipped inside, and set the box on his desk. He took his cell phone out of his pocket and hit ten digits.
"Agent Jackson," a female voice said.
Stockwell couldn't believe she'd answered. "Things are getting worse, JJ. I need your help."