“Deke! We shoulda went to church last Sunday! Now, we’re gonna die!”
She heard his heavy footsteps as Deke rounded the corner of the juice aisle and stopped dead in his tracks. All the color drained from his face.
“Watch out!” he said. “Look at the shape of the head! It’s poisonous!”
Daisy Ann backed up. Her mouth and eyes were perfect circles.
Deke was breathing heavily, and Daisy Ann could hear the hitch in his voice as he whispered, “Somebody’s put a copperhead in the cooler!”
“Why do you say that?”
“Do you think a leviathan like that flattened itself out and crawled under the front door?”
“Crawled under the front door! Merciful saints! I opened the store this morning alone! Alone! With a monster hiding out in the cooler! I’m going to be sick! I’m going to pass out! I’m going to break out in hives and varicose veins!”
Daisy Ann was flapping her arms like a seal on diet pills.
“Are you crazy?” Deke said, disappearing and returning a few seconds later to the cooler with a hoe in his hand.
He looked like a combination of many things, falling somewhere between a scarecrow and Old McDonald. Only at a country supermarket could you find hoes and shovels next to the onions, tomatoes, and bread.
Deke peered into the cooler. It really was a giant snake. A real whopper.
“Be careful!” Daisy Ann said. “Be careful! Be careful!”
She’d been a staple at the store for twenty years. Dependable and trustworthy, she was a chatterbox with the customers at the register. Her easy way made her a natural at putting folks at ease when the time came to pay for their groceries and part with their hard-earned cash.
“You think the cold has made him sluggish?” Daisy Ann asked. “He ain’t moving.”
“Maybe. I don’t know,” said Deke, obviously putting off diving in after the critter. “I hope so. I’ll be grateful for any small favors.”
Deke made no moves toward the cooler.
“Geez, Louise! He’s as big as my thigh!” Daisy Ann said. “You gonna cut his head off?”
“And do what, Daisy Ann? Serve him up at the deli as exotic meat?”
Daisy Ann frowned. The pseudo scarecrow-farmer was in a snotty mood.
“I don’t think the health department would go for that,” she said.
“I was joking,” Deke said, still trying to figure out just how to go about getting the blasted thing out of the store and back into the woods where it belonged.
He’d give an eye tooth for a forklift, a crane, or some other piece of heavy-duty equipment with an extra long pincer claw of some type.
Snakes were . . . Well, they weren’t Deke’s favorite things in the world. To say he was afraid of them was like saying the water spilling over Niagara Falls was a tear drop in mama’s metal dish pan.
“You want me to get it out?” asked Daisy Ann. “I guess I could try. Good Lord! That thing gives me the shakes. Can’t promise I won’t drop him if he hisses or looks like he’s going to strike.”
“No, I most certainly do not,” he said, refusing to be shown up by a woman. “A worker’s comp lawsuit is something I need like another hole in the head. I’ll take care of this. Just don’t rush me. Okay? And give me some room, will ya?
A guy needs a little breathing room for stuff like this. It ain’t every day I’m called on to be the Freaked-Out Exterminator of all things humongous, poisonous, and creepy.”
Daisy Ann stepped into another aisle.
Deke was right. He needed space and lots of it. If that snake started writhing on the end of that hoe, there was no telling where her nervous boss might sling it.
“Okay,” said Deke, taking a deep breath. “I think I’m ready.”
He peered over the side. It was still there, half-covered under pizza boxes and bags of vegetables. Beads of sweat popped out on his brow. The end of the hoe shook in his hand.
He knew it was all in his mind, but it felt like the farm tool weighed about a hundred pounds.
“Just take it easy,” he whispered to himself. “Slow and easy.”
He took a deep breath and dipped the end of the hoe under the boxes and scooped up the snake.
“Oh, dern,” he said.
“What?” Daisy Ann asked from behind a box. “Did it bite you?”
She leaned over the display of colas, but cases of canned corn and string beans waiting to be shelved blocked her view.
“Deke! Deke! Answer me! Did it bite you? Are you dead?”
“Course, I ain’t dead!” Deke said, gruffly. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Well, what’s wrong? I can’t see shoot behind all this junk. And you ain’t exactly Shirley Temple, Mr. Mean Jeans. I’m trying to give you room like you wanted,” Daisy Ann said. “What is it?”
“Dang kids,” Deke grumbled.
Daisy Ann couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. Talking to Deke was like prying out the mysteries of the Universe from the Great Sphinx.
At this rate, the glitter would fall right off her newly polished nails and totally ruin the effect of her gold lamé shoes. She moved up behind Deke, who was staring at his feet.
“Deke,” she whispered into his ear.
He barely had time to feel her hot breath tickle the hairs that stuck out of his ear.
He gravitated three feet off the floor.
“Gawl-dern it! Daisy Ann! You aimin’ to send me to Jesus? Sneaking up on me like that! You’re gonna give me a heart attack!”
“Sorry,” Daisy Ann said. “I can’t believe it. How much would a sucker like that cost?”
“It looks so real!”
“Umm,” said Deke. “And before you even ask, it had me fooled, too.”
“Reminds me of them fake boobs Hasta Beaumont ordered online a few years back. Poor Hasta always was a Dolly wannabe!
Bless her heart!
Must’a been size fifty Triple G. I never seen such melons! Real beauts, them babies was.
But they didn’t quite have the effect Hasta planned. I think it was because she’s so blowed out in the back. Them things didn’t make her look top-heavy at all. If anything, they sorta’ balanced the old girl out. You know what I’m saying?”
“Have you sprouted a huge leak in your sanity hose?”
“Sorry,” she said.
They stood looking at the snake.
“Who in his right mind would think that putting a rubber snake in there would be funny?”
“Right mind is right,” said Deke. “You gotta have some kind of warped sense of humor to think something like that is giggle fodder in the feed bin.”
“Like your army buddies who left you with that tattoo on your arm to remember them by?” Daisy Ann asked.
The crease in Deke’s brow deepened.
“They had a warped sense of humor, too,” he said. “They thought it was hilarious enough to chip in and pay for this little cobra tattoo because they knew I was never a fan of snakes.
I don’t know what steamed me more – the fact that I couldn’t hold my liquor and passed out cold or the fact I woke up branded with a snake!”
“But it’s a doozy,” said Daisy Ann.
“It is that,” said Deke, scooping up the rubber snake and heading for the dumpster.
Deke couldn’t help but grin. He didn’t know if she meant his tattoo or the rubber snake, but he guessed it didn’t matter.
If the tat artist hadn’t done such a good job, he’d have had the thing removed years ago.
But nobody erases a Rembrandt.
It would be criminal.
“It’s a crying shame you threw that thing away,” Daisy Ann said.
There was a lull in customers. Daisy Ann was tidying up her station.
She always called her register her ‘station.’ She thought it lent a businesslike aura to her conversation. In spite of the fact that there was only one cash register in the grocery store, and it was a country establishment, everyone else called it Daisy Ann’s station, too.
“What are you talking about?” Deke asked, looking up from his accounts.
Deke’s cubby hole was at the front of the store, near Daisy Ann’s station. It was a small cubicle, barely larger than a closet. But it was his dog house, his home-away-from-home, and his office.
There was room for an office chair and little else. Little cubicles lined each wall. They were stuffed to overflowing with only-Deke-knew-what and that was just the way he liked it.
He could lay his hands on any piece of information scrawled on a scrap of paper when he wanted to. Daisy Ann was amazed at how quickly he could find an old invoice or a supplier’s telephone number. The man was his own database. It was just his system of stashing and filing that drove her crazy.
“Be sure to leave a few magazines off-kilter, Daisy Ann. It looks spooky to walk through the door and find everything like somebody took a ruler and a level and rearranged the rack.
You can get too perfect sometimes.
It ain’t natural.
There’s always disorder in Nature. It’s perfectly normal.
Besides, we want the folks to feel like it is fine to browse the racks, and maybe buy one or two, not make them feel like they’ll get a jolt of electricity if they touch one and mess up your display.”
Daisy Ann took a second look. Those magazines and trashy papers looked great. She took pride in her work. All the titles were neatly aligned. Still, Deke was the boss. She puckered her mouth and raised her right eyebrow. Maybe just one, she thought.
“Why aren’t you smiling, handsome?” Daisy Ann asked the celebrity on the cover of the magazine staring her in the face. “You look like you swallowed a licorice stick dipped in castor oil.”
She held it closer.
“Must have chased it all down with a nice refreshing glass of cod liver oil, too. Poor fellow. You really don’t look happy.”
She took a gander at the headline.
“Oh, tsk, tsk. Marriage troubles again. Well, big boy,” Daisy Ann said, “I guess we gals can give a guy gas pains. Huh. You could use some baking soda. Lots of it from that sour look on your face.”
She turned the copy upside down and stuck it in the rack, stood back, and examined her handiwork.
Funny, when you turned him over, he wasn’t half as handsome. Must be an optical illusion. She couldn’t take her eyes off his face. She thought of all that blood rushing downhill, clogging up his tear ducts, and turning his cheeks to cherries.
“A migraine waiting to happen,” she muttered. “Oh, shoot. I can’t stand it. I can’t. I don’t care what Deke says! The thought of you looking at the world with upside down paper pupils is awful.”
She looked at her boss who was engrossed in his work. She righted the cover of the famous star, making sure he was nestled inside the magazine rack in perfect symmetry with all the other copies behind him.
She stood back and smiled.
“We could have nailed that sucker right over the door, you know,” Daisy Ann said, a devilish grin spreading across her face. “Just as you walk in. Yes, sir,” she said pointing to a spot on the wall. “Why, I think it would make a mighty fine door dressings!”
Deke was silent, ignoring Daisy Ann and concentrating on his paperwork.
“We could have left a few inches of its tail dangling down like a worm on a hook. Catch folks’ eyes as they walk in! Hah! I can just see Micah Ukes losing his neck in his shirt collar. And Petunia Stillwater! Can you imagine the fit she’d throw?”
Daisy Ann let her mind wander.
“You could wear your Tarzan loin cloth,” she said “and drive ‘em wild with those four gray hairs on your chest. I could duct tape my hooters so they’d sit like two funnels on my chest. Might have to get Monroe to give me a permit though.
Have to register them twin peaks as dangerous weapons, don’t you think, Deke?
I could poke out an eye or two with those pointed puppies.”
Deke had a grim look on his face, but Daisy Ann ignored him. She was on a roll.
“I could make me a sarong out of kudzu leaves and wild grape vines! Sew some pink mimosa fringe on the hem. Make me a cute pair of sandals out of elephant’s ears and weave dandelions and clover flowers in my hair! I’m telling you, Deke, we’d have mobs of people coming in just to see the show.”
“You really are crazy.”
Daisy burst out laughing.
“I’d as soon as plaster Elige Early’s ugly mug on the front window,” said Deke. “That man’s got a face only his mother could love.”
“He did go back for seconds when they handed out homely.”
“Homely and sneaky,” Deke said.
“You’re just jealous ‘cause Elige sold that blue tick to Byrd Henney instead of you,” Daisy Ann said. “Don’t deny it. You wanted that puppy. Bad.”
“Byrd got stuck,” Deke said.
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“No. He did,” said Deke. “Alcide told me that mutt couldn’t find a rhino’s scent in a phone booth. Too much inbreeding, he says.”
“Inbreeding, huh,” said Daisy Ann. “They say we got lots of that around here. I’ve never understood where they come up with that.”
“It couldn’t be because everybody’s a kissing cousin could it?” Deke muttered, but not loud enough for Daisy Ann to hear. “I’m glad I lost out on that puppy.”
“Uh-huh,” she said.
Deke was eager to change the subject from that snake to anything else – even Elige Early’s hounds. Although if he was painted in a corner, he’d have to say Daisy Ann was right. There was still a lot of sand in his shorts over that dog deal.
Byrd had stolen that puppy right out of his hands. And it still burnt him, but he’d talk about Elige if it made Daisy Ann happy and got her off snakes. Deke was drumming his fingers on the top of the shelf. The little crease between his brows was shaped like a deep ‘S.’
He couldn’t stop thinking about that rubber monster stuck behind the dumpster door. It was lying in plain sight and within easy reach of Daisy Ann’s devious fingers. It was right on top of all the rest of the trash. Just like forbidden fruit. The corners of his mouth dropped southward.
He knew Daisy Ann.
It would be just like her to go dumpster diving and retrieve that thing and sling it over the door like she’d talked about.
She’d think it was hilarious, even if it was hideous. She’d probably add some garland around its neck like she threatened, even though it wasn’t the season.
The more he thought about it, the more he imagined the rusty, little cogs whirling in her brain. Those cogs would be red hot by now. He looked up and imagined smoke wisps trailing from her ears.
In her case, where there was smoke, there was always devilish mischief.
That was Daisy Ann.
Stuffed or skinned, rubber or real – Deke Dewitt didn’t need to be within a thousand miles of them.
The order for cat food could wait a few more minutes. There were plenty of bags and cans on the shelves at the moment. They’d be sitting right where they were when he got back, collecting dust like always.
No need to put off what he really needed to be doing. He glanced at Daisy Ann. She was busy cleaning her station.
“I’m going outside,” he said. “Be back in a jiff.”
The shopping cart of out-of-date produce needed to be taken to the dumpster. No sense putting off that really important chore until the afternoon. Best to get it done now.
The wheels of the old cart squeaked in protest as he rolled the garbage outside.
“Whew,” he said, unlocking the door.
The full aroma of the area was pungent in the sticky humid air. Shoo-Fly Buffet. Maggots’ Paradise. It really was all about your point of view, he thought, tugging the buggy across the bump at the bottom of the door and over the concrete pavement. A stray cat bolted from behind a cardboard box, disappearing into the heavily wooded area behind the store.
The dumpster lived in between two low cinderblock walls near the back loading dock. On the far back side was the area for cardboard recycling. The paint was peeling from the cinderblocks. There were a couple of old brooms leaning against the far wall, worn to one side and minus most of their straw.
Puddles from a passing storm the night before reflected the passing clouds in spite of a hazy sheen of iridescent rainbows from dumpster leakage and chemicals. Nobody hung out back there. It was just too dismal.
Deke picked up a few stray soda cans and other pieces of trash and opened the door.
This was not his favorite chore.
The dumpster was plenty full and could use a real good fumigation. Not that that would ever happen in a million years. He tossed the rubbish into the bin. It took him about five minutes to unload the buggy.
With a pile of rot smothering that fake snake, there’d be no way Daisy Ann would want to decorate his door. There wasn’t enough disinfectant in the state to clean that rascal up for her now that he’d coated it with black bananas and brown squash.
He started whistling and began to leisurely roll the cart back inside when he heard the piercing sound of a woman’s scream. He raced to the front of the store, half-expecting to see Daisy Ann sprawled out face down and kissing the floor.
“What! What is it?” Deke said as he rounded the corner and stopped in his tracks.
Daisy Ann was not on the floor. Instead, she was squatting with both feet on her station. All Deke had to do was press the little button to move her right up to the register on the conveyor belt as if he was going to check her out.
He couldn’t resist.
He pushed it.
Daisy Ann started moving slowly forward like a giant sack of potatoes.
“Daisy Ann! Have you gone plumb loco?” Deke said as she inched closer to him on the belt.
“No. I have not! And turn that off this minute! You know carnival rides make me sick! Remember the last time you and I rode the Whirly-Whirl.”
“How could I forget? All that cotton candy! You kept eating that junk like there was no tomorrow. I tried to tell you to lay off that stuff. But no, no. You knew your limit!
I think you told me that about a half-dozen times. Then, the guy running the ride took a smoke break or something. We sure got our money’s worth. I thought he’d never let us off. I got off that stupid ride looking like the losing end of a paintball fight.”
“And you smelled worse.”
Deke had a funny look on his face. Daisy Ann wasn’t sure if he was just about to lose his breakfast cereal or blow his top.
“And before you ignite your knickers, just look! Cast your beady eyes on THAT!”
Daisy Ann’s manicured nails pointed down to a shelf under the register. Deke’s eyes followed. It was dark under the counter. He was certain he wasn’t seeing clearly.
“What is that?” he said. “What in Sam Hill is going on?”
Deke took the roll of paper towels that Daisy Ann religiously kept by her station and batted the trap onto the floor. It bounced and bounced and came to a stop near his shoe.
The trap was the real deal. No kidding. Deke hadn’t seen this type since he was a kid. It was the super-duper kind made for wharf rats. And it was so big it could mangle your arm or put a small dog or a cat out of its misery.
Of course, Deke carried nothing like it in his store. Too easy for someone to get hurt. And way too tempting for Daisy Ann to set under her station to trap roaches.
In her mind, rats, flies, and any other pests she deemed nasty were all categorized as roaches. Nothing nastier, she’d say. Nothing.
The Goliath of mouse traps was already tripped.
“You want some gloves, Deke? I got plenty.”
“I don’t think so,” he said, crouching to get a better look.
“Could be carrying rabies or something. You never know. Better safe than sorry, I say. If I was you, I’d take the gloves. Maybe a biohazard suit might not be a bad idea.”
“Nah, I’m fine,” Deke mumbled. “Don’t move, Daisy Ann. I can’t get behind this register if your legs start dangling down in front of me like a scuppernong vine.”
“Don’t worry about me. Just keep your paws off that button,” she said. “That ride gave me vertigo.”
“That’s all I need,” Deke said. “You feel dizzy? You climb down from there right this minute.”
“Not until you dispose of that disease-infested piece of furry filth.”
Daisy Ann looked up longingly.
“I wish I was a few inches taller. I’d hang from the ceiling, but I just can’t reach it.”
Deke looked at her on the register’s conveyor. Daisy Ann was rooted to that thing. She was not budging one inch.
“No, thanks. I’m not crawling down until it’s gone. Not on your life. Not for a million dollars. Not for anything! Deke! Hurry up, will ya? Stop piddling and get a move on. What are you waiting for? Just please get it out of here.”
He bent down to pick up the trap. Daisy Ann was still squatted on the conveyor belt, but now her eyes were closed shut. She began chattering, talking quickly in a nervous way.
“Their cute little critters, you know, if they ain’t in my house,” said Daisy Ann. “But looks are so deceiving! Disease-carriers. Why them things gave folks the plague in the Middle Ages. Black Death or something, they called it. Horrible! Just horrible!
Are you sure you don’t want a mask or something?
I mean, if it was me, I’d be screaming for a wash down in bleach, at the very least. You need a flame thrower? We want to be sure it’s really departed this life. The Plague! Ugh!”
“I think it was the fleas that lived on the rats that were responsible for that,” he said, standing up. “Look here. Open your eyes, for goodness sakes. Daisy Ann! Look! This is no mouse.”
“What do you mean?” Daisy Ann asked. “Oh, Lordy! Is it something worse? What’s worse than a squished rat? I really am going to be sick!”
There was no way she was going to unclamp her eyelids until the varmint was out of the store.
Deke pulled the ball of fur from the trap. A glass orb rolled out of the furry material and bounced on the floor. Daisy Ann’s eyes shot open. Deke was holding the square of fur in his fingers.
“Who plays with marbles like that?” she asked.
Deke picked it up off the floor and rolled the glass ball in his fingers.
“It’s not a marble,” he said. “It’s a glass eye. Looks human, but I dunno.”
“Heaven’s to Betsy! I may pass out,” she said.
“Oh no, you don’t. Get down from there, right now. You want me to give you a hand?”
“I do not,” said Daisy Ann, from her perch. “I got up here by myself, and I’m perfectly capable of getting down by myself. Help is for little old ladies. Help is something I don’t need, and a little old lady is someone I definitely ain’t!”
It wasn’t pretty, but Daisy Ann crawled down from the register without Deke’s assistance.
“Well, just my luck,” she said. “Crap shoot and fanny poot! I think I split the seam of my britches! Please, tell me there’s not a cavern as wide as the Grand Canyon back there. I don’t want to get arrested for indecent exposure! Horizontal stripes make me look fat! Deke! What am I going to do?”
“Your modesty is intact, Daisy Ann. The threads are holding. Just barely.”
“Well, thank you for small favors. You’re sure nothing’s showing back there. I’ll catch the pneumonia or worse if there’s a draft back there.”
“I’d tell you, Lady Godiva,” he said. “Besides, I think rectal pneumonia is a diagnosis only snake oil salesmen and witch doctors believe in.”
“You’re good, your holey-ness!”
She grabbed one of the magazines from her rack of perfection and swatted him across the arm. Hard. It popped, echoing throughout the empty store.
“Shut up,” she said. “You deserve it. Holey-ness! I ain’t never!”
Her eye fell on the glass eye he still held in his hand.
“Call the law, Deke. I’m serious. This is weird. It’s bizarre. And it’s surely not funny!”
Deke remained silent for a minute, trying to make up his mind.
“And tell them what?” he said. “That the sheriff’s department needs to arrest a high school punk for pulling pranks. You know how kids are. One wants to out do the next. It’s all those raging hormones and testosterone.”
“Well,” said Daisy Ann, “you can call it hormones if you like, but I think it’s dirty and low down. I still think you ought to call them. This bugs the life out of me. I know they got their hands full with real crimes and all, but what about trying to scare me to death? I think that’s pretty criminal, too.”
“Murder by fur! Huh! That’s a new one,” said Deke. “I’m sure Sheriff Albion and his crew would get a big kick out of this if I rang him up.
What am I going to say?
That I was beaten to a pulp by a marble with a pupil on the front and choked to death by a square piece of fur!
Not to mention scared white by a fake snake.
You want me to go out to that dumpster and lasso that trash-dripping piece of rubber and hang it around my neck for added drama? Maybe you could video me! Who knows? I might win an Oscar!
I’d be the laughingstock of the county.
Besides, the sheriff and some of his crew have their hands in so many other things, they’d have no time to check out my legitimate complaint. Even if it is unusually weird.”
“Look, I know what everybody says about Albion and his bunch, but who cares!” said Daisy Ann. “You’ve got to do something! At this rate, I’ll be snow-headed in a week!”
“So, you let your gray show. So what? You know and I know, you dye that stuff every color of the rainbow. If you didn’t, your head would have looked like a white bedspread years ago.”
“Shut up, Deke. My natural color is platinum! You hear me! Platinum! Blonde! Not white!”
“Uh-huh. So was Jean Harlow’s. Natural blonde, I mean. They just used all that bleach and Lux soap flakes on her hair to kill the cooties.”
“Stuff a sock in it, Deke. I mean it! Buenna Iverdale just pulled up. She’ll hear you. Buenna’s the biggest gossip in the world. Her schnoz is as big as a banana. Nosing into everybody else’s business has been like fertilizer for that thing.”
“Daisy Ann, it ain’t like folks don’t know you color your hair. It’s common knowledge. You’ve kept the dye manufacturers in business for decades. Besides, hot yellow-orange-pink is not a natural God-made color. As far as I know, it never has been.”
“This was a mistake,” she said, smoothing down a stray lock. “The box was mislabeled. And I went right over to Brawley’s Beauty Bonanza and Zippy Electrolysis for some help.”
“I did, Deke! Brawley told me there was nothing she could do to help me. Zip. Zero. Nada.
She said I better make real good friends with some really good conditioner. I’ve over-processed it. Nuked and fried and over-dried is how she described this mop. Only time and buckets of conditioner will fix it.
Brawley told me that I need to leave it alone for awhile unless I want to look like I got an ostrich egg sitting in the middle of my shoulders.”
“That’s a pleasant picture,” he said.
“I know. Poster child for pitiful people! So, I’m just stuck with this Day-Glo mop until I can safely lick my calf and change the color to something a bit more muted and mundane.”
Daisy Ann stared at the glass eye. A dark cloud crossed over her face.
“Call the law, Deke. It’s breaking and entering, even if it is just a kid’s prank.”
“No mouse sprung that trap, but you’re right. Some rat is responsible for this,” he said, throwing the trap in the trash and tying up the garbage bag.
He headed outside.
“And the more I think about it, the more I think I will.”
“Can I have the eyeball as a souvenir?”
“Here,” he said, tossing it back to her. “Help yourself.”
Daisy Ann shivered. It was spooky, but it really might make a wonderful necklace for Halloween. She dropped the orb into an empty corner of her register and slammed the drawer shut.
Safe and sound until All Hallow’s Eve rolled around.
The sentence kept running around in her head. Maybe she should throw it in the garbage.
That’s what it was.
Rhymed with candle ‘ah-bra.’
Would you like a candle ah-bra at the ah-pra, Miss Macabre!
She couldn’t help snickering at her own joke, and grabbing a broom, she wondered if she’d yelp every time she opened the cash drawer to ring up a customer’s purchase with the eyeball staring back at her.
“An inside job.”
That was what Deputy Richmond Eades kept saying.
“Looks like he may be right,” said Monroe Willis. “I’ll check the outside. See if there’re any signs of somebody trying to break in.”
Monroe had a goofy look on his face all the time. He sure didn’t look like the brightest bulb in the box, but he wore the uniform just like Richmond.
The two were a contrast in male physiques.
Eades was a slight man with a long, thin face. His eyes were black and close-set and perpetually covered with silver reflective sunglasses.
He had a long hooked nose, crimped at the bridge and slightly bent to the left, and his voice was deep and raspy like it originated from the bottom of a very dark slimy well whose waters were murky and full of foul-tasting minerals.
His uniform was immaculate; the creases in his trousers were razor-sharp. His black shoes were so shiny that their glare could blind you on a sunny day.
His hands were long and thin, like a pianist’s. And he held his mechanical pencil like a scalpel as he scratched his notes in a small notebook. A wooden toothpick poked from the side of his thin lips, moving up and down as he spoke.
Monroe had played football in high school. Beneath his tan shirt, you just knew a beautiful six-pack rippled and bulged. He was a good six inches taller than Eades. Dark, wavy hair. Dark eyes. Straight white teeth.
“Yep. Definitely an inside job,” Eades said for the sixth time.
Monroe Willis had just finished checking out all the locks in the store. The youngest son of Deke’s younger sister, Monroe had taken after Deke’s father’s side of the family.
“Nothing’s been jimmied,” Monroe reported to Eades. “Looks like no one tried to force their way in that I can tell.”
“You threw the snake away,” Eades said.
“Yeah,” said Deke. “I thought it was just a prank. You know. Kids. Besides, I hate snakes.”
“Yeah. It probably is,” Eades said.
“Kept the glass eye, though,” Deke said. “Daisy Ann? Where’d you stash that thing?”
“I got it right here in the register drawer,” she said, springing the drawer to hand it to Deke.
“Here Monroe, you’re the hunter in the family. What kind does it look like to you?”
“Wait a minute,” said Monroe, his head twisted to the right as he stared out the large plate-glass windows of the grocery store. “Does that look like a drug deal about to go down to you?”
Monroe bolted out of the store, racing into the parking lot. Two young teenagers with skateboards were talking.
“Hey, you two! Stop right there!”
Eades followed Monroe out of the store.
“Drug deal!” said Daisy Ann. “Deke, I feel like we’re living the middle of Ghetto City. Since when did our backwoods to Nowhere become the Hood?”
“I dunno,” Deke said. “I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on outside. You think one of them handed off some weed to the other one?”
“Wax my magnolia blossoms! In broad daylight? In the parking lot of the Buy-Right with two county sheriff cars sitting as pretty as a picture out front!” Daisy Ann said.
“Some kids love the thrill of taking chances, I guess.”
Both deputies stood between the front glass of the grocery store and the two skateboarders. It was impossible to witness what went down next.
“Daisy Ann! What are you doing? Get down from there!” Deke said.
“Why?” she said from her perch back atop the register’s conveyor belt.
Her neck looked twelve inches long.
“I can’t see a thing from the floor.”
“Neither can I, but you don’t see me scrambling on top of the shelves or your station to try and get a better view. You look ridiculous, and if you don’t get down this instant, I’m pressing the button again.”
Deke’s scowl looked like thunderclouds rolling in over the mountains. Daisy Ann had known Deke long enough to know that look. Deke Dewitt meant business.
“Besides, your shoes are filthy. People put food on that thing. If you keep hopping up there every fifteen minutes, we might as well sell straight out of the dumpster.”
Daisy Ann hopped down.
“You’re right. Don’t worry about it. I’ll de-germize it. I got just the thing right under the counter. Zaps it, traps it, and kills ‘em dead. Radioactive. Better than a laxative. This stuff takes no hostages. It’ll peel the bark off a tree at thirty paces.”
Deke did not look amused.
“Sorry. Lost my head.”
“What did you see?”
“Nothing. I guess the excitement’s over.”
Monroe and Eades ambled back into the store.
“It was harmless,” Monroe said. “Angle of the sun. My mistake. You let them ride on your lot, Uncle Deke?”
“I thought as much. I gave them a warning,” said Monroe.
“Thanks,” said Deke.
“I assume you’ve taken an inventory of the store. Anything missing?”
Richmond’s toothpick looked like it was riding an invisible pogo stick in the corner of his mouth.
“No. And I don’t need to inventory the store. I know what’s here. Nothing’s been stolen. It wasn’t a robbery.”
“Well, from the looks of it, you’ve been pranked like you thought,” said Eades.
“Yeah,” Deke said. “Well, if anything else happens, I guess I’m on the record.”
Deke thanked the men. They left. He and Daisy Ann watched the cars pull out on to the highway.
“Inside job,” said Daisy Ann. “But that makes no sense. Who’s on the inside except you and me? I didn’t do it. And you certainly didn’t.”
“There are the stock boys,” said Deke.
“Grit and Tex? Them two ain’t got sense to pour beer out of a boot.”
“Well, Daisy Ann, who else could it be?”
“How would I know? It could be a disgruntled customer. I surely have no enemies, but you, Deke Dewitt, ain’t exactly the sunniest side of the fried egg.”
“I’ll admit I get up on the wrong side of the bed some days,” he said, “but it’s not like I’m Attila the Hut.”
“I ain’t your honey, so don’t start sweet-talking me. You’re not getting a raise.”
“Well, since you mentioned it . . .”
Deke looked like he would pop a vessel.
“No, Deke. It’s Hun. Atilla the Hun.”
“Who’s got it in for you?” Daisy Ann mumbled as she straightened up some gum and candy on the rack near her station. “Looks like I’m gonna hafta be on high alert. Yes, sir. Be a lert. There’s nothing quite like lerts – always on the job. Yep. A lert is just what I need to be. Wait a minute! What could have happened if I’d opened the store and that prankster was still inside?”
Daisy Ann continued to silently mull over their predicament. The deputies had written Deke’s complaint off. Monroe might be Deke’s kin, but everybody knew that poor boy couldn’t find his socks in the sock drawer. Too many hits to the head on the ball field. Grit and Tex made rocks look smart. And Richmond Eades was just plain worthless.
Daisy Ann had her work cut out for her.
She moved a package of breath mints to its proper place on a rack nearby and straightened up some nabs and nuts. They were always getting mixed up.
“Shoot,” she mumbled, “if I could solve this thing that old skinflint might just fork over that raise! And give me a bonus, too.”
I hope you enjoyed this part.
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